John Heath Convicted Of Murder In 1984 Killing Of Wife

DANBURY -- A 12-member jury in Danbury Superior Court on Wednesday, October 16, found John Heath, 70, of Bridgewater guilty of murder in the 1984 killing of his wife, Elizabeth, who was then 32.

The eight-man, four-woman jury determined that the former Newtown resident beat his wife to death, wrapped her remains in bedding and garbage bags, and then stuffed them into a dry well located beneath the floor of a barn at their 89 Poverty Hollow Road property in Newtown. 

Those elaborately hidden remains lay undiscovered until April 2010, when the property's current owners found them while making renovations.

Following a two-year investigation, Newtown police arrested Mr Heath in April 2012. He has been held on bail since his arrest.

The state based its murder case on circumstantial evidence. 

Judge Robin Pavia raised Mr Heath's bail from $1 million to $2 million at the request of Supervising Assistant State's Attorney Warren Murray, who prosecuted the case.

Sentencing is scheduled for December 3. A murder conviction carries a sentence ranging from 25 to 60 years.

At about 3:30 pm on Wednesday, a judicial marshal announced that the jury had reached a verdict. The testimony phase of the trial started on September 26. Jury deliberations began on October 10.

Courtroom 6 at the White Street courthouse quickly filled with spectators, with about 40 people present when the verdict was announced.

A state Department of Correction (DOC) officer rolled Mr Heath into the courtroom in a wheelchair, along with a bottled-oxygen supply which he uses to aid his breathing. Heath, who formerly was a painting contactor, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Wearing a dark blazer, Mr Heath tapped his clasped hands on the defense table as the verdict was about to be announced in a silent courtroom.

In response to Judge Pavia's query on the verdict, jury foreman Peter Kollias of New Fairfield announced that the jury had unanimously found Mr Heath guilty of murder.

Special Public Defender Francis O'Reilly, who represented Mr Heath, asked that the jurors be individually polled on the verdict. As their names were called, each of the 12 people stated that they had found him guilty of murder.

As the jurors were polled, Mr Heath, with his elbows resting on the defense table, rubbed his hands palm-to-palm.

About 10 family members and friends of Mr Heath sat in the spectators gallery listening as the verdict was announced. After the session, they walked in a group to elevators on their way out of the courthouse. They declined comment on the verdict.

Outside the courtroom, a subdued Mr O'Reilly said that Mr Heath is "disappointed" about the results of the trial. Mr Heath maintains that he is innocent, his lawyer said.

"There are several appellate issues and we will raise them at the appropriate time," Mr O'Reilly said, indicating that Mr Heath plans to appeal the verdict.

Following the court session, Judge Pavia privately met with the jurors to thank them for their service. Following that meeting, the jurors left the courthouse.

Foreman Comments

Asked to comment on the case, Mr Kollias, the jury foreman, said that the jurors sought to be as thorough as possible after evaluating the evidence in the case. They then all came to the conclusion that Mr Heath is guilty of murder, Mr Kollias said

"We all felt that the evidence pointed toward his guilt," Mr Kollias said.

The jurors gave very little credence to Mr O'Reilly's assertions that now-deceased Linwood Chester "Chet" Heath, who was John Heath's father, had killed Elizabeth, Mr Kollias said.

Mr Kollias added that  the jurors gave credibility to the testimony of two prisoners who said that while they were incarcerated with Mr Heath last January, he had confessed to killing his wife.  

The jury foreman added that in the April 2010 audio recordings made by police who were investigating Elizabeth's death, John Heath had said that only he, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter Meghann were home on the night which would later be proved to be the night that he had murdered Elizabeth.

Several days after the murder, Mr Heath told Newtown police that his wife had run away from home in the middle of the night. The couple was then in the midst of a divorce.

Also, based on the audio recordings made by police, it was hard to believe that Mr Heath was unaware of certain physical features of the barn in the area where his wife's skeletal remains would later be discovered in 2010, Mr Kollias said.

Heath's recorded comments to police contained both factual and logical flaws, leading the jurors to arrive at a guilty verdict, Mr Kollias said.

Of the jury deliberations, Mr Kollias said, "People were pretty much on the same page," in terms of their  view of the case, although a small number of jurors initially had some doubts about Mr Heath's guilt.

"We wanted to be thorough," he stressed. All jurors were concerned that the decision that they would make would be the right decision, he said.

"It wasn't made in haste," Mr Kollias said.

To refresh their collective memory, in court on October 16, the jury again listened to a secret recording made by police at John Heath's Bridgewater home in April 2010 after

Elizabeth's skeletal remains had been found in Newtown, but before Mr Heath was aware that those remains had been found.

On October 11, the jury listened to recordings of courtroom testimony made by prosecution witnesses  Barbara DeLong, Richard Baranik, and Louann Chevalier.

Of serving as a juror, Mr Kollias said, "It was rewarding. It was nice to see how the legal system works."

During the trial, the state called more than 30 witnesses to testify, and the defense called only one witness  -- Meghann Heath Hawes.

Closing Statements

In a closing statement to the jury on October 10, Mr Murray said Elizabeth Heath was brutally murdered with her skull having been crushed inward by great force, after which her corpse was placed in plastic garbage bags that were tied with ropes and placed in the dry well.

A cleanup at the murder scene took time to accomplish, indicating that the person who killed Elizabeth probably knew her, Mr Murray said.

"The state's argument is that John Heath killed Elizabeth," Mr Murray said. Mr Heath was the last person reported to have seen her, the prosecutor said.

Mr Heath generated a "false narrative" about Ms Heath, claiming that she had mental problems, was a drug abuser, and was a bad mother in his attempt to obscure that he had killed his wife, Mr Murray said.

"He's making it seem like she's run away," the prosecutor said.

In his closing remarks for the defense, Mr O'Reilly said, "The state has not proved their case."

"That burden [of proof beyond a reasonable doubt] entirely lies with the State of Connecticut," he said.

Problems with the state's case include that Mr Heath is a "non-violent guy" and that the components of the police investigation do not hold up, Mr O'Reilly said.

The defense lawyer suggested that Mr Heath's father, Chet Heath, who had been living in the barn amid primitive conditions, was the murderer.

The murder case contains no incriminating DNA evidence or fingerprint evidence against John Heath, the lawyer said.

"There's no scientific evidence which ties John Heath to this incident," he stressed.

A pending divorce does not amount to a motive for the murder, the lawyer added.

Two jail inmates who testified that Mr Heath had told them in January that he had killed his wife provided no unique information in their testimony, only testimony which they could have read in newspaper accounts, Mr O'Reilly said. The defense lawyer characterized the inmates as "manipulative, drug-addict thieves."

"The state has the burden of proof. They haven't met it," Mr O'Reilly then asserted.

Mr Murray told the jurors, "You have a lot of information to consider here even though [the crime] happened back in 1984."

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