First responders, friend describe crime scene as McKeever murder trial opens

Pamela Cekala breaks down in tears while describing finding her friend Delma Murphy stabbed to death in November of 2015 on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever, Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Murphy in the home they shared, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity, is being tried before a three judge panel. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Pamela Cekala breaks down in tears while describing finding her friend Delma Murphy stabbed to death in November of 2015 on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever, Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Murphy in the home they shared, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity, is being tried before a three judge panel. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Delma Murphy's best friend started to worry when Murphy stopped answering her phone one weekend in November 2015, according to testimony Monday in New London Superior Court.

Murphy's supervisor at Ocean Beach Park suspected something was wrong when she didn't show up for work.

Their worst fears were realized on Nov. 18, 2015, when the friend, Pamela Cekala of Westerly, went to Murphy's home at 53 Cole St. in New London.

Murphy, 46, who had worked in the region's restaurant industry for decades and who was, according to those who knew her, a good person who would help anyone, had been stabbed multiple times. Her longtime partner and alleged killer, David McKeever, had covered her body in towels and a blanket and left Murphy's body in her bed for as long as five days while continuing to live amid the evidence of their last fight — shattered glass, empty beer cans, blood-spattered walls and a bloody kitchen knife.

Cekala, former Ocean Beach banquet manager Deborah Wheeler, first responders and the operator of a Hodges Square package store testified Monday as McKeever's murder trial began before a three-judge panel.

The 50-year-old McKeever, who is legally blind, hearing impaired and has a history of mental illness and substance abuse, has pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

Prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla began the task of proving to the judges, Arthur C. Hadden, Barbara Bailey Jongbloed and Hunchu Kwak, that McKeever killed Murphy. Tytla said he expects to call three additional witnesses Tuesday. Defense attorney Christopher Duby is expected to call a psychiatrist, Ish P. Bhalla, when the trial resumes on Monday, Oct. 29.

The judges will then deliberate to determine whether McKeever committed the crime and whether the defense has proven by a proponderance of the evidence that he is not guilty by reason of insanity.

Should McKeever successfully mount the insanity defense, he would be committed to the Whiting Forensic Hospital under the supervision of the state's Psychiatric Security Review Board.

Monday's testimony, elicited by Tytla with assistance from Inspector Timothy Pitkin, was devoid of the unsual lengthy explanations of law and process required when a jury is hearing the case, and the defense's cross-examinations of witnesses were brief. Several of the victim's family members were in the courtroom gallery, including her parents, sister, brother and aunt. Family members have attended about two dozen of McKeever's court appearances leading up to the trial.

Cekala, the best friend, testified that she usually spoke with Murphy daily and often visited Murphy and McKeever. She had last been to the home on Friday, Nov. 13, the day authorities believe McKeever stabbed Murphy.

McKeever no longer worked and didn't leave the house often in recent years, according to Cekala. He was quiet but could hold his own in a conversation, she said. The couple loved "The Walking Dead" TV show, McKeever more than Murphy, Cekala testified. He loved detective shows and often talked about current court cases.

Sometimes, she said, McKeever would say things that were "off the wall." He claimed to have talked to journalist Anderson Cooper, but Cekala said she and Murphy knew that wasn't true. And one time, he said there were UFOs hovering over the house watching them and that "they" were going to come and "get them," she testified.

McKeever was acting strange on that Friday, Cekala said, but when she asked Murphy if everything was OK, Murphy said, "Oh yeah." But Murphy didn't call her that night as promised, and didn't respond to calls and messages  in the coming days. The following Wednesday, Cekala drove to the small, two-story yellow home, where she found Murphy's silver Mitsubishi parked out front and McKeever sitting on the front stairs listening to music at full volume.

Cekala said she found the home "trashed," with broken glass from a china cabinet everywhere. McKeever said he and Murphy had been drinking and had a bad fight, and that Murphy was upstairs sleeping. But as Cekala started cleaning up the mess, she said he told her, "I did something bad. I think I killed her."

Cekala said she ran up the stairs and found her friend's body, cold to the touch. She ran out and called 911.

