Lawyer says defendant had no reason to kill scientist

Closing arguments heard in trial of Mount Airy man

April 11, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Randall H. Gerlach was a schemer who beat to death a Taylorsville psychologist after the victim demanded a $312,000 payment last year, threatening to tumble Gerlach's financial house of cards, a Carroll County prosecutor told a jury yesterday in closing arguments.

But defense attorney Barry H. Helfand emphasized that this supposed "con man" had receipts marked paid and signed by his alleged victim, Rodney R. Cocking. He argued that it made no sense to commit murder when - even had the checks bounced - the worst the doctor could have done was sue Gerlach for the money.

A Carroll County jury is to begin deliberations today on charges of murder and theft against Gerlach.

Gerlach, 57, of Mount Airy did not testify and the defense did not call any witnesses during the trial.

Gerlach was charged June 5 with murder, before the victim's skeletal remains were found in a wooded area of the Frederick County watershed and almost four months after Cocking disappeared Feb. 23, 2002, from his home in the 2800 block of Sams Creek Road.

Gerlach was the last known person to see Cocking alive that morning, Senior Assistant State's Attorney David P. Daggett said during his closing argument yesterday in Carroll County Circuit Court.

"All the evidence points to one person and one person only and that's Randy Gerlach," Daggett said.

One point of contention in the case involved the purpose of the meeting Feb. 23 between the two. Daggett said Cocking was expecting the repayment of the money he thought he had been investing for years with Gerlach in real-estate ventures. Helfand said the meeting was called so Cocking could discuss damage woodpeckers had done to his house, and a siding job with Gerlach, his longtime friend and a home-improvement contractor.

The prosecution presented more than 40 witnesses and more than 200 exhibits in seven days of testimony. Daggett asked the jury to consider DNA evidence from Cocking found in Gerlach's truck, and the contradictory stories Gerlach told to police and to Cocking's worried friends and family members in the days after the psychologist's disappearance.

Helfand questioned the reliability of the blood evidence and said Gerlach was under stress when he made the statements.

Daggett said that Gerlach was running a Ponzi scheme with his supposed investments, taking nearly $500,000 from several of his wife's relatives and periodically repaying Cocking and the others with each other's money.

The scheme, Daggett said, "was going to come crashing down when somebody demands their money back." Evidence showed he was living beyond his means, with debts on 24 credit cards and a home equity loan.

Helfand pointed to testimony by Gerlach's relatives, who were called as prosecution witnesses, and said they had received payments.

"What is there about this case that has my client as this superb conniving businessman ... and the doctor an unsophisticated dupe?" Helfand asked the jury.

Cocking, a National Science Foundation program director and child psychologist, kept meticulous records, according to the testimony.

A Jan. 12 letter found at Cocking's home included his demands for the return of his money, with interest, from Gerlach, and an attached spreadsheet. A copy of the spreadsheet was found in Gerlach's home, Daggett said.

The prosecutor suggested that when Gerlach showed up that Saturday morning with a stack of checks, Cocking happily signed the stack of promissory notes as being paid -- "signing his death warrant."

Gerlach, with no money and no land deals, then committed "a very vicious murder," striking Cocking in the head with a blunt instrument, the prosecutor said.

"Most likely he went over there with the hope of conning Dr. Cocking more," Daggett said. "It didn't work, something went wrong and he killed him. He didn't hit him once and say `Oh, my God, what have I done?' He hit him again and again and again and again."

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