WILBER — Before the pathologist took the stand here Monday, Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson warned jurors it would be difficult to look at the photos that would be part of the doctor's presentation.
But it was important to see them to understand the state’s contention, she told them.
On two large screens behind counsel tables, pointed toward the judge's bench and away from courtgoers, jurors glanced up as Dr. Michelle Elieff pointed out details — first from the X-rays, then the photos — from Sydney Loofe’s autopsy Dec. 7, 2017.
George Loofe, her father, sat in the front row, where he’s been every day, except for when prosecutors played a three-hour plus video of an interrogation of Aubrey Trail, the man on trial, accused of murdering his 24-year-old daughter.
Sydney Loofe went missing after going on a date with Trail’s fiance, Bailey Boswell, on the night of Nov. 15, 2017. Loofe and Boswell had matched on Tinder, an online dating app, and at their first meeting the night before had driven around Lincoln smoking pot in Boswell’s car.
During this date, however, Loofe’s cellphone would go dead in Wilber and never come back on.
And the investigation quickly led to Trail and Boswell, the couple who had moved to a basement apartment here five months earlier.
After investigators found Loofe’s remains, Trail would lead them to her phone, snapped in half near a cemetery just outside of town, pitched from a car window as he, and allegedly Boswell, headed west to rural Clay County to dump garbage bags filled with her cut-up remains.
Before trial, Trail pleaded guilty to the unlawful disposal of her remains, admitting that he had dismembered her. But he maintains she died accidentally during a sexual fantasy act.
On Monday morning, the state tried to chip away at Trail’s version, asking Elieff about signs she saw during the autopsy that could suggest Loofe had struggled.
There was the small bump on the back of the top of her head, marks around the tops of her wrists from restraints and scrapes on her back. One of her earlobes had been torn, too, soon before death, she said.
On cross examination, defense attorney Joe Murray challenged the state’s theory.
“The signs of struggle that you talked about are consistent with rough, consensual sex, aren’t they?” he asked.
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“Yes, they can be,” Elieff said.
The doctor also couldn’t say if missing organs were evidence that Loofe's death had been a ritualistic killing or if animals had gotten them in the weeks before she was found.
She said it’s possible, though not terribly common, that someone could break the hyoid bone, the u-shaped bone in the back of the neck, during sexual asphyxiation.
Part of Loofe's hyoid bone and neck were missing, still Elieff said she was able to conclude that Loofe's death was a homicide, meaning she died at another’s hands, by means that included strangulation.
In the afternoon, Steven Symes, a leading forensic anthropologist from Mississippi who specializes in saw and knife mark analysis and dismemberment cases, used a model skeleton by the witness stand to show the jury how the cuts on the body were made, explaining the detail jurors could see on the screens of what he looked at to draw his conclusions in the case.
“The reason I know it’s a hacksaw is I’m getting very fine teeth,” he said.
Symes said the marks he saw on the remains pointed to a hacksaw with a blade of about 25 teeth per inch or a little bit less.
“Doctor, I’m going to hand you exhibit 763. Would these markings that you found on Sydney Loofe’s body be consistent with an object just like that?” Assistant Attorney General Mike Guinan asked him.
Symes looked at the yellow-handled Stanley brand, high-tension hacksaw with a 24-teeth-per-inch carbide blade just like the one Trail was seen on surveillance buying at Home Depot the morning of Nov. 15, 2017, less than seven hours before Loofe’s date with Boswell.
"It’s consistent with this particular purchase,” he said.
While Trail has admitted he dismembered Loofe’s body, he denied using the hacksaw he bought that day to do it when confronted by FBI agents about the timing, which prosecutors say points to premeditation.
On cross examination, Symes said he couldn’t say how much strength it would have taken to dismember the body or whether it had been carried out by a man or a woman.