The day Opal Fairchild was found dead in her home, a mean-looking man driving dangerously down Poppy Lane was spotted as he pulled into the murder victim’s driveway and walked toward the front door of her house, according to witness testimony in the murder trial of Barry McCormack on Tuesday.
The woman who witnessed the driver was a Kenai Peninsula College student at the time of the murder and said she was driving to class for an exam when she encountered the dangerous vehicle.
“A vehicle driving erratically on snow and ice,” said Sue Wright, now a legislative aid to Representative Mike Chenault. “Erratically and too fast.”
Wright said she tried to drive a safe distance from the vehicle and drove past slowly after the vehicle turned to pull into what she now knows to have been Fairchild’s driveway.
The man who stepped out of the vehicle was scruffy, thin and appeared to be in his 20s, she said.
She said the man looked in her direction as she drove by, and although she saw him walk toward the partially-open front door of the house, did not actually see him enter.
After Wright finished her exam, she left the college, drove past Fairchild’s house again and noticed it was surrounded by Alaska State Trooper vehicles, she said.
Wright called troopers to report what she had seen earlier and was asked to work with an artist to create a drawing of the man she saw pull into Fairchild’s driveway.
After the drawing had been completed and made public, Wright and her family received threatening calls.
Wright said she does not remember exactly what the caller said, but they obviously knew she had been providing troopers with information.
“The whole event was very traumatic,” she said.
During Wright’s testimony, Assistant Public Defender Margaret Moran handed Wright a hand-drawn portrait. The drawing was not held aloft for the jury to see, but a glimpse of the drawing could be seen as Moran handed it to Wright. The drawing appeared to show a young, thin, Caucasian man without a beard or mustache.
Wright took a long look down at the drawing as Moran asked if she remembered having worked with an artist to create the drawing. Wright said the drawing was one of several she and the artist created to illustrate the suspect. Of the multiple drawings, it was the one that most closely resembled the man she remembered seeing in front of Fairchild’s house, she said.
Later, during a pause in her testimony, Wright took another long look at the drawing and turned it face down.
When asked to answer more detailed questions, such as precisely what time she drove by the house the second time, Wright explained that she has since tried to forget some of what happened.
“I have just tried to put this out of my mind,” she said.
Wright said she did not know how the person who made threatening calls to her house knew she had been providing troopers with information, since she had only told her family and close friends.
The jury has not been offered a description of what McCormack looked like in 1985, but the man sitting at the defense table over the course of the trial is heavy set, and would have been 34 at the time of the murder.
Wright was unwilling to answer questions after her testimony, but said she regretted having to testify.
“I’m sorry that I have to be here because I know it’s painful for the family, and I never wanted to hurt Mrs. Fairchild’s family,” she said. “This was not an easy thing to do.”
The prosecution and the defense have both finished calls for witnesses and will give closing arguments today. After witness testimony Tuesday Kenai Superior Court Judge Charles T. Huguelet asked McCormack whether he wished to testify before the case is turned over to the jury today.
After a brief exchange with Moran, McCormack responded that he would waive his right to testify.
McCormack trial recap
· Barry McCormack, 55, has been in Wildwood Pretrial Facility since March 2003 awaiting trial for the murder of Opal Fairchild, a 65-year-old woman who was shot to death during an apparent robbery of her home on East Poppy Lane in Soldotna.
· McCormack is charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in the Fairchild slaying, allegedly committed March 20, 1985.
· Bullet fragments recovered from the scene of the murder matched a bullet connected to a violent robbery that occurred approximately two weeks earlier.
· About two weeks before before the Fairchild murder, Melvin Anderson was robbed at gunpoint in his woodstove retail store in Sterling. He was shot once in the head by the robber, who fled with about $500 from the cash register.
· Fingerprints found at both crime scenes reportedly matched, but were not linked to McCormack until 2000, when the troopers’ Criminal Investigation Bureau asked the state Crime Lab to conduct a follow-up search to compare latent fingerprints found at the Fairchild crime scene. They matched the fingerprints of McCormack, and subsequent analysis also matched latent prints from the Anderson crime scene to McCormack’s.
· McCormack cannot be charged in the Anderson robbery because the statute of limitations has run out on that crime. No limitation applies to murder cases in Alaska.
· Law enforcement officers continue to look for the possible murder weapon, a Ruger Speed Six .357 revolver with serial number 159-13540. Anyone with more information about the crimes, including information about the gun, is asked to call troopers at 262-4453 or Soldotna police at 262-4455.
· If convicted of murdering Fairchild, McCormack could face up to 99 years of imprisonment on each charge.
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