Severson murder trial begins

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

After nearly two years sitting in jail, Larry Severson's day in court finally arrived as opening arguments and testimony began in his first-degree murder trail last week.

Severson is charged with the premeditated murder of his wife, Mary, 35, "by overdosing her with sleeping pills and/or suffocating her" on Feb. 15, 2002. He also is charged with previously attempting to poison her by putting Drano in capsules of hydroxycut, a fat-blocker pill she was taking.

The defendent, assistant prosecutor Ron Howen alleged in his opening arguments, "wanted money, (her) assets, and another wife," providing him with the motive for murder. Both Larry and Mary had $200,000 life-insurance policies on each other.

But defense attorney Ed Frachiseur countered in his opening statement to the jury that he would show no crime actually had been committed in the first place, that Mary Severson died of a reaction to a combination of a prescription drug and an over-the-counter drug she was taking.

"There is no evidence available to establish... that any crime was ever committed by anybody. Period, " he told the jury.

In the week preceding the trial an unusually large jury pool of 144 persons were called and questioned by the attorneys for both sides. Because of space restrictions at the courthouse, the questioning was done at the Elk's Lodge. In the end, 15 jurors, eight men and seven women, were seated. Three will serve as alternates but the final 12 who will deliberate Severson's fate won't be determined until the end of the trial when lots will be drawn.

Opening arguments were held last Wednesday and initial testimony before District Court Judge Mike Wetherell began on Friday. The trial is expected to last at least six weeks, with only Thursdays off. Both sides plan on calling scores of witnesses. Prosecuting are Howen and County Prosecutor Aaron Bazzoli. The defense is composed of Frachiseur and Ellison Matthews.

Opening statements are designed to lay out each side's cases to the jury, which they believe the evidence they present later in the trial will support.

Howen began by describing how the relationship between Larry and his second wife, Mary, began, when the two were living in Colorado. He said the couple had had an affair while Larry was in the process of divorcing his first wife, also named Mary, and were married in Las Vegas in 1996. The couple each had children from previous marriages when their family was formed.

Larry's auto repair business in Colorado, L&M Automotive, went bankrupt and the couple moved to Mountain Home where they both found employment at the former Grant Peterson auto dealership. Larry worked as a mechanic for the company while Mary worked as a bookkeeper there. Larry then opened his own business, Auto Works, at 1450 American Legion Blvd., while Mary continued to work at Grant Peterson to help pay off the couple's debts, Howen said.

Their home at 4375 Poplar St. was purchased by Mary. "It was her sole and separate property," Howen said, noting that Larry had quit-claimed any interest in the home.

Howen said the couple had begun to have marital problems during 2001, and in August of that year had separated, with her returning to her mother's home in Colorado. But she returned around December, "determined to try and make her marriage work," Howen said.

That effort was complicated by the fact that in her absence, Larry had begun an affair with Jennifer Watkins, 19, to whom he had given an engagement ring. "He wanted a younger, prettier woman," Howen said, but Mary didn't want the divorce.

Howen said Mary began taking diet pills in order to "compete with a slim 19-year-old" and because her husband, who had gotten into weight lifiting, had been critical of her, and others, who weren't in shape. He also said Larry began telling people that Mary had had difficulty sleeping and on several occassions had found her not breathing -- a condition known as sleep apnea.

She had become depressed over the problems in her marriage, Howen said, and had developed an ulcer, and had begun taking prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills. He contended that when authorities began investigating the death, they found a pill bottle for her prescription that had been picked up by Larry the day before her death, but none of the 30 pills supposed to be in it were there.

Howen said Mary often had trouble taking pills and Larry would grind them up in put them in soft food, such as pudding.

Howen also described how, in January of 2001, Larry had initiated an investigation with the Sheriff's Office and Food and Drug Administration, alleging that he had found some of her diet pills contaminated with Drano. But, Howen said, no Drano was found by authorities at either the couple's home or his business.

On Valentine's Day, 2002, the couple had gone out to dinner together. That night, around 3 a.m., Howen said, authorities received a call saying a woman had been found not breathing at the Severson home. "When (Larry) found her not breathing," Howen said, "he did not take her to a hospital or call 911. Instead, he calls his daughter-in-law and says 'she's not breathing, what should I do?' He was told to call 911, but he didn't." The call, instead, was made by the daughter-in-law, Nora Law, now Rutherford, who was married to Severson's son, Mike.

Howen said that because of statements made at the hospital by Larry and family members, authorities began an investigation into her death and 16 hours after she had been pronounced death executed search warrants on the Severson home and business.

