Witnesses called in homicide trial of Erik Sackett

Witnesses are being called in the La Crosse County homicide trial of Erik Sackett. The La Crosse man is accused of killing the woman he was seeing, Erin Somvilai, and dumping her body in a Vernon County lake.

Jurors heard opening statements earlier this morning at the La Crosse County Court House in front of Judge Elliott M. Levine.

The state argues that Sackett had the motive to kill Somvilai. La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said that cellphone records and knowledge of the lake where the La Crosse woman’s body was found tie Sackett to the crime.

But the defense contends that Somvilai was distraught and was suicidal after fighting with Sackett over another woman he was seeing.

Defense attorney Chris Zachar said Somvilai was alive when she went with Sackett to the lake. They went for a swim, Zacher said, and told Sackett she would kill herself and weighing down her pockets, so she would sink to the bottom. The two then left the lake and returned to La Crosse, where she was seen by witnesses.

Zachar told jurors that investigators were set on Sackett as a suspect and didn’t consider other possibilities, including Somvilai’s doctor, who she was also seeing.

“That impression carried throughout the investigation. I want to be really clear. This is not a case in which I’m saying the police are corrupt or incompetent. They’re not. But they are human,” Zacher said. “And human beings make assumptions, and they follow those assumptions, sometimes, to the exclusion of the evidence that’s right in front of them. And you’re going to hear that’s exactly what happened in this case.”

UPDATE from 6 p.m. news

After the jury heard opening arguments from the prosecution and the defense, witness testimony began with Sackett’s parole agent from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Sackett did not have permission from the agent to even be in a relationship with Somvilai, due to past behavior.

The defense focused on the problems Somvilai had in her life including an arrest that happened just days before she disappeared.

Officer Aaron Westpfahl of the La Crosse Police Department was asked by Zacher if he responded to an incident in May 2018 involving Somvilai.

“There was a report of a battery or disorderly conduct of some sort?” Zacher said.

Westpfahl said he arrested Somvilai May 31 at her home. He also answered yes to questions that he believed Erin to be under the influence of something and the primary aggressor in the incident.

The defense focused on Somvilai’s drug problems and mental health issues. That included text messages that showed she was frustrated with Sackett, who began seeing another woman.

In the opening argument, Zacher showed the jury a photo that Somvilai sent to Sackett of cuts that appear to be self-inflicted.

“Erin sent Erik a text asking him how much it would be to purchase a nine-millimeter firearm,” Zacher said. “Again implying from our previous discussion that she wanted to shoot herself and end her own life.

Somvilai’s father, Mark Bushek, was also asked if she had problems.

“Am I correct in assuming that due to some concerns with her behavior that you had a discussion with her about taking the kids and having her stay with their father for the summer?” Zacher asked.

Bushek said he wanted his daughter to let her children’s fathers take care of them while she got her life in order.

Despite the defense’s arguments, the prosecution reminded the jury that Sackett had not been truthful about where he was on June 3, 2018.

La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke brought investigator Andrew Rosenow of the La Crosse Police Department to the stand.

He asked Rosenow to explain how cellphone towers can locate a person’s cellphone in a general area.

“Is it safe to say that cellular device would be somewhere in those circles during those times?” Gruenke said. “It includes most of northern Vernon County. It includes Runge Hollow Lake?”

Rosenow said yes to both questions. He said Sackett could have been near or around Runge Hollow Lake on June 3, the day before Somvilai was reported missing.

Below are the live streams from Tuesday, October 22, 2019 trial:

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