Press-Republican

May 23, 2013

Wife testifies in manslaughter case

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Blood evidence consumed much of Wednesday morning’s court testimony in the case against Michael D. Rivers.

He is accused of first-degree manslaughter, gang assault and possession of a weapon in the death of Robert M. Rennie, who was found dead by the closed bridge below Mill Hill in Keeseville on Aug. 26 last year.

Nearly 100 articles of evidence had been entered late Tuesday by District Attorney Kristy Sprague and defense attorney Gregory LaDuke.

And each attorney referred to a series of photographs and footwear of the three men involved in the case — Rivers; Scott E. Denno, 20, who was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and gang assault two weeks ago; and Paul J. Taylor, 39, who goes to trial next month. He is charged with second-degree murder, gang assault and possession of a weapon.

SWABBED GUARDRAIL

Sprague put State Police Senior Investigator Allan Wright on the stand at 9 a.m. Wednesday, showing the witness and jurors several photos of Rennie’s body where it was found immediately in front of the barricaded bridge on the River Street end.

Wright said the two wide guardrails in front of the bridge had drops of blood on them, and they confirmed that the photographs in evidence were from where Rennie was found.

Also, below the guardrails, blood was pooled on a piece of asphalt, which he told the court was pried from the ground and kept as evidence.

Police swabbed the guardrail, Wright said, to identify whose blood was there.

The photographs showed droplets of blood with vertical stains dripping down the guardrail.

Through the morning, Rivers, 36, sat in court beside LaDuke, taking notes on a yellow legal pad.

YELLOW FLAGS

Sprague asked Wright if they searched other areas, and through more than an hour’s worth of testimony, established several areas along Mill Hill where, he said, blood evidence was located.

An area some distance up the hill — across from a pull-off parking area — was marked with 14 yellow flags in photographs.

Wright said the yellow markers indicated where police found blood on the pavement.

He said police also collected a T-shirt that belonged to Taylor from the apartment he was sharing with Samantha LaCroix, Rennie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend.

And they collected a pair of Calvin Klein jeans from the master bedroom of Rivers’s mobile home on Grove Street in Keeseville.

“They were on the floor,” Wright said, “and appeared to have stains on them consistent with blood stains.”

BOOT PRINT

LaDuke asked Wright in cross-examination whether police secured the scene before walking toward Rennie’s body.

Wright said they had.

Then LaDuke showed the investigator a photograph police had taken of a boot print in the sand.

Sprague later asked Wright if he recognized the photograph.

“Is that the other side of the bridge,” she asked, “and there was an (police) officer stationed there?”

“Yes,” Wright said.

LaDuke also provided the court and the jury a photograph showing a gash found on the back of Rennie’s head.

A second police officer, Trever Giroux, testified that he had taken the photographs, including the one of the boot print.

“The reason I took this is there is a footprint in it,” he said. “It was going away from … the River Street side (of the bridge).”

RIVERS’S SNEAKERS

At this point in testimony, Assistant District Attorney Michael Langey showed the court sneakers worn by Rivers and boots worn by Taylor and Denno.

Giroux said he collected the footwear from Rivers and Taylor when the men were being questioned by police on Aug. 26.

The boots worn by Denno were collected at a later date, Giroux said.

LACROIX TESTIMONY

LaCroix, who also dated Taylor, testified on Wednesday that she had arranged for Rennie to visit her on the night of Aug. 25, 2012, at the apartment she was sharing with Taylor.

“I told Robert I would talk to Paul and make sure we could get along,” the 25-year-old mother of three small children told the court. 

“They seemed kind of friendly, but Paul (Taylor) seemed kind of irritated. A while after, Paul ended up leaving.”

LaCroix said Rennie left shortly after that.

As he was walking home, earlier testimony said, he encountered Denno and Rivers on Front Street.

THREATS

LaCroix testified that she worked with Rivers and Taylor at an apple packaging plant and that Angela Rivers, wife of Michael Rivers, babysat her children.

At work, LaCroix said, she had talked with Mr. Rivers about some bruises on her neck, telling him they were the result of a fight she’d had with Rennie.

LaCroix said Mr. Rivers told her in that conversation that “he was going to teach Robert Rennie a lesson.”

Then, LaCroix said in court, “I went back and told Robert about it, and Robert threatened to burn down Michael’s trailer.”

LaCroix said she then told Mr. Rivers about Rennie’s return comment.

The defense attorney asked LaCroix if Rennie was at her apartment on a regular basis.

“Yes,” she answered, suggesting he was there “daily.”

Taylor had moved in with her in the second week of August 2012.

WIFE TESTIFIES

In court Wednesday, Mrs. Rivers took the stand to testify about seeing her husband, Taylor and Denno assault Rennie.

Mr. Rivers’s attorney invoked spousal privilege protection, which Judge Richard Meyer ruled would apply only to comments made between the couple in private and without others present.

Mrs. Rivers told much the same story as she had during testimony in Denno’s trial, describing how she placed a phone call to 911 to report Rennie was with LaCroix in violation of a protection order.

Then Mr. and Mrs. Rivers waited in their van with Taylor and Denno, parking on an upper lot on Mill Hill Road.

When the police didn’t come, Mrs. Rivers said, her husband and Denno got out of the van, and she and Taylor went to a store.

A short time later, Denno and Mr. Rivers walked up toward Front Street and met up with Rennie, according to earlier testimony, and words and some fisticuffs ensued.

Mrs. Rivers, who had returned from the store, said she heard the two but did not see them until they turned onto Mill Hill and walked toward where she was parked. Taylor had left the van to urinate, she said.

She said Denno and her husband were holding Rennie up by his arms.

“Mr. Rennie looked like a child that didn’t want to walk with his parents,” she said.

‘RAN DOWN HILL’

Halfway past the van, she said, in the middle of the road, they stopped.

“My husband and Robert were calling each other names. They went to swing at each other. That’s when Mr. Taylor reappeared in the picture.”

Mrs. Rivers said Rennie was brutally kicked, then said Taylor struck Rennie in the head and knocked him down.

“When Mr. Rennie fell to the ground,” she said, “it was a bunch of legs kicking.”

“Whose legs?” Langey asked.

“Paul’s, my husband, Michael’s and Scott’s,” she replied.

Taylor kicked Rennie with such force, she told the court, that his blows lifted the man’s 118-pound frame off the ground.

Mrs. Rivers characterized her husband’s kicks as “like you would kick a kickball.”

She said she watched the attack for “a minute or less” then screamed, “Stop, stop stop,” causing Mr. Rivers and Denno to halt.

Taylor kept kicking, Mrs. Rivers said, and when Mr. Rivers tried to intercede, Taylor pushed him away, saying, “I’m not f****** done yet.”

According to her testimony, the kicking stopped when Mrs. Rivers turned on the van lights.

“Mr. Rennie jumped up and ran down the hill,” she said, toward the iron bridge.

THREE STATEMENTS

After that, Mrs. Rivers said, she lost sight of him.

She drove her husband, Taylor and Denno to the Riverses’ Grove Street mobile home and there heard the men brag about their fight, she said.

Then Mr. Rivers drove Taylor home to LaCroix’s house, she continued, saying Denno and the Riverses’ son Brandon went with him.

As they left, her husband told her “to keep my mouth shut,” Mrs. Rivers testified.

Her husband, son and Denno returned about 5 to 10 minutes later, without Taylor, she said.

She admitted giving three statements to police that did not contain the entirety of what she had seen that night. 

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com