LA CROSSE, WI - The trial began Wednesday morning for the man accused of shooting and killing Paul Petras and his son A.J. in their downtown La Crosse photo shop on September 15, 2012.
Jeffrey Lepsch has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, armed robbery and possession of a firearm. He has pleaded not guilty in the case and faces life in prison if convicted.
During his opening statements, La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke began by showing four photos. The first was a picture of A.J. found shot dead; the second was of Paul dead; the third was a camera case at May's Photo; and the fourth photo was Lepsch's basement, which Gruenke said shows camera equipment that matches the serial numbers from the equipment missing from May's Photo.
The prosecution is arguing Lepsch killed Paul and A.J. Petras for financial gain. Gruenke said investigators discovered Lepsch was living pay check to pay check and was late on a mortgage payment. He also owed more than $52,000 from a prior theft conviction.
To further the case, the prosecution said investigators found 27 camera items worth more than $17,000 at Lepsch's home that matched the serial numbers of the ones missing from May's photo.
Investigators said Lepsch was selling the equipment less than a month after the murders. A woman came forward after hearing about Lepsch on the news. She said she bought camera equipment from him after seeing his post on Craig's list.
"She says she met a person in Winona who called himself Jeff and the camera was missing the serial number on the bottom. When she asked him why the serial number was missing, he said he had a problem with the tripod screw and had to remove the serial number from the camera. Police were still able to verify the serial number of the camera from looking at the internal data of the camera and the serial number matches the camera taken from May's Photo," said Gruenke.
Gruenke asked that the jury finds Lepsch guilty of all four counts against him.21153536
Addressing the jury, defense attorney Vincent Rust said, "You'll see evidence that Jeff is a family man and not a killer." The defense said in the case, the jury will hear from Lepsch's wife, what Lepsch was doing leading up to Sept. 15 and how he was acting afterward.
The defense points out that several people pointed out that they saw a man with dark hair. Lepsch has light hair.
The prosecution points to snapshots of surveillance video showing a man in a hooded sweatshirt and wearing a backpack go into May's Photo and coming out a while later carrying four bags.
Steven Smith was in town visiting his daughter.
He said was in May's Photo and left right around closing time that day.
Smith said while he was in the store, he noticed someone matching the description seen on surveillance video.
Smith said he didn't see the person's face, but thought it was odd the person was wearing a gray-hooded sweatshirt with long pants on a warm day.
He said this person was talking to clerk about some of the camera equipment.
"There was a letter and a number," said Smith. "The person asked, 'Do you have a' whatever. The clerk, I think, responded that they had one, but it was already spoken for, but the customer could take a look at it."
The day of the murders, there was also a photography class going on at May's Photo.
Some of the students in that class also testified saying they saw this gray-hooded sweatshirt person, but no one seemed to get a good look at the person's face.
So far, the only person to testify who was close to getting a look was the class's instructor and May's Photo employee, Robert Metcafe.
"Now when you say the hood up, I'm assuming pulled up over the person's head?" Gruenke asked Metcafe.
"Correct," Metcafe replied.
"Did you see the person's face?" Gruenke asked.
"I did not," Metcafe replied. "I kind of saw the side of his face enough to see that it was a white person. Beyond that, at that point, I walked behind him. He was facing the opposite direction, so I did not see him."
The defense said Lepsch is a family man.
"The evidence will show that Jeff is a family man, he's not violent," Rust told the jury. "He has light hair. The suspect had dark hair. There is no physical evidence Jeff had anything to do with the Petras's."
The defense also argued that Lepsch was at his parent's home in La Crescent, Minnesota during the time of the murder.
To further their argument, Rust said investigators did not find Lepsch's DNA on Paul or A.J. Petras.
"What they didn't find was a gun. no gun. They didn't find any ammunition. They didn't find any cell phones. They didn't find any DNA from the Petras's. They didn't find any physical evidence they thought they were going to find that linked Jeff to the September 15th homicides," said Rust.
The first witness, Paul Petras' wife was called to the stand at about 9:45 a.m.
Sherri Petras said on Saturday, September 15 it was getting late in the day and she had not heard Paul or A.J. after their photography class. She couldn't get ahold of them, so she went to the store and saw that the lights were on and the door was open. Sherri saw her son, A.J. lying on the floor. She said she thought he was poisoned because she didn't know why he was lying on the ground. She tried to call 911, but she was having trouble because she was so distraught.
Sherri said she yelled to a young couple across the street to call 911 and she asked if anyone knew CPR. She saw a man in a suit who she didn't know go into the store and try CPR. The ambulance arrived while the man was doing CPR.
The defense did not ask Sherri any questions. After her testimony, the court took a morning break. Court resumed at about 10:15 a.m.
In the afternoon, Chief Medical Examiner Vincent Tranchida was called to the stand in early afternoon. Tranchida said the cause of death for Paul and AJ Petras was gunshot wounds to the head.
Tranchida said the bullet entered A.J.'s skull and went from back-to-front, left-to-right and downwards. A bullet that struck Paul went from right-to-left, to slightly back and also downward, Tranchida said. A.J. was 6'3"; Paul was 5'8". That means whomever shot them was likely towering over Paul and A.J. or they were possible bending over or being on the ground, Tranchida confirmed.
Both Paul and AJ had bruising on their hands, Tranchida said. AJ Petras had a bruise on his left index finger. Paul Petras had a bruise on his right little finger. Tranchida said that may be consistent with a something striking them or could be related to something that happened earlier in the day, unrelated to this incident.
Stay with News 8 as this trial continues. The trial is expected to take nine days. You can watch the live streaming of the trial on www.news8000.com.
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