Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Lockbox first evidence entered in murder trial

Husband accused of shooting, decapitating wife

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BURLINGTON - On the day she disappeared, Helen Marlene Major told her sister to give her lockbox to police if anything ever happened to her.

The shoebox-sized lockbox was presented Monday morning as one of the first pieces of evidence in the murder trial of her husband, William Alexander Major, in Boone Circuit Court.

The 59-year-old Major, now living in Fairhaven, Mass., is charged with murder and tampering with physical evidence. A jury of 10 women and four men will be asked to send Major to prison for life if they find him guilty of the most serious crime.

Prosecutors say he shot and decapitated his wife 23 years ago in Verona after she learned he was molesting their son.

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. Her teeth had been knocked out, apparently to avoid identification.

It wasn't until the advent of DNA analysis two decades later that detectives could conclusively say the skull was hers.

When Mrs. Major disappeared, friends and family pried open the lockbox to find her diaries. The small leather-bound books with small brass locks on them contained what a prosecutor described as the "family secret" - Major was molesting their young son, Donald.

"I got up early this morning and went to get Donald up for school and caught Bill with him," Mrs. Major wrote in her diary. "He tried to hide what they were doing, but I know what I saw. ... He said his dad did it with him when he was young. He's been doing it with Donald for 4 or 5 years."

Major has convictions in both Campbell County and Rhode Island on child sex abuse charges. Prosecutors in the murder trial say Major abused both of his children, who are now 27 and 31.

Major showed no emotion during the first day of testimony in which relatives of Mrs. Major fought back tears.

Wearing a pair of reading glasses, Major jotted notes on a legal pad and passed them to his attorney. He sometimes stared at Mrs. Major's family sitting in the gallery. Other times he focused on the jurors or witnesses.

There were 17 of Mrs. Major's family or friends in the courtroom for opening arguments. Many other family members who are subpoenaed in the case waited in conference rooms outside the main chamber.

Defense attorney Edward Drennen, who is representing Major, portrayed his client as a "storyteller" who might be suffering a form of confusion after a debilitating stroke in April 1995.

"Bill Major is a big storyteller," said Drennen. "Anyone who knows him will tell you that. He could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge."

Drennen insinuated that Major couldn't remember incidents in his life before the stroke and questions why he would make alleged confessions to the killing only after his stroke - more than 15 years after his wife disappeared.

Drennen said the prosecution's story "just doesn't add up."

Boone County Commonwealth's Attorney Linda Tally Smith told jurors that Major killed his wife to cover up the fact he was molesting their son. He then left their Northern Kentucky home in Verona and moved to Rhode Island, where he then molested his young daughter in addition to his son, Smith said.

Smith said the move from Verona was so abrupt that Major left the family dog chained up to their home - having made no plans to make sure it was taken care of.

Smith told the jury that the abuse of his children stopped only after his conviction of sex abuse in 1985.

The first of an expected 24 people to be called as witnesses for the prosecution was Patricia Combs, Mrs. Major's sister.

Combs was questioned by Drennen on how she could remember details of her sister's disappearance 23 years ago so clearly.

"The pain has never gone away," Combs said. "It has been brought up over and over again through the years."


E-mail jhannah@enquirer.com

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