Everything from mobsters to mysterious strangers and a local newspaper headline of a horse head found at the bottom of a pool overshadowed a full day of testimony from Christopher Bowdish, lead detective in the investigation of the murder of Peter Porco and attempted murder of his wife, Joan Porco. Their son Christopher Porco, is on trial for those two crimes committed on Nov. 15, 2004.
Bowdish, a 25-year veteran of Bethlehem’s police department, was one of the first officers at the scene on Nov. 15, 2004 when Peter Porco lay dead at the bottom of the inside front stairs of 36 Brockley Drive in Delmar. At that same time, Joan Porco clung to life in the upstairs bedroom where the attacks occurred. Bowdish told jurors how Joan Porco motioned and nodded when asked if her son Christopher committed the ax attacks that murdered her husband Peter and severely injured her.
I first asked her if she could hear, and she nodded up and down several times in the ‘yes’ indication, said Bowdish.
The detective then asked if any member of the Porco family committed the crime against her and her husband. Bowdish indicated she once again nodded `yes.`
`I then asked if Jonathan Porco did this, and she indicated ‘no’ and nodded up and down ‘no,’` said Bowdish.
`I asked, ‘did Christopher Porco do this?’ and she nodded up and down, indicating ‘yes,’` said Bowdish.
Jurors looked intently at Bowdish as he stated he repeated the question to Joan Porco, and she again nodded `yes.`
Bowdish said he then apologized to her because he felt sorry for her, and left her bedroom that day as paramedics sedated her.
Much of the jury’s day on Wednesday, July 26 was spent hearing Defense Attorney Laurie Shanks cross-examine the lead detective in the case, first questioning his experience as a detective handling homicide cases.
`There is not a tremendous amount of serious crime in the town of Bethlehem, is there?` asked Shanks.
`Actually I wouldn’t say that,` Bowdish said.
`Is skateboarding a serious crime?` Shanks asked.
Judge Jeffrey Berry, who is presiding over the trial in Orange County, put a quick stop to Shanks’ line of questioning.
`I am going to start limiting your cross examination unless it is pertinent,` said Berry.
Shanks asked what kind of training Bowdish has in homicide investigations. He said there have been three murders in Bethlehem he has investigated, two in the same year, 2004.
`What you’re trained to do is to not contaminate a crime scene,` said Shanks.
`That’s correct,` said the detective.
Shanks then shifted gears and began to ask Bowdish about the 36 Brockley Drive crime scene, where an ax was left in the bed, tucked inside a blanket with Joan Porco lying next to it.
`Did you ever consider it a sign that someone left a bloody ax at the bottom of the bed?` she asked.
`No,` said Bowdish.
Shanks then pulled out the morning edition of the local Middletown Times Record where it was reported a horse’s head was found at the bottom of a councilwoman’s pool, and whether or not an ax left on a bed might be considered symbolic, like the horses head threat. Bowdish said he did not see the similarity.
Later in the day, Shanks asked, `Did you know that Frankie ‘the fireman’ Porco, (a distant relative of Peter Porco’s) was a member of the Bonanno crime family?`
`I had not heard that,` said Bowdish.
`Did you know he was charged with loan sharking, racketeering and murder?` Shanks pressed on.
`Investigator Kelly of the State Police followed up that lead,` said Bowdish.
`Did you ever speak to Margaret Fennel (Christopher Porco’s godmother), and do you know if she stated that Joan Porco told her there was a stranger in the driveway weeks before the attacks and that she was scared?` asked Shanks.
`There was nothing registered with the police department on this,` Bowdish answered.
After testimony ended, Chief Prosecutor Michael McDermott said neither Frankie `the fireman` Porco nor the mysterious stranger in the driveway are very credible leads. When asked if Joan Porco ever urged authorities to find her husband’s killer, McDermott said, `the only correspondence we have ever received from her are letters to the Times Union.`
Other testimony from Bowdish centered on the Bethlehem police department’s review of 800 hours of video surveillance tape over a three-month period in 2005. Those tapes are a crucial piece of evidence in the Porco murder trial. The cameras show Porco leaving the University of Rochester campus Sunday evening, Nov. 14 around 10:30 p.m. and coming back to the school campus the next morning at 8:30 a.m.
Prosecutors believe Porco drove to Delmar in the middle of the night, attacked his parents at home and returned to school. Shanks said Porco could have been anywhere during the hours between 10 p.m. Sunday night and 9 a.m. that Monday morning. Bowdish was asked if he had reviewed the entire surveillance tape. He indicated that he had reviewed portions of the tape. A log kept by police details the officers who reviewed the tape, and they did not see a yellow Jeep Wrangler come and go between the hours of 10 p.m. and 9 a.m.
Shanks asked about a questionnaire sent by police to 400 University of Rochester students asking about Christopher Porco. Questions included whether or not Porco drank alcohol or took drugs prior to the crimes, and if he had ver made any threats toward his parents.
Shanks asked for a mistrial toward the end of the day’s proceedings when Prosecutor David Rossi indicated Christopher Porco was excessively drinking alcohol and attending classes drunk based on the questionnaire answered by students.
`This is a clear attempt to prejudice the jury because they have no evidence,` said Shanks.
Berry denied Shanks’ motion for a mistrial, but did admonish Rossi for his line of questioning in front of jurors.
`Mr. Rossi, that constituted a bad faith question in my eyes,` said Berry.
`When you do stoop to something like that, it is not professional.`
Berry threatened to sanction Rossi and said a mistrial will be declared if it keeps up.
When McDermott was asked by a TV reporter if he noticed some jurors falling asleep during testimony he asked, `if it’s to the cross examination then that’s OK.`