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Second murder trial starts in Dundalk neighbor's death

Michael W. Hester told police that he saw water rushing from his neighbor's back door in Dundalk June 22, 2010 and ran over to check on the 89-year-old woman, only to find her in a pool of her own blood, fatally stabbed.

But several officers and first responders, called minutes later to Eleanor Marie Haley's house in the 7200 block of York Drive, testified on Tuesday that the paved back porch was dry.

The testimony in Baltimore County Circuit Court came as prosecutors tried a second time to convict Hester, 56, of first-degree murder in Haley's death; the first attempt ended last April in a mistrial. As a new trial opened Tuesday, a prosecutor stressed inconsistencies in Hester's account of what happened, including questions about how he knew to check on his neighbor.

Police say it was Hester who turned on the water to provide an excuse for being in the house after he had killed Haley. During opening statements, Assistant State's Attorney Katherine T. Sampson said the state planned to show that "the defendant lied about several key aspects."

Kimberley McGee, Hester's public defender, said the victim was a "significant financial resource" for Hester and his family, so he had no reason to kill her. "He has every motive to keep her alive," she said, saying Haley paid for expenses including his children's summer camp, family trips and some of his credit cards. She paid him an annual $3,000 stipend to take care of her yard and other jobs, McGee said.

She said the inconsistencies described by the prosecution are not enough to convict Hester of murder, and that he could and would explain when he takes the stand.

The case will be heard and the verdict decided by Judge S. Ann Brobst.

The state began its case with several witnesses who were first to respond to the scene — including a firefighter and a paramedic, and two members of the police force. Sampson asked each about where he or she had noticed water in the house.

Det. Adriene Grant, a patrol officer at the time of Haley's death for the North Point Precinct, said she immediately noticed water squishing beneath her feet when she entered the home. "The living room seemed mostly saturated," she said.

When police arrested Hester several days after Haley's death, investigators said they believed he had staged an elaborate crime scene by hooking a garden hose to the victim's outdoor spigot and attaching the other end to a lawn sprinkler in placed in the victim's living room. But prosecutors said the water did not gush outside, as Hester had claimed.

Hester had told police that he rushed to the house because he saw water coming from the back door. When he discovered the body, he told police, he tried to call 911 from Haley's house but found her phone was disconnected, so he returned home to make the call.

Several of the state's witnesses described Haley's body lying in the living room, which was soaked from ceiling to carpet. They described a sprinkler hooked by a hose to a spigot outside.

Several also noted Hester's erratic behavior.

Christine Ruberti, the paramedic, described Hester as "flustered."

When she was questioned by Hester's other attorney, James R. Dills, he asked her if it were possible that his behavior could be related to the shock of finding his neighbor's body. She agreed it could have caused him to act differently.

Hester, who worked as a glass fitter for A.J. Sackett & Sons on Highland Avenue in Baltimore, had no prior criminal record.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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