Cold case murder trial under way: Kenai jury hears opening arguments in case of 1982 Seward death

Posted: Friday, February 05, 2010

Jurors of the James Eacker murder trial will need to decide how to interpret a blood stain found on Eacker's pants before they can determine if he killed Toni Lister in 1982.

During Thursday morning's opening statements in the Kenai Courthouse, the prosecution laid out its version of the incidents surrounding Lister's death, culminating with Lister's blood being found on Eacker's pants. Pat Gullufsen, the prosecuting attorney, said his case intends to show how the blood represents the conclusive piece of evidence that will allow the jury to find Eacker guilty of first-degree murder.

The defense said the bloodstain does not prove Eacker's guilt. An autopsy determined Lister was stabbed approximately 20 times in the chest, seven times in the head and five times through the heart. Eacker's jacket, boots and shirt, defense attorney Ben Adams showed with pictures, did not contain any blood.

"How did Mr. Eacker stab Mrs. Lister 26 times and get less blood on him than if he were cleaning a fish?" Adams asked the jury. "The amount of blood is not consistent with stabbing someone 26 times."

The defense claims Lister cut her finger earlier that night during a bar fight between Lister and her husband, Calvin Lister. The Listers had a hostile, adulterous marriage, and brought their troubles to the bar that night, Adams said.

The state alleges Eacker killed Lister following a Friday night of partying in Seward on March 6, 1982. After Eacker and Lister engaged in a sex act, the state alleges Eacker killed her and left her body near the Seward dump.

The defense does not deny that Eacker and Lister had sex. Instead, Adams said the intercourse leads to Calvin Lister as a possible murder suspect, motivated by anger of his wife's infidelity.

Eacker, who lived in Kenai at the time, had been staying with his friends, Sandra and Mike Rule, the night of the incident. The state's case says Eacker returned to the Rule's house and started talking with Sandra about how upset he was and about his suicidal thoughts. Eacker told Rule he was heading downtown to drink.

Sandra Rule said she next saw Eacker at 6:30 a.m. when he came back to the Rule residence asking to borrow Mike's truck so he could give a woman a ride home. Eacker left with the truck and did not return until 9:30 a.m.

During that time, Calvin Lister reported that his wife was missing. Her body was found weeks later, on April 17, 1982, in woods near the Seward dump.

At 9:30 a.m., Eacker returned to the Rule's house, where Sandra says she watched Eacker wash blood off himself, the state claims.

"He literally washed the blood of Toni Lister off his hands," Gullufsen said during the opening statements. "The evidence in this case is going to show that guilt is not so easily removed."

The defense questions the validity of Sandra Rule's story and will attempt to disprove it as the trial continues.

Over the course of several interviews with police, Eacker changed his story. One of Eacker's accounts says that as he and Lister left the bar, they were attacked by Lister's husband and Eacker needed to punch Lister's husband to get out of the situation.

In an April 9 interview, more than a month after Lister was allegedly killed, Eacker told police that he could not remember what happened.

"He stated that everything made it look as if he had in fact killed her, but he didn't know, as he could not remember anything. Mr. Eacker advised that he had been drinking heavily and eating mushrooms," Gullufsen said.

"The next thing he remembers is waking up in Mike Rule's pickup at the Seward dump. He had no recall of any events in between. He said the story he had given earlier to the Seward police department was all a lie."

Adams said his client had reason to lie, as it was Calvin Lister who brought Eacker to the police station.

"Mr. Eacker knew he had just had sex with his (Lister's) wife a couple of hours before," Adams said. In addition, Adams said Eacker did not want police investigating him because Eacker had been involved with drugs.

The truth of the case, the defense claims, comes in Eacker's statement that after partying between March 5 and 6, 1982, he drove to the dump to unwind. Adams said everyone in Seward had been made aware of Eacker's story.

"Everyone in Seward knew Jimmy Eacker had said he had gone up to the dump after the fight. You're going need to decide if Jimmy was just that dumb or if the real killer used that opportunity to dump the body up there," Adams told the jury.

The defense will attempt to prove that Lister was not killed that night, but had in fact been killed a day or two after March 6. Adams says he intends to call witnesses who claim to have seen Lister walking the day after the state alleges she was killed. In addition, the defense will try to prove that the killer brought Lister's body to the dump in an attempt to frame Eacker.

"Weeks later, Toni's body is found at the dump, badly beaten, left there like a piece of trash," Adams said. "Her pants were off and her underwear was pulled down. The state claims that Toni disappeared that night. But we're going to need to figure out what really happened."

The state says the truth is clear.

"We have Mr. Eacker ending up saying I lied to you about everything that happened between the time I left the Flamingo Bar with Toni Lister and the time I woke up in the Rule truck out at the dump several hours later," Gullufsen said. "But we have Toni Lister's panties to tell us that there was a sexual encounter between Mr. Eacker and Ms. Lister and we have his pants to tell us that the encounter they had led to her blood getting on his pants. We can fill in the evening and the morning hours for him."

The Eacker murder trial is a former cold case that was brought to life with the help of DNA testing.

Andrew Waite can be reached at

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