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State v. Syperda

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 18, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
MICHAEL LEE SYPERDA, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Henry County, Mark Kruse, Judge.

         A defendant appeals his conviction for first-degree murder.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, (until withdrawal), and Maria Ruhtenberg, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle Hanson, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and Schumacher, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         This is 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.[1] 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 second-degree murder.

         Through 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.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Elizabeth 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.

         In 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 ring.

         Meanwhile, 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 knees.

         Tracey 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.

         During 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 threats:

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 many 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 unsuccessful.

         Elizabeth 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.

         Tracey 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.

         To 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 plane.

         Back in Mount Pleasant, Elizabeth took a job at Experian, where she met co-worker, Sara Thomas.[2] 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.

         Thomas 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.

         That 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 complied.

         When 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.

         In the 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.

         On the 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.

         Not 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.

         On July 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.

         Police 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."

         In 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 good."

         In 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."

         When 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.

         After 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.

         When 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.

         When 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.

         Since 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.

         After 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 ...


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