Sunday, July 27, 2003

Slaying from '80 going to trial

Husband charged with shooting, decapitation

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BURLINGTON - An ailing, 59-year-old William Alexander Major will be wheeled into a Boone County courtroom Monday to defend himself against allegations he shot and decapitated his wife 23 years ago in Verona.

William Major is wheeled into court for a previous court appearance.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Prosecutors are likely to say Major believed he had committed the perfect killing, confident enough to brag about it. Detectives say he thought that by decapitating his wife and knocking her teeth out he would make it virtually impossible to identify the body.

If so, he was nearly right.

Police found 25-year-old Helen Marlene Major's bullet-riddled skull in 1981, a year after she disappeared. But there were no teeth to compare with dental records. It wasn't until the advent of DNA analysis two decades later that detectives could conclusively say the skull was hers.

But it took more than DNA to finally indict Major murder. . It also took their daughter's determination and Major's father's decision to help police.

Defense attorneys are expected to say their client doesn't remember anything from before a stroke in April 1995.

Major reportedly told a neighbor shortly after the killing that his wife ran away, leaving him to raise their two children. Mrs. Major's 1972 Ford Pinto has never been found, despite several searches of the Ohio River.

The trial begins Monday in Boone Circuit Court before Judge Jay Bamberger. The prosecution might call two dozen witnesses and the trial could last through Aug. 6.

Oct. 10, 1980: Helen Marlene Major disappears from her trailer on Warehouse Road in Verona near the intersection of Ky. 16 and Ky. 14.
Nov. 30, 1981: A skull suspected to be that of Helen Major is found on a Waller Road farm, about a mile from the Major home.
June 25, 2001: William Alexander Major is arrested at his home in Fairhaven, Mass., for the death of Mrs. Major.
July 27, 2001: Major arrives in Boone County after being extradited back to Kentucky.
Monday: Major will stand trial on a murder charge in connection with his wife's death.
Major recently asked a judge if it was OK if he skipped his own trial. Major, extradited from his home in Fairhaven, Mass., to stand trial in Kentucky, said he didn't want to have to sit through it. The judge denied the request.

If convicted of murder, Major faces up to life in prison. Major could be eligible for parole after serving 20 percent of his sentence. Laws that would require Major to serve a minimum of 85 percent of his sentence were not on the books in 1980, and therefore cannot be used in this case.

"There are unique challenges to trying a case more than two decades old," said Commonwealth's Attorney Linda Tally Smith, who is prosecuting. "Memories fade and people's recollections are not quite as sharp. But the events surrounding the disappearance of (Mrs. Major) are very fresh in the mind of the people who have lived with them for the last two decades."

Jurors are likely to hear testimony that Mrs. Major was going to leave her husband after she became convinced he had molested one of their two children, LaLana Bramble of Mount Sterling, Ky., and Donald Oaks of Washington state.

At the time of their mother's disappearance, Bramble was 4 and Oaks was 8.

Soon after Mrs. Major's disappearance, Major moved to Rhode Island with the two children. In 1985, he was convicted of child sexual abuse and served nearly 12 years of a 15-year sentence in Rhode Island. The children went to live with their maternal grandparents after their father's sentencing. The maternal grandparents later adopted the children.

Attending the trial will be Bramble, who authorities say was instrumental in reopening the cold case. Five years ago Bramble called her father asking where the rest of her mother's corpse was and promising not to seek his arrest.

A skull believed to be Mrs. Major's was found on a Boone County farm in November 1981. Major had worked as a handyman at that farm.

"He laughed in my face," said Bramble. "He said if I ever thought he would tell me where the body was, I was crazy."

The daughter who heard her father's laughter on the phone made it her mission to prove her mother was dead - possibly at her father's hand. She gave a DNA sample so modern-day technology could confirm the skull as her mother's.

Officers had become so frustrated that at one point in the mid-1980s, investigators hired two psychics, who held what would turn up to be Mrs. Major's skull and tried to divine the woman's fate.

Once Boone County Sheriff's Detective Todd Kenner joined the investigation in 2001, Bramble helped police find her paternal grandfather, Jim Major, who is in his 80s and lives in Nova Scotia.

The elder Major then allowed police to rig a tape recorder to his phone to catch his son's confession, police say.

After his arrest, police say, Major told investigators he fired two shots into his wife's head and four into her torso. He allegedly said he dumped the gun in a pond at a neighboring farm, and disposed of Mrs. Major's remains in a sinkhole several hundred yards way.


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