from the Iowa District Court for Henry County, Mark Kruse,
defendant appeals his conviction for first-degree murder.
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, (until withdrawal), and
Maria Ruhtenberg, Assistant Appellate Defender, for
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle Hanson, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and Schumacher, JJ.
a murder case without a body. Michael Syperda does not
contest that Iowa follows the no-body-required rule in
prosecuting homicides. But he argues the State did not prove
beyond a reasonable doubt his estranged wife Elizabeth was
dead or that he killed her. Because the totality of evidence
supports the district court's finding that Michael acted
with malice aforethought to cause Elizabeth's death, we
affirm his murder conviction. But because the State did not
prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Michael acted with the
specific intent to kill, we reverse the first-degree murder
conviction and remand for entry of judgment and sentence on
appellate counsel, Michael also challenges the district
court's suppression ruling and its admission of
prior-bad-acts evidence. We decline to reverse the district
court on those grounds. Finally, contrary to the State's
position, we do not believe new legislation bars us from
considering Michael's pro se supplemental brief. That
brief raises several claims of ineffective assistance of
trial counsel-one of which we reject for lack of prejudice
and the remaining claims we preserve for possible
postconviction-relief (PCR) proceedings.
Facts and Prior Proceedings
Syperda went missing on July 16, 2000. She was living in Mt.
Pleasant and had recently separated from her husband,
Michael. They met when Elizabeth was thirteen years old and
lived in the same Truckee, California, neighborhood as
Michael's family. Michael hired Elizabeth to babysit his
two children. After a few years, Michael and his family moved
to Winfield, Iowa. Michael decided to bring along then
seventeen-year-old Elizabeth. Elizabeth's mother, Donna
Forshee, was against the move and tried to dissuade her
daughter from going, even calling child-protection services.
But to no avail. Donna maintained a long-distance
relationship with her daughter after the move.
Iowa, Elizabeth graduated from high school in May 1997. Donna
attended the ceremony and gave her daughter an emerald and
diamond ring as a graduation gift. Elizabeth cherished that
Michael divorced his then wife, Sally Crill, and started a
romantic relationship with Elizabeth. Around the same time,
Elizabeth became friends with Harper Tracey through their
church. During their friendship, Tracey noticed injuries to
Elizabeth on five or six occasions. Those injuries included
finger marks on Elizabeth's neck and bruising on her
abdomen. Tracey's daughter, Sadee, knew Michael's
children through church and would sometimes play at their
house in Winfield. When she was about seven, Sadee remembers
visiting the Syperda children and seeing Michael
"shove" Elizabeth down a flight of stairs onto her
also recalled an incident when Elizabeth came to her trailer
"frantic and scared" after fleeing a violent
altercation at Michael's house. Elizabeth confided she
was afraid of Michael and "couldn't take any more of
the abuse." Tracey noticed Elizabeth's abdomen was
"very bruised" and she had marks on her arms.
Elizabeth stayed a full month with Tracey in her trailer.
that month, Michael drove to the trailer almost every day to
engage in intimidation tactics. He would park his truck on
the street, within ten steps of the trailer, and
"taunt" Elizabeth. Specifically, he made these
He would tell her that he would keep her from the children.
He told her that he would get rid of her and nobody would
care and nobody would find her. He would leave notes on the
doorstep. He left a torn cat collar with a note that said if
she didn't come back, she'd disappear like the cat.
And threatened to hurt the animals, threatened her with
videotapes and pictures that he had.
as six times, Tracey witnessed Michael threatening to kill
Elizabeth and dispose of her body. Tracey called law
enforcement to stop Michael's behavior but was
eventually left the trailer to live with Michael. They
married in January 1998. Tracey attended the wedding, despite
having tried to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying him. Michael
then cut off Tracey's contact with Elizabeth. Elizabeth
eventually told Tracey not come to Michael's house
anymore because those were Michael's instructions.
was not the only person worried about Elizabeth marrying
Michael. Donna did not come to Iowa for her daughter's
wedding because she did not approve of the relationship. But
Elizabeth did visit California to celebrate her younger
brother's high school graduation in June 2000. Still in
Iowa, Michael started calling at all hours over the three
days that Elizabeth stayed with her mother. Michael was not
happy because he believed Elizabeth's mother was
pressuring her not to return to Iowa.
placate Michael, Elizabeth decided to leave Donna's house
and stay with her childhood friend, Shannon Gerber. Gerber
had stayed in touch with Elizabeth since her move to Iowa.
They tried to talk monthly by "sneaking in phone calls
when Mike wasn't around." Michael shifted his
calling to Gerber's house, leaving so many messages that
they filled Gerber's answering machine. Gerber recalled
the majority of the calls were threats. Michael yelled at
Elizabeth and threatened to kill her if she did not return
home. Michael also threatened to kill Elizabeth's mother
and brother as well as Gerber and her young son. The calls
continued all hours of the day and night until Gerber's
husband unplugged the phone. Gerber implored Elizabeth not to
return to Iowa:
I didn't want her to go because I was worried I would
never see her again, and I took every back road I could
possibly think of to the airport . . . to get her to miss her
plane. . . . And her flight was delayed and she got on the
Mount Pleasant, Elizabeth took a job at Experian, where she
met co-worker, Sara Thomas. Thomas lived two blocks from the
Syperdas' house. Thomas would pick up Elizabeth and drop
her off after work. During those commutes, Thomas noticed
bruises on Elizabeth's face, arms, and hands.
became romantically involved with Elizabeth despite the fact
Thomas was then living with Terri Thrasher. Once when Michael
was gone, his two children peeked through the keyhole and saw
Thomas and Elizabeth having sex in Michael's bedroom.
