A Mount Airy contractor was convicted yesterday in Carroll County Circuit Court in the beating death last year of a National Science Foundation psychologist.
A jury deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before returning guilty verdicts for first-degree murder and felony theft against Randall Henry Gerlach. Gerlach was also charged with stealing more than $300,000 from the victim, Rodney R. Cocking, 59, of Taylorsville.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney David P. Daggett said he will seek a sentence of life without parole for Gerlach, 57. Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. revoked Gerlach's bail -- which a judge reduced in August from $1 million to $150,000 -- and ordered a pre-sentencing investigation. The sentencing hearing is likely to be held in late June, but the judge did not set a date.
Cocking disappeared Feb. 23 last year after meeting with Gerlach that morning at his home, testimony showed. Cocking's skeletal remains were found in June, hidden behind a mound of dirt in a remote Frederick County watershed area.
During closing arguments Thursday, Daggett said Gerlach beat Cocking to death after the victim demanded repayment of $312,000 he thought he had invested over the years with Gerlach in real estate ventures. Daggett said Gerlach was operating a Ponzi or pyramid scheme and was paying some investors "interest" with money taken from other investors, including Cocking and his own in-laws.
Defense attorney Barry H. Helfand argued that Gerlach had no reason to kill Cocking because he had repaid the psychologist's money.
Gerlach did not testify at trial. The defense called no witnesses.
Gerlach had known Cocking for about nine years and had done home-improvement work for him. Daggett said Gerlach was the last person to see Cocking alive.
DNA matching Cocking's was found in drops of blood in Gerlach's truck and on a dirty sock, testimony showed. Helfand said he plans to file an appeal because a trial postponement was not granted to await the completion of DNA tests commissioned by the defense.
After the verdict was announced, Gerlach gave his wife and other family members a pained look as he was handcuffed and led away. His family declined to comment.
Cocking's family, friends and co-workers shared hugs and tears.
"Justice is served, and we're happy," said Walter A. Schultz, 72, of Trenton, N.J. Cocking's companion of more than 20 years, he arrived at the Taylorsville home that day to find the psychologist missing.
"It does permit some closure -- but not for the loss," said Schultz, trembling as he hugged well-wishers.
Cocking was director of the Developmental and Learning Sciences program in the division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation in Arlington.
His sister Darlene L. Gies, 66, of Tucson, Ariz., carried a 3-inch binder full of testimonials, newspaper clippings and letters of condolence from friends, academics and scientists. The binder included Cocking's 1972 doctorate in philosophy from Cornell University, and mementos from other positions he held, including work as a research director at the National Academy of Sciences, co-editing the Journal of Applied Psychology, and honors from the American Psychological Association.