A key witness who said she helped David A. Dicus dump his wife's body after he strangled her began what is expected to be at least two days of testimony yesterday, most of it contentious, as the defense tries to portray her as an unstable psychiatric patient who chronically lies.
On the witness stand yesterday, Catherine S. McNicholas, 41, described nightmarish events of the early morning hours of July 29, 1995, saying she lied for three years about her involvement, because she feared that Dicus would do to her and her children what he did to his wife, Terry Lee Keefer.
Dicus, 41, of Glen Burnie, is charged with first-degree murder in the case that is being heard by Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth without a jury.
Much of the defense will hinge on the ability of defense attorney Gill Cochran to discredit McNicholas and the story she told a year ago in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
In disjointed testimony yesterday, Cochran got her to admit she had given a wrong address for herself under oath a few hours earlier and that she was taking numerous drugs, some for psychiatric disorders. She also admitted she had not taken at least one of the drugs for several days before she talked to police.
Cochran is expected to bring in other witnesses in an attempt to depict McNicholas as a liar whose perception is skewed.
Much of her testimony bolstered the state's case. In opening remarks, Assistant State's Attorney Frank Ragione said McNicholas knew information that only someone who had been involved in Dicus' disposal of the body would know. McNicholas said Dicus planned to make it appear that his wife's car was disabled with a flat tire and that she had been the victim of an unknown attacker. Ragione said experts found the flat tire part was true; the tire lost air because of a puncture in the sidewall.
"That tire was actually flattened while the car was standing still," the veteran prosecutor said.
Dicus told police that he and his wife argued late on the night of July 28 at their home in Glen Burnie, and she left. He reported her missing July 30, 1995. The body was found in Howard County five weeks later.
Cochran claimed police did a sloppy investigation, discounting witnesses who said they saw Keefer alive July 29, hours after McNicholas claims she helped Dicus dispose of the body before dawn. Some of that information will be allowed without witnesses because those tips were not turned over to the defense as required and the witnesses cannot be found.
McNicholas and Dicus were in the early stages of an affair at the time of Keefer's death. McNicholas said he wanted to divorce Keefer, but an "attorney told him chances of him winning custody of his son were nil" and Dicus said he could not bear that. She said she told Dicus she was reluctant to get further involved with him because he was married.
"He said, 'I guess I'll just have to kill my wife,' " she said.
McNicholas said Dicus called her about 2 a.m. July 29, demanding that she come over immediately. She did, and saw a large bundle tied with pantyhose on the kitchen table -- Keefer's body. She said she helped him get it into Keefer's car and they drove to a deserted spot near Scaggsville, in Howard County, where they took the body out of the car.
"He unrolled the bundle, and her body, her body rolled out," McNicholas said, her voice quavering. "When she was unbound, he took his foot, and he shoved the body down a small hill, and it rolled until it struck a tree."
She said they littered the roads on the way to Dicus' home with Keefer's purse and its contents.
'I was so afraid'
McNicholas testified that she went home, and Dicus staged the flat tire. Later that day, they took Dicus' son to see "Pulp Fiction," but left early because the violent movie upset the boy, now a high school student, she said.
She repeated Dicus' description of killing Keefer in bed. "He put his hands around her throat as tightly as he could and increased the pressure," letting up after she stopped thrashing, McNicholas said.
She told no one, she said, and soon moved in with Dicus.
"He had threatened me and my family, and I was so afraid," she said.
Letters in which she claimed Dicus threatened her will be aired in court today.
She left Dicus in January 1996, and she later told a boyfriend what happened. He led police to her.
At an earlier hearing, Dicus appeared bedraggled, with a ponytail and bushy beard. Yesterday, his hair was cut, and he appeared to listen intently to McNicholas' testimony.