When the women learned the children had seen them, Elizabeth
moved her belongings to Thomas's apartment.
move upset both Michael-and Thrasher. When Thrasher returned
to the apartment, she found more than thirty messages from
Michael on the answering machine. In the first message,
Michael begged Elizabeth to return home. But in the next few
messages, he grew angry and cursed at her. When Thrasher went
outside to walk the dog, Michael approached and asked her to
call Thomas at work to get Elizabeth to come home. Thrasher
Elizabeth and Thomas reached the apartment, they saw Michael
and Thrasher waiting for them. Scared, Elizabeth and Thomas
sped away. Michael yelled at Thrasher to follow them. The two
pairs faced off in a nearby Hy-Vee parking lot. Thrasher
confronted Thomas. Michael approached Elizabeth-
"cursing and screaming and threatening"-and dragged
her out through the window of the car. During the struggle,
Elizabeth suffered a lacerated rib, and her shirt was torn.
Thomas and Elizabeth fled to a nearby gas station where they
reported the assault to police. The State charged Michael
with first-degree burglary and domestic-abuse assault. The
court approved a no-contact order protecting Elizabeth.
following days, Elizabeth stayed at Thomas's apartment.
Michael would sit across the street and yell at them or call
them names. Thomas received numerous phone calls, but nobody
would respond when she answered. She reported the calls to
the police, who had the phone company put a "trap"
on her line to register who was calling. Between June 26 and
July 16, Michael called Thomas's apartment 162 times.
day Elizabeth disappeared, July 16, Michael started phoning
the apartment around 3:00 in the afternoon, logging more than
a dozen calls through the evening. He last called at 10:56
p.m. When Thomas left for work around 10:30 that night,
Elizabeth was sleeping on the couch. When Thomas returned
around 4:00 a.m., the front door was locked. And the dog was
still penned in the bathroom like when she left the
apartment. But Elizabeth was gone.
sure what to make of the situation, Thomas went to bed. When
she woke up, she grew concerned that Elizabeth had not
returned. Elizabeth departed without her purse, clothing, and
other personal items. Elizabeth left no note. Thomas called
the police and, after waiting the required twenty-four hours,
filed a missing-person report.
17, Michael was scheduled to work. His friend, Jarrod
Krabill, was supposed to watch Michael's children.
Krabill testified when he arrived at Michael's house
around 5:30 a.m., he found Michael was "pretty
intoxicated." Krabill testified Michael told him
Elizabeth had stayed overnight and left around 5:00 a.m.
Michael decided not to go to work that morning.
called Michael the next day, July 18, to ask if he had heard
from Elizabeth. He said he had not. On July 20, officers came
to his house to let him know she had been reported missing.
Michael said it was coincidental he had taken a sick day from
work on July 17-the day after Elizabeth disappeared. Michael
also said "due to their break-up he hadn't been
eating and had been getting cramps."
early September 2000, Larry Hedlund, who was then an agent
with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI),
interviewed Michael. Michael told the agent he and Elizabeth
"got along fine" and denied any abuse in their
relationship. When asked about his June 16 assault on
Elizabeth, Michael said "basically that it was out of
character for him and that he mixed alcohol with his emotions
and he shouldn't have done that." In a similar vein,
Michael initially denied making harassing phone calls to
Thomas's apartment. But when confronted with phone
records, Michael took responsibility for the calls. When the
agent pointed out that Michael's calls to the apartment
stopped on the night Elizabeth turned up missing, Michael got
teary eyed and commented "his situation was not looking
addition, Michael said he was "just trying to keep his
ass out of jail" and "he didn't want to be
blamed or held responsible for this." Michael took issue
with Hedlund's suggestions Elizabeth was dead and
insisted "he never hit a woman." The agent also
recalled Michael casting aspersions on Elizabeth, saying
"he didn't screw up, she did."
asked about his access to vehicles, Michael told the agent
his vehicle was "broken down" with some kind of
clutch or fuel problem. Investigators later learned Michael
was able to drive his Toyota Land Cruiser to the
mechanic's shop on July 21.
that interview, the police obtained a warrant to search
Michael's home. In Michael's bedroom, police searched
an unlocked safe. Either inside or on top of the safe, an
officer located a gold "2000" pendant (that Michael
had given Elizabeth) and the V-shaped emerald and diamond
ring she received from her mother as a graduation gift.
Thomas testified Elizabeth was sentimental about the ring and
never took it off except to bathe.
police renewed their investigation in 2013, Lieutenant Lyle
Murray asked Michael about his possession of Elizabeth's
prized ring. Michael said she must have left it behind when
she moved out. When Officer Murray explained he knew from a
police photograph that Elizabeth was wearing the ring during
the June 16, 2000 assault, Michael could not explain how it
ended up in his bedroom.
investigating her finances, police discovered Elizabeth had
opened a bank account under her maiden name on July 7. Her
last transaction occurred July 13. The account balance was
$81.15 after her disappearance. Elizabeth never claimed her
final paycheck from her job at Experian.
her disappearance in 2000, investigators searched
seventy-nine different locations but never found
Elizabeth's body. They entered Elizabeth's
information in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC)
missing-persons database. In the nearly two decades since
Elizabeth disappeared, the database logged no
"hits" nor was any information provided by family
members, friends, or acquaintances.
Lieutenant Murray probed Elizabeth's disappearance with
"a new set of eyes," the State obtained a grand
jury indictment charging Michael with first-degree murder in
November 2017. He waived his right to a jury trial. After a
bench trial, the district court found him guilty as charged.
Michael moved for a new trial, alleging the court's