CHILTON, Wis. — A cousin of a murdered photographer choked up on the stand Tuesday as she described how her emotions went from surprise to fear when she spotted what appeared to be her missing relative’s vehicle in a salvage yard run by Steven Avery’s family.
Avery, 44, is on trial for murder in the death of Teresa Halbach on Halloween 2005 near the family’s salvage yard. Avery had been released from prison two years earlier after serving 18 years for a rape that DNA analysis showed another man committed.
Pam Sturm, a second cousin of Halbach, said she and her daughter offered to search the salvage yard Nov. 5, two days after Halbach was reported missing, even though it wasn’t officially part of a grassroots search that day by other family and friends.
After about 30 minutes of looking through junked vehicles in the 40-acre lot, she saw a bluish-green vehicle partially concealed under branches, pieces of wood and car parts.
“Well, my heart started going, ‘Oh my goodness maybe this is it,’’’ she said as she tried to hold back tears.
She said she immediately screamed for her daughter to come and look.
“I became very, very worried for our safety because, 90 percent, this is probably Teresa’s car and we’re in danger,’’ she said.
She then called Calumet County Sheriff Jerry Pagel to tell him of the discovery, she said.
She dabbed her eyes as an audio recording of her call was played in court. She read part of the vehicle identification number and asked if it matched Halbach’s car.
“Where are you?’’ Pagel asked.
Sturm: “No you have to tell me if this is the car.’’
Pagel: “OK stop I can’t tell you anything. Where are you?’’
Sturm: “I’m at Avery salvage.’’
Pagel: “OK are you on their property … with their permission or not?’’
She said she had their permission.
“Stay right where you are. Do not touch anything. Do not go anywhere around that vehicle,’’ Pagel said.
Special prosecutor Ken Kratz asked Sturm if she felt lucky to have found the sports utility vehicle so soon.
“Not lucky. God showed us the way, I know that,’’ she said.
Halbach, of Calumet County, worked for a Green Bay photography studio and took photos for Auto Trader magazine on the side. She went to the salvage yard Oct. 31, 2005, to photograph a minivan an Avery family member wanted to sell through the magazine. It was one of three appointments she had that day.
After Halbach’s vehicle was found, investigators said they found her charred remains in a burn pit.
Angela Schuster, who was an operations supervisor at the magazine, testified earlier Tuesday that Halbach had gone to the Avery property six times from June 2005 to Halloween to take pictures of cars, a trailer and a sports utility vehicle.
Schuster, called by the prosecution, also said the magazine gave Halbach a Canon Powershot A310 camera, pieces of which were found in a burn barrel on the Avery property.
Manitowoc County Circuit Judge Patrick Willis would not allow Dawn Pliszka, an Auto Trader receptionist at the time, to testify about one of Halbach’s previous encounters with Avery.
“She had stated to me that he had come out in a towel,’’ Pliszka said while the jury was outside of the courtroom. “I just said, ‘Really?’ and then she said, ‘Yeah,’ and laughed and said kinda ‘Ew.’’’
Willis said he could not allow the testimony because the date wasn’t clear and few details were known about the alleged encounter.
But Pliszka did testify before the jury that Avery called her on Oct. 31, 2005, to request the photographer who had been out to the property previously. Schuster said she talked to Halbach by phone around 11 a.m. that day to tell her of the appointment at the Avery property.
Kratz said in his opening statement Monday that evidence and testimony would provide pieces of a puzzle proving Avery’s guilt.
Defense attorney Dean Strang had told the jury that deputies were so sure Avery killed Halbach and burned her body that they planted evidence and once again arrested him for a crime he didn’t commit.
Avery is charged with first-degree intentional homicide, mutilating a corpse, false imprisonment and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Kratz has said the trial could last six weeks.
Avery’s 17-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, faces trial in April on charges that he was involved in Halbach’s death.