Trial to begin today in death of psychologist

Judge to allow evidence of alleged financial plot

Defense objection rejected

Prosecutors try to show motive for killing Cocking

April 01, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors seeking to show a motive in the beating death last year of a Taylorsville psychologist will be allowed to present at trial evidence of a complex financial scheme, a judge ruled yesterday.

Testimony is to begin today in the trial of Randall Henry Gerlach, charged with murder and theft in the death of Rodney R. Cocking.

Prosecutors have said that before Cocking disappeared in February last year, he demanded from Gerlach an investment-related payment of more than $300,000.

Yesterday, a lawyer for Gerlach asked that evidence of the series of investments that led to the demand be barred from trial, arguing that Cocking had been paid and that there was therefore no motive.

"You don't kill someone without reason," said defense attorney Barry H. Helfand.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney David P. Daggett said the money had not been paid and, in opposing the defense request, said the evidence is central to his case.

Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. ruled against the defense on that and several other matters, then began the selection of a jury of nine women and three men, with two alternates, for what is expected to be a two-week trial.

Opening statements are scheduled for this morning.

Cocking, 59, a researcher and a program director at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., was reported missing Feb. 23 last year. Police issued an alert after his sport utility vehicle was found abandoned at a Mount Airy shopping center and blood was found at his home in the 2800 block of Sams Creek Road.

His remains were found more than three months later in a remote watershed area of Frederick County.

By then, Gerlach, a 57-year-old Mount Airy contractor, had been arrested and charged in Cocking's death.

Helfand discussed the alleged motive for the killing, investments Cocking supposedly made with Gerlach dating from 1994, which he said had been paid. Saying that mentioning another crime would be prejudicial, he asked the judge to order that the prosecution not mention other allegedly fraudulent financial ventures by Gerlach that he might have used to get money to pay the victim.

"The state alleged my client committed a fraud [upon his] family members and others of significant sums of money," Helfand said. "The only way I can describe it is a Ponzi scheme," referring to the practice of paying off an investor with new investors' money rather than with profits from a venture.

"If my client had any source to pay back [Cocking], even if he was cheating someone else, there is no motive," he said.

"We do not believe Dr. Cocking was paid this money," said Daggett, the prosecutor. The wealth of evidence about the financial scheme in the case is so interrelated, he said, that "you can't try one without the other."

The defense also unsuccessfully sought to have excluded from evidence a January 2002 letter, found by police investigators on Cocking's computer, that demanded payment from Gerlach, arguing that the letter was unsigned and that there was no proof it had been sent.

Helfand also lodged a continuing objection to the state's use of evidence from a search of Gerlach's truck, home and records, and he asked for a postponement because of a delay in an independent laboratory analysis of blood evidence. Beck previously had denied those motions, but they may be raised on appeal if there is a conviction.

Yesterday, the judge also denied another defense request for a postponement to allow it to investigate a statement recently provided by prosecutors that Helfand said might place another man in the area where the body was found June 17.

Gerlach, a resident of the 1300 block of Manor Drive in Frederick County, was held at the Carroll County Detention Center from the time of his arrest 12 days before the body was found until August, when his bail was lowered from $1 million to $150,000 and he was released to home detention.

Helfand told a judge then that his client had no criminal record, had served in the Army and had been a businessman and contributing member of the Mount Airy community for 35 years.

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