Testimony in Koula trial winding down - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

State's Witness Shoots Down Koula Defense's Hitman Theory

Posted: Updated: June 21, 2012 07:19 PM CDT

LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW) – Eric Koula's defense team continued Thursday to push the theory that his parents, Dennis and Merna, were killed by the gun of a professional hitman.

Among Thursday's witnesses for the defense were Paul Bagstad and Steve Burgess.

Bagstad, who lives near the crime scene, said on the stand that he saw a suspicious man staking out the neighborhood where the Koula's lived on May 18, 2010.

The state alleges their homicides occurred on the evening of May 21, 2010 sometime between 5:40 pm and 6 pm.

Burgess was also a neighbor of the late Dennis and Merna, and testified he received threatening phone calls for four months before the Koulas turned up dead.

The caller said things like "you're toast" and "you'll be reduced to ashes."

Burgess said the last call came on either May 22 or May 23.

"Did the person sound intoxicated when they called?" asked District Attorney Tim Gruenke.  

"There were times when they sounded intoxicated, yes," Burgess responded.

The prosecution also called its first rebuttal witness – former FBI agent James Wagner.

Wagner specialized in investigating organized crime in the cities of New York and Chicago.

He said many of those crimes were orchestrated kills.

"In your experience, are you aware of any cases where a professional killer called up drunk and make a threat like, 'you're toast?'" asked Prosecutor Gary Freyberg, of the Wisconsin Department of Justice.  

"No sir, I've never heard of that," said Wagner.

Wagner also testified about how Dennis and Merna were each killed by a single gunshot wound to the head, and how there were no shell casings or forensic evidence left at the crime scene.

The defense had previously argued both indicated the Koula homicides were the work of a professional assassin.

"I have not come across an example of an organized hit where there was only one shot," Wagner said. "It's always multiple shots, into the head, and in most instances they emptied the gun."

"in your experience with homicides and professional killers, are they concerned about making a mess?" asked Freyberg.

"No. The goal is to kill. If it makes a mess, so be it," Wagner said.

Wagner also hinted the threatening phone calls to burgess were likely unrelated to the killings.

Burgess testified that his last name appears on a "monument stone" in front of his house.

"Do you have an opinion to a reasonable degree of professional certainty about how likely it is for a professional killer to get the wrong house?" Freyberg asked, "Especially when the targeted victim's name is on a stone monument out in front of the victim's house?"

"I've never heard of a situation like that," Wagner said. "Frankly the person would be in a lot of trouble if that happened."

"The hitman would be?"

"The hit man would be," Wagner clarified.

The prosecution is expected to conclude calling its rebuttal witnesses Friday.

It's expected the jury will begin deliberations early next week.


LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW) - Testimony is expected to conclude Friday in the Eric Koula trial.

Koula is accused of killing his parents Dennis and Merna Koula in their Barre Mills home in May, 2010.  Prosecutors contend his motive was to collect an inheritance.

The defense has one witness left who will be on the stand on Friday.  During Thursday's testimony, they continued to bolster their theory that the killings were the work of a professional hitman.

Testimony came from one of Dennis and Merna's neighbor, Steve Burgess.  Burgess, who works for a local bank, testified he'd been receiving threatening phone calls between December 2009 and late May 2010.  The calls stopped the weekend of the shootings.

Burgess' testimony came after the owner of a nearby restaurant said she saw a suspicious man enter, not make eye contact with anyone, and stay in the bathroom for nearly an hour before leaving.

The defense's argument is that a professional hitman, targeting Burgess, was staking out the neighborhood. That person made a mistake and hit the wrong house.

During cross examination, however, District Attorney Tim Gruenke asked Burgess if the caller ever sounded intoxicated.  Burgess said yes.

He also had Burgess admit that his last name appears on a marker in the front of his home.

Due to the witness schedule, prosecutors began calling rebuttal witnesses Thursday afternoon. They included James W. Wagner, a former FBI agent called to testify about professional hits.  He said that he was not aware of any professional killers using a single shot on victims.  Wagner said many times those killers would empty the gun on a victim in order to accomplish their goal of killing the victim.

Pete Zervakis will have more on the today's testimony on Live at Five, the 6pm, and 10pm Reports and on wxow.com. 


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