The man accused of murdering 20-year-old Soldotna resident Michele Pecora and then stuffing her body into a cardboard TV box and driving around town with it for several days has filed a motion for a dismissal of all charges against him.
Franklin Bessette Jr.’s attorney Steven Wells filed a motion on June 9 to dismiss the murder and sexual assault charges brought against his client in October 2009. Bessette, 54 and also of Soldotna, allegedly killed Pecora in late 2008 after a night of partying. He then allegedly proceeded to stuff her body into a green cardboard television box and drive around town with it for four or five days before dumping it in an abandoned vehicle on Coyote Lane in Kenai. The body was discovered seven months later.
In Well’s motion for dismissal, he charges the state “recklessly allowed the destruction of vital evidence” when it allowed Pecora’s body to be cremated.
The motion outlines how the initial medical examiner’s report, written by Dr. Robert Whitmore, concluded that Pecora died from an accidental drug overdose. Her body was then released to her family, who immediately cremated her remains.
Wells goes on to explain in the document that months after Pecora’s cremation, the state hired a new medical examiner named Dr. Katherine Raven to conduct a second opinion. Raven concluded “there was no way to determine an anatomical or toxicological cause of death,” and that “the circumstances surrounding the finding of Ms. Pecora’s body meant that the manner of death was ‘homicidal violence.’”
Bessette claims that Whitmore had it right the first time, and that Pecora died from an accidental drug overdose.
“If the State had preserved appropriate tissue samples, or if the State had kept Ms. Pecora’s body for further examination, this question could be answered relatively easily,” Wells wrote in the motion to dismiss.
Instead, the state released Pecora’s body to the family.
If Pecora’s liver and body were available for re-examination, Wells argues, Whitmore’s findings would be confirmed, and an elevated level of cyclobenzaprine (a muscle relaxant) would give strong support to the theory that Pecora died from a self-administered drug overdose. Re-examination of the body could also show that the injuries interpreted as signs of sexual assault could be attributed to post-mortem effect.
Wells said the state disregarded “a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that the body would be cremated, destroying highly relevant evidence that could have created a reasonable doubt as to Bessette’s guilt. Therefore, Wells argues, the charges should be dismissed.
“They waited for several months to shop for another medical examiner’s opinion,” Wells said, “and in the meantime released the body knowing it was going to be cremated.”
Wells said what really happened to Pecora is a classic example of what forensic pathologists call a “body dump,” or when a bunch of people are partying together, one overdoses, and the others panic instead of calling the police, opting to dispose of the body themselves to keep from engaging with the authorities and potentially incriminating themselves.
“What I expect is that essentially she died of a drug overdose and Mr. Bessette thought that he killed her and panicked,” Wells said. “And that’s tampering with evidence, but that’s not murder.”
Bessette pleaded guilty to a charge of tampering with evidence in September 2009, before the murder and sexual assault charges were filed.
Wells expects to file additional motions – he will not elaborate on the exact nature of them – by the beginning of August, at which time the court will consider all of the motions and choose to either grant or dismiss them.
Bessette’s trial was originally scheduled to begin in early August, but has been pushed to April due to scheduling conflicts and other circumstances. He remains in custody at the Wildwood Correctional Center.
If the motion for dismissal is granted, the state can choose to re-indict Bessette.
Assistant District Attorney Scot Leaders is representing the state in the case.
An omnibus hearing is scheduled for Sept. 9.