Closing arguments will commence Friday morning in the murder trial of Kevan Kuhlman, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Payson's TV 7 Station Manager Susan Birchak in October of 2001.
Kuhlman has been behind bars since 2001 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a plea-bargain agreement. The conviction was overturned on appeal when Kuhlman claimed he did not understand he would be required to serve every day of the 20-year sentence.
The voice of murder victim Susan Birchak had jurors' rapt attention in Judge Peter Cahill's Globe courtroom. Sounding anxious, Birchak says she is doing very well. Then in an apprehensive and hushed voice, Birchak relates that she is hiding in her bathroom. Birchak says she thinks tomorrow she will take Kevan to the bus station in Flagstaff, and he will go to work on a ranch. Then she will get on with the work that needs to be done. Ms. Birchak adds she is trying to be real careful and says, "Thank you. Bye."
Witness Claudia Humphries stoically testified that Birchak left that message on her answering machine the evening of Oct. 9, 2001. The next morning Humphries called police upon learning Susan Birchak was dead. Humphries said she was concerned for Birchak's well being. Birchak had agreed to check in with Humphries daily.
Ultimately, Birchak was not "careful" enough to avoid being beaten and strangled with a vacuum cleaner hose in her own home.
Defense Attorney Christy Riggins' strategy challenged the thoroughness of the police investigation; motioning for dismissal and a mistrial over evidence presented and evidence not collected; and eliciting through testimony that police did not eliminate others who may have had the opportunity and motive to take Susan Birchak's life. Judge Peter Cahill was meticulous and took great care in his rulings.
Kevan Kuhlman was living at Birchak's Payson home at the time of the woman's death. The two had met about a year earlier at an AA meeting.
On the evening of Oct. 9, 2001 Kuhlman called the Payson police nonemergency line saying he needed help. Susan Birchak was dead when police and firefighters arrived a short time later. Autopsy results determined she was strangled with a vacuum cleaner hose that investigators found in her home. According to now-retired Detective John Huffman, he was called to the scene and observed that Birchak had bruising along her jaw, a cut on her forehead, bruising on her neck and severe bruising to both eyes.
Prosecutor Daisy Flores' team keyed on discrepancies in statements made by Kuhlman in two police interviews. The interviews were conducted by Sgt. Tom Tieman, Detective Steve Johnson and Commander (then Lieutenant) Don Engler in the early morning hours of Oct. 10, 2001.
Kuhlman first states that he went for a short walk immediately before finding Birchak injured and gasping for breath on her living room floor. In a second interview Kuhlman says he was on the front porch smoking a cigarette prior to discovering Birchak. Kuhlman told police Birchak unintentionally bit his finger the day before while he was feeding her, then says the unintentional bite occurred when he was wiping her face and mouth when he found her gasping for breath.
Kuhlman began the interviews voluntarily, but eventually invoked his right to counsel. Jurors heard recordings of the admissible portions of the interviews. Kuhlman portrays their relationship as platonic and relates that Susan Birchak was troubled with emotional and alcohol problems and an estranged relationship with her husband, John Birchak. In the interviews, Kuhlman indicated he served a care-taking role, preparing food, feeding Birchak and giving her prescribed medications. Kuhlman repeatedly claims he would never hurt Birchak and that he did not have a confrontation with her.
A Payson woman testified that she was in contact with Kuhlman via the Internet the evening of the murder. She said that Kuhlman had sent an instant message asking her to wait because he had to do something. About 30 minutes later Kuhlman contacted her and told her Susan Birchak was passed out. Kuhlman told police during his interview that he had purchased a bottle of wine for Susan and bourbon for himself earlier that evening. He stated Birchak asked him to, since it would be their last night of big drinking together. Kuhlman said he had been online during the evening saying good-bye to his girlfriend and others.
Kuhlman's mother, Darlene, testified that Kuhlman and Birchak were at her home the day of the murder to drop off Kuhlman's 12-year-old son. She said her son and Birchak both seemed normal and both hugged her as they were leaving. She said Kuhlman's son loaned him two bags to pack his belongings and that she understood Birchak had paid for Kuhlman's bus ticket. She testified Kuhlman was planning on returning by Christmas, after earning money to rent a home for himself and his son. She testified later about receiving a call from a woman saying Kevan had not arrived at the bus station where she expected to pick him up.
Detective Matt Van Camp testified that there was no basis to conduct an in-depth interview with John Birchak, the victim's estranged husband. Van Camp said all the evidence indicated Kevan Kuhlman committed this crime. The detective said he had multiple contacts with John Birchak, who never refused to give any information to police or prosecutors.
Lois Eagleton contacted police with information about Birchak's activist-style activities on Payson water issues. Van Camp says Eagleton changed her position after being given more information about the murder. Van Camp says investigations rely on facts, common sense, training and experience in determining what is relevant and what is not.
John Birchak, the victim's estranged husband, attended the trial, as did Kuhlman's mother and stepfather.
Mr. Birchak was serving as a victim's representative and so was allowed to sit in during proceedings and testify as well. Kuhlman's mother was allowed in the courtroom only to testify as a witness.
John Birchak testified that he had filed for a divorce in 2002 because of Susan's alcohol issues and because her actions were a liability that could cause them to lose everything. Birchak answered defense questions about his wife's involvement in community issues, including water issues. He indicated Susan wasn't worried about retaliation because of her water activities. From the witness stand, Mr. Birchak volunteered a copy of an informal working agreement with Susan detailing a proposed split of their joint assets. She was to retain slightly more in assets and would receive monthly support for five years under the proposed agreement. She had no life insurance.
The defense grilled Birchak about his activities the day Susan was murdered, in an attempt to show that John Birchak could have been a possible suspect with a motive in the killing. Birchak remained calm and cooperative on the stand. Mr. Birchak said that as a family he and his three children had agreed that he be the one to speak on Susan's behalf in court. He became the victim's representative and has attended every hearing held in order to be Susan's voice in court.