Trial traces Pittman's threatening past
Keo Pittman made one mistake, according to testimony - not taking her husband's threats to heart.
"The defendant had carried out a threat he had been making for six months," said Assistant Attorney General Chuck Thoman during opening arguments in the trial of George Pittman, Jr. "Keo made one fatal mistake, in that she failed to take his threats seriously."
Testimony began yesterday in the Buena Vista County Courthouse in the trial of Pittman, 33. He has pled not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his wife, Keo Gail Pittman, 34, after she was found dead in the couple's home at 803 Vestal St. in Storm Lake last September.
Jury selection began Tuesday, but on Wednesday morning Pittman and his attorneys, Thomas Magee and Paul Miller, decided Pittman would not receive a fair trial by jury. Potential jurors were dismissed, with Pittman opting for a bench trial before Judge Frank B. Nelson.
Both sides gave opening arguments yesterday morning. Assistant Attorney General Thoman, who represents the state of Iowa with County Attorney Phil Havens, opened by claiming that Keo Pittman's death was foreseeable, as Pittman had allegedly made numerous threats against her life.
Thoman said that the threats began while Pittman had been serving a prison sentence, since August 1999. While Pittman was incarcerated, Keo Pittman supported the couple's four sons by working as a security guard at IBP.
While employed there, she met Lylou "Lou" Chea, with whom she became romantically involved. In September 2000, Chea moved in with Keo Pittman at her 803 Vestal St. home. Thoman alleged that the defendant found out about the relationship with Chea through phone calls from prison, and began making threats against her life.
"He began to express a clear hostility toward Keo Pittman, saying, 'I'm going to kill her. You tell her I'm going to kill her,'" Thoman said. "Soon, other inmates began to avoid him because of his threats."
Somphou Phottisen was one of the state's witnesses yesterday. For a time in 2000, he was in imprisoned with Pittman at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. Phottisen was serving time for drug possession. Phottisen also had been married to one of Keo Pittman's sisters.
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Phottisen said when Pittman found out a man was living with Keo Pittman, he threatened to kill his wife and the man.
"I would say (to Pittman), 'She's got a man, you got four kids out there - it's a good man to accept your wife and kids. You're crazy if you go out and kill her. Appreciate that man for helping your wife and kids," Phottisen said.
Lylou Chea, 28, said he met Keo Pittman in 2000 while the two were employed at IBP. They became romantically involved while George Pittman was still in prison.
Chea said he was unaware of George Pittman when he met Keo, but later found out about her marriage. Chea said Keo Pittman told him she and George were separated because he was incarcerated.
After Chea moved in with Keo Pittman, he said Pittman would call excessively, from five to 30 phone calls a week.
"He didn't want me around the house or the kids. It was all negative," Chea said. "I didn't like to talk to him - he made me mad."
In the winter of 2000, Chea said Pittman made threats against him, his son and his mother.
"I asked why he wanted to go back to prison," he said. "(Pittman's) response was he didn't care."
Keo Pittman's aunt, Khamla Baccam, testified that Pittman had called her while he was imprisoned. During one phone call, she said Pittman threatened to kill Keo Pittman and Chea.
"'I'll kick their ass and I'll kill them,' that's what he said," Baccam said. That call came in the summer of 2001.
Under cross-examination, Baccam said she had told Keo Pittman about the threat but said Keo did not take it seriously.
On Sept. 19, 2001, Pittman was released on parole and returned to the couple's home. Before he returned, it was agreed Chea would move out and into the home of Keo's parents.
Keo's father, Khamlo Khounlo, testified that he went over to his daughter's home on Sept. 19, 2001, to talk to Pittman. He said he told Pittman "to try to be a good man."
"(Pittman) said he had something in his mind. That's what he told me, but I didn't ask anymore," Khounlo said.
Khounlo said he was concerned about trouble brewing between Pittman and his wife and he said he was aware of threats Pittman allegedly had made to kill Keo.
"We tried to protect our daughter," he said.
On Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001, George and Keo Pittman attended a birthday party at Frank Starr Park for one of their sons. By late afternoon, the family had returned home.
Later in the evening, an argument allegedly broke out between Keo and George Pittman. One of the Pittmans' four children was inside with a cousin, while the others were outside at the time.
"I don't think the kids can say what was said, as they tried to ignore it, as most kids do." Thoman said during his opening arguments.
The Pittmans' two oldest children testified yesterday about what they heard and saw the evening of Sept. 23, 2001.
While outside, 9-year-old Desmond Pittman said he could hear his parents inside their bedroom. "My mom was yelling and my dad was screaming," he said.
Dominique Pittman, 11, was inside at the time with his cousin, Brendon Khounlo. He said he could hear several noises of things hitting the wall in the bedroom. "My dad was yelling," he said. "He was saying bad words."
Dominique Pittman said he didn't hear anything from his mother.
Brendon Khounlo, 9, said he also heard yelling and screaming. However, some of his testimony about where the boys were at and what they did after the police arrived conflicted with that of the two Pittman children.
Thoman claimed George Pittman emerged from the bedroom and asked his eldest son where the phone was.
Upon receiving a call of a person armed with a knife, Storm Lake Police Officers Alex Leu and Scott Brouwer were first to arrive on the scene. They arrived to find Keo Pittman lying on the floor, bleeding and barely breathing, with her eyes closed and arms above her head.
The murder weapon, Thoman claimed, "was carefully positioned in her hand." She died before ambulances arrived.
Officer Leu said Keo Pittman was found lying on her back in a "tight space" between the wall and bed. A kitchen knife was in her right hand.
"It looked like it was perfectly set in her hand," Leu said.
There was a weak pulse and police started resuscitation but were unable to revive her before an ambulance arrived.
"Keo Pittman died on that floor as a result of a stab wound to the heart from a plain, dull kitchen knife," Thoman said. "Exactly 12 years do the day that she married (George Pittman) in 1989."
In his opening arguments, Thoman explained the state medical examiner's findings to the court and how they were not consistent with suicide. He explained her injuries, including bruises on the top of her head as a result of blunt force trauma, contusions on her upper right arm which Thoman claimed result from forcible grabbing and twisting of the arm.
Thoman also spoke of the various stab wounds on Keo Pittman, including primary wounds on her right arm and through her heart. Thoman claimed that Keo Pittman's fatal stab wound entered in the left side of her chest, while penetrating through the rib, lung and eventually her heart, taking her life. Thoman claimed that although there were no obvious or latent fingerprints found on the murder weapon, it was unlikely that Keo Pittman committed the injuries herself.
"I don't expect the court to find evidence that Keo Pittman stabbed herself in the right arm, switched hands to stab herself in the heart, pulled the knife out of her chest, and then fell to the ground, the knife still perfectly positioned in her hand." Thoman said. "The defendant said to a number of people that he would kill Keo Pittman, and he did just that."
Defense attorney Paul Miller's opening arguments pointed out that the prosecution has only set forth a theory of what has happened. "The only thing wrong with this is that it's a theory, and a theory is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Miller said.
Miller claimed that two important factors were absent in proving Pittman's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The first included a lack of a confession. Miller said that on the 911 call, Pittman never confessed to harming Keo, but only said, "My wife did something to herself. She's bleeding."
Secondly, Miller restated that no forensic evidence was found, such as a lack of fingerprints on the murder weapon, or that in a search for evidence, no scrapings were found beneath the fingernails of George or Keo Pittman.
Miller did say there is evidence that supports the defense theory of Keo Pittman's suicide. Among the evidence is the fact that Keo Pittman was involved in an affair with Lou Chea, instigating a certain amount of emotional stress.
Also, the autopsy by a state medical examiner shows that Pittman's wounds could be consistent with suicide, Miller said, adding that the cause of Keo Pittman's death is undetermined due to evidence consistent with both homicide and suicide.