VanMetre strangled woman in fit of passion, defense says


James Howard VanMetre III's defense attorney told a Carroll County jury yesterday that his client strangled a 28-year-old Pennsylvania woman on a Harney farm in September 1991.

But when the case is over, VanMetre will not be found guilty of first-degree murder, Howard Assistant Public Defender Louis P. Willemin said in his opening statement.

"Ladies and gentlemen, on Sept. 26, 1991, Jim VanMetre strangled Holly Ann Blake, and there isn't going to be any doubt about that he killed her in a heat of passion," said Mr. Willemin, who is handling the case with Carroll Assistant Public Defender Martha Ann Sitterding.

"But that act was not deliberate. He's guilty of some form of homicide. He is not guilty of first-degree murder."

VanMetre, 35, of East Berlin, Pa., is on trial on charges of first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter, attempted murder and battery. Most of the prosecution's evidence came from multiple confessions he gave to police in Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

"About 98 percent of the evidence in this case is not in dispute," Mr. Willemin said. "The question is, what crime did he commit?"

Despite Mr. Willemin's statements, prosecutors stuck to their planned strategy. Yesterday, they put eight witnesses on the stand, most of whom testified about Ms. Blake's disappearance.

"You will hear the defendant tell you, in his own words, exactly how he [VanMetre] killed Holly Blake," Carroll Deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch said in his opening statement to the jury. "It will all come alive for you . . . and when it's done, he will be guilty of murder in the first-degree."

Bernard A. Blake, the victim's former husband and father of her two children, was the state's first witness. He said that before Ms. Blake left the couple's Bonneauville, Pa., home Sept. 26, 1991, she told him she would be gone a few hours.

When she hadn't returned by nightfall, Mr. Blake called hospitals, police stations and friends in a futile attempt to locate her, he said.

"Holly was very responsible," Mr. Blake said, barely able to hold back tears. "She would not leave those children without calling."

Prosecutors called some of Ms. Blake's co-workers and her boss at Spangler's Truck Stop in Adams County, Pa., who testified that she was never late for work and always called if she couldn't make it.

Pennsylvania state police officers began investigating Ms. Blake's disappearance as a missing persons case but ultimately connected her to VanMetre and traced him to a Chattanooga, Tenn. motel. He was arrested there.

Theodore Kotula, the Pennsylvania trooper who was primary investigator on the Blake disappearance, testified and that he and Cpl. Lester Freehling questioned VanMetre in Chattanooga on Oct. 3, 1991. Trooper Kotula said the defendant confessed to killing Ms. Blake, and kidnapping and raping another Pennsylvania woman.

A jury in Adams County, Pa. convicted VanMetre guilty of the kidnap-rape last July.

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