City patrol officer Doreen Coe, arriving simultaneously with several other officers, said the windows were open and the house in disarray. She found McKeever, dressed in his pajamas, sitting in a chair in the corner of the living room, shaking. She asked him what was going on and he said he was going to lay down on the floor.

"He said, 'You're going to want me there, because I killed her,'" Coe testified.

Sgt. Scott Johnson, now retired, and officer Chris Bunkley described walking up the blood-smeared stairs to the second floor, where there was a bloodied knife on the landing. They said that in the bed, only Murphy's head was visible. They determined by the discoloration of her skin that she was dead and backed out of the room.

Downstairs, Johnson testified, McKeever was alternately laughing and crying and at one point closed his eyes and appeared to be sleeping. He awoke after several minutes, stood up and took an aggressive stance and a struggle ensued until the officers were able to handcuff him. McKeever went limp, Johnson said, and they had to carry him outside, where a waiting ambulance took him to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

New London firefighter/emergency medical technician Thomas Feliciano testified that he was escorted to the bedroom to observe Murphy, and after he described her appearance to an emergency room doctor, she was pronounced dead. Detective Sgt. Lawrence M. Keating testified that he instructed officers not to touch anything in the home, put up crime scene tape and posted an officer in the back of the house as the investigation got underway.

Detective Richard Curcuro testified that after McKeever was brought from the hospital to police headquarters, he was quiet and cooperative as he underwent a body survey that revealed abrasions about the body and bruising on the back of an arm. Curcuro and detective Chris Kramer began an interview of McKeever in a third floor conference room and read him his rights, but that they stopped when McKeever decided he didn't want to talk. A short time later, McKeever, then in a holding cell on the bottom floor, said he wanted to talk to detectives. He was brought back upstairs, but that interview didn't go forward either, Curcuro testified.

Kramer testified that the next day, he and Keating met with the owner of a package store in Hodges Square and retrieved a video recording showing Murphy making a purchase at 1:46 p.m. on the previous Friday. It may have been the last time she was seen alive outside of her home.

Sarika Patel, operator of a Williams Street package store, testified that McKeever went into the store twice that following Wednesday, using Murphy's card to make purchases. He told her Murphy was home sleeping, she said, and as he left the second time he hugged her husband and thanked them for always helping him. He never did that before, she said.

k.florin@theday.com

New London police officer Doreen Coe, right, answers questions from prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, left, on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London police officer Doreen Coe, right, answers questions from prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, left, on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Defense attorney Christofer Duby, left, and prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, second from left, confer with the three-judge panel, from left, Judge Hunchu Kwak, Judge Arthur C. Hadden, and Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, hearing testimony on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy at their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Defense attorney Christofer Duby, left, and prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, second from left, confer with the three-judge panel, from left, Judge Hunchu Kwak, Judge Arthur C. Hadden, and Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, hearing testimony on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy at their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
David McKeever listens to testimony on the opening day of his trial Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
David McKeever listens to testimony on the opening day of his trial Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A three-judge panel, from left, Judge Hunchu Kwak, Judge Arthur C. Hadden, and Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, review photos being entered into evidence by prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, not pictured, on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy at their New London home in November of 2015, Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who has plead not guilty by reason of insanity, is being tried before a three judge panel. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A three-judge panel, from left, Judge Hunchu Kwak, Judge Arthur C. Hadden, and Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, review photos being entered into evidence by prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, not pictured, on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy at their New London home in November of 2015, Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who has plead not guilty by reason of insanity, is being tried before a three judge panel. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Retired New London police sergeant Scott Johnson testifies on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Retired New London police sergeant Scott Johnson testifies on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in their New London home in November of 2015, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Pamela Cekala answers a question from prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, left, on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever, Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in the home they shared in New London, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Pamela Cekala answers a question from prosecutor Lawrence Tytla, left, on the opening day of the trial of David McKeever, Monday, October 22, 2018 in New London Superior Court. McKeever, who is accused of fatally stabbing Delma Murphy in the home they shared in New London, has plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and is being tried before a three judge panel instead of a jury. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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