For several hours after prosecutors say Jessika Kalaher was strangled twice, raped and left for dead in her car overnight in a Cedar Park shopping center, the assault left her so severely brain damaged that she was unable to seek help or answer her phone.
A former restaurant worker testified Tuesday that after she arrived at work on the morning of Sept. 7, 2009, she saw the 27-year-old woman crawling naked inside her Kia car and trying to put on a swimsuit coverup. The worker, Kristina Wilson, said she later saw Kalaher in her coverup sitting outside her car playing with her hair, then sitting in her car again talking to herself, and later using her finger to trace figure eights on the steering wheel.
Kalaher, who was assaulted in the early morning hours, eventually died of heat stroke that afternoon in her car with the windows rolled up, prosecutors told the jury Tuesday in the first day of the capital murder retrial for Crispin Harmel.
Wilson testified she never called police to help Kalaher. “I didn’t want to take a chance on her (Kalaher) being mentally ill and not making it home to my kids,” Wilson said.
Another former restaurant worker, Royal Howlett, testified he heard Kalaher honking the horn in her car and later saw her standing outside her car door and walking around the parking lot looking “distraught.”
Harmel, 38, is being tried for capital murder for a second time after his first trial in 2014 ended in a mistrial after prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence. He faces up to life in prison because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
A new set of prosecutors from the Texas attorney general’s office is trying the case this time after the Williamson County district attorney’s office was recused. Harmel has the same defense attorneys he had in the first trial.
One of the new prosecutors, Nancy Nemer, said in opening statements Tuesday that Harmel followed Kalaher out of a Walmart in Cedar Park shortly before 2 a.m., got in her car, choked her and later raped and strangled her twice at a park before leaving her in her car at the shopping center.
Kalaher was so brain-damaged she could not answer her phone, even though it rang 28 times, Nemer said.
Defense lawyer Ryan Deck said in his opening statement that there was no evidence linking Harmel to Kalaher’s death and that there were “serious deficiencies” in the police investigation into the case. He also said that when police interviewed Harmel five days after Kalaher died, Harmel did not have a scrape, bruise or a cut on his body.
Prosecutors showed a Walmart surveillance video in court from the day Kalaher died. Cedar Park police Detective Larry Bond testified that the video showed Harmel walking out of a bathroom in the store and following Kalaher to her car.
Nemer said that when Kalaher reached her car, she dropped the 40-pound bag of dog food she had bought in her back seat and got into the driver’s seat. Harmel — whom Kalaher did not know — then got into the back seat of Kalaher’s car and used a seat belt to choke her, Nemer said.
“He got her in a head-hold with the seat belt and forced her to go to an ATM,” said Nemer. Kalaher made her withdraw $20 using her debit card, she said.
Harmel then made her go to a park, where he raped her and strangled her using his hands, the prosecutor said. “He thinks she’s dead, but she wakes up and he’s not having any of that, so he grabs the tie that was around her swimsuit cover and wraps it around her throat, and she struggles for dear life,” the prosecutor said.
After Kalaher became limp, Nemer said, Harmel thought she was dead and drove her car back to a shopping center near the Walmart in Cedar Park, got out and less than five minutes later arrived at an Exxon, where he used her debit card to put $75 worth of gas into his truck, Nemer said.
Deck told the jury there was zero evidence in the case of a sexual assault. He said there was “no question” that there appeared to be a violent, physical struggle between two people in Kalaher’s car because of the feces found in it, but said that when Harmel left Kalaher she was alive.
Harmel also told police that Kalaher had given him her debit card and that he had thrown it away, Deck said.
Other witnesses said Tuesday that Kalaher only had $25 left in her account and was on a tight budget because she was saving to be an elementary school teacher.
One of Kalaher’s cousins, Melanie Lopez Kilpatrick, started crying as she testified Tuesday about being the person to find Kalaher dead in her car at the shopping center, slumped over in the front seat.
“I was in shock and screaming and calling her name,” Kilpatrick said.