Groves defense wants to squash testimony

By SARAH PAEZ

spaez@lockhaven.com

LOCK HAVEN — The highly anticipated trial of Loyd Groves, 68, accused of murdering Katherine Dolan Heckel of Mill Hall in 1991, may lack a key piece of evidence for the prosecution.

On Tuesday, Lycoming Senior Judge Kenneth Brown heard a motion in Clinton County Court filed by the defense to suppress a piece of testimony by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Dennis Taylor. The witness once had a relationship with Heckel and met up with her at different locations.

Defense attorney David I. Lindsay said part of Taylor’s testimony about seeing a gray van he believed belonged to Loyd Groves was inadmissible because State Trooper Cpl. Fred Caldwell revealed that information to him — through what the defense considered a “suggestion.”

According to Taylor, he and Heckel went to Porter Township Recreation Park off Route 64, near the fish hatchery, at about 4:30 p.m. July 11, 1991. They took separate cars and sat on a picnic bench and talked. As he was leaving in his car, Taylor said he saw a gray conversion van, (a commercial van with a backseat converted to a certain purpose, such as living space) backed into a gravel pull-off area typically only used by police. Though he saw the van for only about 20 seconds, he said, he noted the vehicle type because at the time he drove a very similar van.

Later, Taylor said, Heckel told him the gray van he had seen in the pull-off belonged to Loyd Groves, and after Taylor had pulled out, Groves followed him.

After Heckel went missing on July 15, Taylor said, he went to the state police barracks at Lamar to offer more information to Trooper Caldwell, the lead investigator on the case. Per police recommendation, Taylor had compiled a list of all the dates and times he had seen or spent time with Heckel in the month before she went missing. Taylor said when he pulled into the parking lot at the barracks, he saw a gray van that looked like the one he had seen at the park on July 11. He thought to himself that the van belonged to Groves.

When Trooper Caldwell walked out to the parking lot with Taylor, their talk shifted to the van. There the trooper mentioned the gray van in the parking lot belonged to Groves, thus confirming Taylor’s “suspicions.”

State police confiscated Groves’s van following Heckel’s disappearance to search it. It was a gray 1987 Chevy van with a blue stripe around it.

When questioned by the defense, Taylor said he could not be sure how the van came up in conversation with Trooper Caldwell. He did say he thought he mentioned a gray van following him and Heckel in prior interviews with state police.

When Lindsay asked Taylor if he thought the gray van in the parking lot was consistent with the one seen at the park or actually the same van, Taylor said, “I was positive the van was Groves’s.”

“Your honor, the witness’s testimony is clear. He saw the van,” said Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel J. Dye, lead prosecutor for the case. “In this case, he noticed it was a kind of conversion van, consistent with the kind of van he once owned.”

The defense countered that “the suggestion was made” by the state trooper as to the van’s ownership. Lindsay said state police should have asked Taylor if he had ever seen the van, instead of saying, “That’s Loyd Groves’s van.”

“As soon as Trooper Caldwell says, ‘That’s the van,’ the problem arises,” Lindsay said. “It is for that reason we believe (the testimony) should be suppressed.”

Judge Brown said he thinks case law states even if there were a suggested action, such as the trooper’s declaration that the van belonged to Groves, the underlying identification of key evidence (in this case, the van) by the witness (Taylor) means the testimony should be allowed.

He said he would review his knowledge of case law and have a decision on suppressing the testimony by tomorrow or Friday.

Dye also confirmed with the judge that jury selection could occur the entire week of June 18, setting the trial start date at June 25.

Brown said that would be fine but asked if counsel really wanted to delay the trial an entire week in the event that jury selection finishes early. The trial was already delayed significantly in October when Groves suffered a heart attack and had to undergo emergency open-heart bypass surgery.

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