Sept. 14—OTTUMWA — The first-degree murder trial in Helen Showalter’s 2021 death continued Thursday with its second day of testimony, shifting focus from the woman’s family and the final days to her autopsy.
In their final testimony of the day, prosecutors called Dr. Kelly Kruse, a forensic pathologist with the Iowa Medical Examiner’s Office, to the stand. She testified that Helen Showalter died from strangulation and blunt force trauma and that the manner of her death was homicide.
The testimony was presented in the trial of Gregory Showalter Sr., of Ottumwa, who faces charges of first-degree murder, abuse of a corpse, malicious wounding and domestic abuse assault by impeding breathing or circulation. The most serious charge, first-degree murder, carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole if he is convicted.
Showalter’s defense attorney, Robert Breckenridge, as anticipated in Wednesday’s opening statement, advanced the theory of drowning, perhaps related to the presence of methamphetamine in Helen Showalter’s system at the time of the autopsy.
However, Kruse said her experience, training and observations led her to a different conclusion regarding drowning, even with the presence of water in Helen Showalter’s stomach and sphenoid sinuses. Kruse told the jury that the presence of water was instead related to immersion in water, as Helen Showalter’s body was found in the Des Moines River near the Cliffland Boat Ramp. She clarified that the presence of water in the stomach and breasts, alone, did not indicate drowning.
“I have looked at all the available evidence,” Kruse said of his decision to rule out drowning as the cause of Helen Showalter’s death. “To me, her injuries were serious enough to cause her death. When you have someone in the water, your main question is, ‘Was she alive or dead when she went into the water?'”
Kruse testified, and autopsy photographs depicted bruises and abrasions on Helen Showalter’s head, mouth and neck. Additionally, the soft and fatty tissues of her neck were also affected, further suggesting that she was strangled. Her eyelids had a hemorrhage known as petechiae, which he used as a further observation to support his theory of Helen Showalter’s death, but acknowledged that strangulation is not the only cause of petechiae.
The condition can be caused any time there is irregular blood flow, including events such as a heart attack. They may also be caused by post-mortem body positioning, but Kruse said that in her opinion this was not the case because it appeared to her that they occurred before Helen Showalter’s death.
During cross-examination, Breckenridge questioned Kruse’s perception that the neck injuries were minor and would not have been sufficient to cut off the flow of oxygen and lead to Helen Showalter’s death.
“You’re cutting off oxygen through the blood supply,” Kruse clarified. “Blood supplies oxygen to the brain. So all you have to do is cut off the blood supply; you don’t have to stop the air from getting to your lungs and everything.”
Breckenridge also wondered whether other injuries suffered might have been acquired while Helen Showalter’s body floated down the lower Des Moines River, but Kruse did not believe that was the case.
“These neck injuries don’t happen with someone floating in water,” Kruse said.
Breckenrige’s opening statement Wednesday mocked another forensic pathologist he plans to call later in the trial who will refute Kruse’s determination.
Before the pathologist’s testimony, the jury heard lengthy testimony from two other family members to start the day. The first was Helen Showalter’s granddaughter, raised by Helen Showalter, and the other was Jeremy Showalter, the granddaughter’s father and son of Helen and Gregory Showalter.
They confirmed details regarding life within the Showalter family and the days and months leading up to his disappearance and death.
An argument that occurred a couple of weeks before Helen Showalter’s disappearance on July 31, 2021, led to family members placing both their 15-year-old niece and Helen Showalter in an Ottumwa hotel.
The argument over the cellphone charger between the niece and Showalter became heated and physical, involving much swearing and yelling, testimony showed. Family members present testified that at a certain point Showalter raised an open hand towards his niece, making contact with her forehead.
The granddaughter testified that the swing didn’t hurt, but family members got in the way of each other, with Showalter held back by his son Christian Showalter, the family testified.
Later on July 29, 2021, Helen Showalter sent divorce papers to Showalter while she was at her mother’s house.
Testimony will resume at 9 a.m. Friday at the Wapello County Courthouse.
Kyle Ocker is the publisher of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.