The jury in the double murder trial of Christopher DiMeo finally heard testimony from the state’s key witness on Monday.
Nicole Pearce, the ex-girlfriend of DiMeo, described their months-long foray into a robbery spree that spanned New York and Connecticut from December 2004 through February 2005 – all in the name of heroin. Pearce described an addicted couple that planned jewelry store robberies to support their escalating heroin habit.
DiMeo could get the death penalty for the murders of Tim and Kim Donnelly, who were gunned down in their downtown Fairfield jewelry store just over six years ago. Pearce, who is being treated for stage four cervical cancer, gave a recorded deposition Feb. 3 at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington where she is undergoing six weeks of chemotherapy. Despite a terminal medical condition, Pearce kept to her plea bargain to testify against her former boyfriend.
The jury was transfixed by the hour and-a-half long testimony where Pearce recalled her short-lived entanglement with DiMeo, whom she met through a friend in California in September 2004. After knowing each other just a few weeks, the pair left San Marcos, Calif. and headed for New York, where they soon ran out of money and could no longer support their substance abuse. Ultimately, DiMeo robbed four jewelry stores and took three people’s lives to support his 50-bag-a-day heroin habit, Pearce testified.
Dressed in a white hospital gown wearing dark-rimmed glasses, Pearce, 29, sobbed when shown photos of the New York and Connecticut jewelry stores she scouted out for DiMeo in preparation for the robberies.
The pair, who she said started out as friends, became a couple by the time they crossed the New York border where they settled in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in the fall of 2004. After just a couple of months there, the drug-hooked couple moved to the Richmond Hill section of Queens, N.Y. Pearce testified she told DiMeo several times she wanted to stop using heroin and start a methadone program, but “he never indicated he wanted to stop getting high,” she said.
By December 2004, Pearce said her heroin use was up to a half a “bundle” – or five bags – of the drug five to eight times a day. She said DiMeo’s use was at least double her own. She went on to describe the “getting well” phase where heroin users shoot up to feel “normal” – a heroin addict can then go about their day as normal, she said, to drive a car, engage in conversation, and even go to work or school, Pearce said.
During Pearce’s video testimony, Tara Donnelly, Kim and Tim Donnelly's daughter, looked away from the screen several times as she sat close to her brother, Eric. Seated at the defense table, DiMeo intently watched Pearce on-screen during the showing of her video-recorded testimony, but as she started tearfully describing the Fairfield incident and the days leading up to the Donnelly’s deaths, DiMeo often looked down at the table, devoid of emotion.
As Pearce explained to Senior Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Corradino, she and DiMeo took enough heroin to “be well” until they ran out of money.
Pearce’s role in the robbery spree was clear-cut: she would go in to a jewelry store, take a mental picture of where the expensive jewelry was kept and remember where employees were standing, among other details. Pearce seemed to brag about her jewelry knowledge to prosecutors, telling them her mother had worked in jewelry and her family on her father’s side owned a jewelry store, giving her the ability to identify expensive gold and other jewelry.
DiMeo's former girlfriend described her role in another robbery of a Westbury, N.Y. store, where DiMeo later returned to the couple’s apartment with jewelry, money – and more heroin in early December 2004.
Describing her modus operandi in helping plan the robberies, she said, “I relayed the information to him, and told him my opinion. I thought he could get away with it easily without hurting anyone,” Pearce said.
But the tides turned when a robbery in Glen Head, N.Y. went wrong. After casing the interior of J&J Jewelry, Pearce advised DiMeo not to rob the store. But DiMeo’s mother, Maryann Taylor-Casey, encouraged him to do it anyway, she said. On Dec. 21, DiMeo not only robbed the Glen Head store, he also took the life of jeweler Thomas Renison. DiMeo is serving a life sentence for Renison's murder.
The couple then hid out in their apartment for several weeks before running out of money and drugs once again. DiMeo began getting sick and showing withdrawal symptoms, so the two drove upstate where DiMeo later robbed the Rockland Jewelry Center in Rockland, N.Y. Despite not being “well,” Pearce testified that DiMeo was coherent, understood his surroundings and was able to drive.
Prosecutors have attempted to show DiMeo's cognition was not impaired during the Donnelly incident and prove intent; meanwhile, DiMeo's defense team has attempted to poke holes in their case, claiming that DiMeo did not intend to kill.
In continuing her testimony, Pearce explained that she helped DiMeo navigate into Connecticut using a road atlas, where the couple descended on Fairfield.
Identifying sketches and business cards for state prosecutor Corradino, Pearce said on Feb. 1, 2005, she sketched the interiors of three downtown Fairfield jewelry stores. She began sobbing when the prosecution asked her to identify the sketches of Henry C. Reid & Son Jewelers on one side of paper from a legal pad, and another sketch of Donnelly Jewelers on the back side. Pearce told prosecutors the couple used phone books to locate the stores in Connecticut.
Prosecutors asked Pearce to recall her visits to Henry C. Reid, Midas Touch, Altan and Fairfield Center Jewelers – and the Donnelly’s – on the evening of Feb. 1. During this segment of testimony, Pearce appeared distraught, removing a jacket she was wearing over her hospital gown, frequently wiping away tears and sipping on water.
Following their arrests, police had seized business cards from the stores, as well as several sketches done by Pearce from the couple's apartment.
Pearce said she had a conversation with Tim Donnelly the day before he was killed, and talked to him about a necklace she wanted to have redesigned. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Donnelly, she was taking mental images of the store’s interior for her sketch, while she noted that only one employee was working in the store.
Pearce told prosecutors on the next day – Feb. 2, 2005 – the pair arrived in Fairfield and while driving around the downtown area, DiMeo got a call from his mother warning him to leave New York. Pearce said the couple went into the Fairfield Public Library to scan headlines on the Internet to check whether DiMeo’s photo was in the news. At about 4 p.m., DiMeo and Pearce drove by Donnelly Jewelers a few times, Pearce said, where they could see not one, but two people in the store.
By 5 p.m., DiMeo was still unsure of which jewelry store he would rob, according to Pearce. He dropped her off at the Fairfield train station, where Pearce caught the 5:02 p.m. train into Grand Central Station. And DiMeo then apparently made his decision to go into the Donnelly's store.
Later that night – high again on heroin – DiMeo met Pearce back at their Queens apartment. She was bordering on getting sick from withdrawal, telling prosecutors, “I was waiting for him because I was getting sick. I hugged him.”
Pearce tearfully testified that DiMeo shook his head. “He said it didn’t go good and I looked down and saw a drop of blood on his boot.” Pearce told the court the she and DiMeo shot up more heroin, and eventually went to sleep.
The next morning, DiMeo’s photograph was on TV, she said, and the couple fled to Atlantic City to hide out. Two days later, a SWAT team closed in on the Atlantic City motel where they were holed up. Pearce said the SWAT members rushed her into the motel’s lobby and told her there was a hostage situation. “I was oblivious to the fact that they were there for him,” she said.
After calling forensic psychiatry and psychology experts to talk about the physiological effects of heroin addiction, the state and defense both rested their cases Monday afternoon.
Judge Robert Devlin Jr. denied a procedural motion for acquittal from the defense. Each side will present their summation in Bridgeport Superior Court Tuesday morning. The jury is expected to begin deliberating Tuesday afternoon.