But in his opening arguments, Frachiseur argued that his witnesses will testify that two of the drugs Mary was taking could induce cardiac arrest "and that combination will be testified to as a probably cause of death."

Frachiseur also noted that "infidelity is not murder," pointing out that Severson had divorced his first wife, not murdered her.

"You will conclude that this was an accident," caused by a reaction to the drug combination, Frachiseur said.

"This was a tragedy for a young woman, a young mother, a lovely person," Frachiseur said. "But it wasn't murder."

Frachiseur also said that the state's case was based on circumstantial evidence, and that Larry Severson's business was doing well, that the insurance policy on Mary, which she had take out on the two of them, represented only two-thirds of the annual gross of his business.

He said that the state's arguments are "simply not a credible scenario," and that when all the testimony of the defense experts is concluded, that the jury will conclude "that no crime has been committed."

Actual testimony began Friday. In six-and-a-half hours of excrutiatingly detailed testimony, which included jurors learning the technical details of dispatch operations at the law center and even the sleeping arrangements of ambulance crews on call, the final hour of Mary Severson's life unfolded.

At 3:13 a.m. on Feb. 15, dispatch received a call from Nora Law (now Rutherford), who, despite clearly being on the verge of panic, said in a precise description that she was at 4375 Poplar, where "a 35-year-old female has been found not breathing." She said, in the 911 recording of the call that was played to the jury, that her husband (then boyfriend), Mike, was performing CPR.

In subsequent personal testimony on the stand, Law said she had been awoken at about 3 a.m. by a call from Larry Severson. Groggy from sleep, at first she wasn't sure who it was, but she said the frantic caller told her "help me, I can't wake her up. This is Larry, I can't wake her up."

Rutherford said she told him she'd be right over, and then hung up. She said she tried to call back to the house, to tell Larry to call 911, but the line was busy and she assumed he was doing that.

She made another attempt to call the house while she and Mike were driving to Larry and Mary's house, but the line was still busy.

She she got there, and went into the living room, she found Mary on the sofa in the living room with "Larry standing over her crying." Mary's lips were blue, she said, and she wasn't breathing. She realized Larry hadn't called 911 and did so immediately herself, while Larry and Mike pushed a coffee table out of the way, laid her on the floor, and Mike began performing CRP, a skill he learned in the Air Force. Larry sat next to her crying.

When the EMTs arrived they asked her to gather all her medications to take with them to the hospital, and she grabbed all the ones she could find in the kitchen, where she knew Mary kept them.

Paramedic Melissa Scheffer described arriving at the scene at 3:21 a.m. where they found Mary not breathing and without a pulse. She and her partner took over the CPR efforts, and after some difficulty due to vomit found in her mouth and throat, during the next 20 minutes placed an incubation tube in her airway to promote breathing, shocked her with defibrillation equipment and gave her epenephrine, a form of adrenaline, in an effort to restore her heartbeat.

Another ambulance crew arrived and the four crew members carried Mary to the ambulance and continued rescue efforts on her during the trip to the hospital.

At the hospital, Dr. Lee Binnion took over efforts to revive Mary, working on her for another 20 minutes until finally pronouncing her dead at 4:15 a.m. Binnion said Mary arrived not breathing and without a pulse and neither function had been restored during the emergency room team's efforts.

She said that in talking to Larry that night, he had told her about his belief that her fat-blocker pills had been tainted, and described her sleep problems, telling Binnion that he often had to shake her to wake her up.

Binnion said that Larry told her he had gone to bed at about 10 a.m. that night and awoke at about 3 a.m. to find her on the couch, not breathing.

Binnion also said she drew blood, as per procedure in such a case, and gave it to the coroner.

Under cross-examination, she reported that there were not signs of trauma on Mary's body.

Since autopsy photos apparently show bruising around Mary's mouth, both Binnion and Sheffer were cross-examined extensively by the defense to note that none of the procedures used that night could have caused them, nor did they notice any such bruises or abrasions at the time emergency crews worked on Mary.

Due to the lack of rigor mortis and lividity (a pooling of the blood that occurs in the lower parts of the body after death), and the fact that Mary was still warm when she arrived in ER, Binnion provided a rough estimate that Mary had been dead for one to three hours before she arrived at the hospital.

Sheriff Rick Layher said that after meeting with the family and offering his condolences that night, the next morning, based on a phone call received at the sheriff's office that morning (he did not say from whom or what it was about), he ordered his detectives to initiate an investigation into the death of Mary Severson.

Testimony was scheduled to resume Tuesday of this week. Details will be carried in next week's issue.

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