HANFORD — The trial for accused killer Todd Pate continued Tuesday with grisly details about the scene police found at the Pates’ Hanford home on Sept. 2, 2013.
The second day of the trial included testimony from police, Pate's family members and friends of Melanie Pate, who Todd Pate is accused of killing.
Former Hanford police detective Cory Mathews, who served as the lead investigator in the death of Pate’s wife, Melanie Pate, testified about photos he and other detectives took at the scene. Kings County Assistant District Attorney Nick Schuller presented police crime scene photos to the jury along with Mathews’ descriptions.
Mathews said he took photos as he walked through the house to the backyard, where he saw Melanie Pate’s body in the swimming pool. A clump of blonde hair and a green ceramic kitchen knife were visible on the step leading into the pool. There was a brownish-red stain next to the pool, he said.
Melanie Pate had cuts to both sides of her neck, Mathews said.
Other photos showed what appeared to be blood and drag marks along the wood floor leading from the kitchen to the back door. Mathews said investigators found a roll of paper towels, as well as some loose paper towels, in the kitchen with red-brown stains.
Mathews said police found two knives and a corkscrew laid out in a row on the kitchen counter by the stove. Those included a serrated kitchen knife with reddish-brown stains and a bread knife with similar stains, pieces of hair and “chunks of material,” Mathews said. Mathews said police did not find such stains or material on the corkscrew.
The three knives and the corkscrew were removed from their evidence containers and shown to the jury.
Pate’s defense attorney, Melina Benninghoff, questioned whether the corkscrew had been sent to the Department of Justice for forensic analysis and whether it has any value as evidence. Benninghoff also asked Mathews whether he had asked officers if anything at the crime scene had been moved before investigators arrived.
Mathews said he did not ask officers whether anything had been moved. When questioned by Schuller, Mathews added that officers are taught to secure a crime scene and not move anything before investigators arrive.
Other evidence presented Tuesday morning included the crumpled divorce papers that had been served to Todd Pate days before the killing. Mathews said the papers, which were found on the floor of Pate’s home office, appeared to have been previously wet and then dried. Pieces of the documents were also found in the pool with Melanie Pate’s body, Mathews said.
Mathews said police also found reddish-brown stains in the master bathroom on the shower floor. He said a pair of wet men’s boxer shorts were in the bathtub.
Mathews testified about photos he took of Todd Pate during the investigation, showing redness on one side of his neck as well as scrapes on his elbows and knees.
The jury also heard from Laura Haught, whose son played baseball with Todd and Melanie Pate’s son, Karter. Haught said she had known the Pates for about five years prior to Melanie Pate’s death, socializing with them in addition to spending time with them at the children’s baseball games.
Haught said she had a barbecue on Sept. 1, the day before the killing. About 10 to 12 people attended including Melanie and Karter Pate. Haught said Melanie left her home around midnight, but Karter wanted to stay with his friends.
“[Karter] spent the night with us,” Haught said.
Haught said she expected Melanie Pate to pick Karter up sometime the next morning to take him to a Grizzlies baseball game in Fresno.
Karter Pate, who was 12 years old when his mother was killed, took the stand Tuesday afternoon, sharing details of the days leading up to his mother’s death.
On Aug. 30, he said, Todd Pate took him to Fresno and bought him an expensive baseball bat at Midtown Sports. When they returned home that evening, Karter said, his father dropped him off at the house and then left briefly.
According to testimony Monday from Gus Amos, a process server, Pate had gone to check the mailbox. That was when Amos served Pate with the divorce papers.
Karter said his father seemed upset when he returned. He said his parents began to have an argument about the divorce. Karter said he tried to yell over them to ask them to work things out.
Benninghoff pressed Karter about whether he had thrown the divorce papers into the swimming pool. Karter said he didn't believe he'd ever touched them. Benninghoff offered to let him read a transcript of what he told police after the killing.
Benninghoff said Karter told police that he had grabbed the papers and “chucked them” into the pool.
Karter refused to read the transcript and started to cry.
“If that's what I said, then I guess I did it,” Karter said.
On Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, Karter said he spent the night at his friend’s house and expected Melanie to pick him up around 11:30 a.m. to take him to the baseball game in Fresno.
When his mother didn't show up, Karter said he tried to contact her around noon.
“I texted and I called her because I didn't want to be late to the game,” Karter said.
Around 1:30 p.m., Karter said, his father called him to say, “I love you,” and to tell him not to believe what people say.
Also taking the stand Tuesday were Pate’s ex-wife, Brenda Raphael, and their 27-year-old daughter, Megan James.
James said her father had asked around mid-August 2013 to come visit her in Tehachapi for a weekend along with Karter. During the visit, she said, Todd Pate was worried Melanie was going to divorce him.
“I know he knew it was coming and he was scared he was going to lose Karter,” James said.
James, who was seven months pregnant at the time, said Pate made comments about not being around to watch his grandchild grow up.
Raphael said Melanie Pate had called her in January to tell her that Todd believed she was having an affair and had begun checking her emails, text messages, car mileage and timing her when she left the house.
About a month later, Raphael said, she got a call from Todd Pate in which he confirmed he had been keeping tabs on his wife. Raphael said she did not know if Melanie was cheating on her husband.
“Just what I heard people say,” Raphael said. “I never heard any facts.”
Karen Timmerman, a friend of the Pates, said she was close with Melanie Pate and saw her almost daily. During the months before her death, Timmerman said, Melanie Pate began wearing her hair down more, feeling more “confident” and, during out-of-town baseball tournaments, she would get a room separate from her husband.
“She was doing more things without Todd,” Timmerman said.
Timmerman said Melanie had told her about the divorce papers, which included child custody requests that were not favorable to Todd Pate. Timmerman said Melanie felt the request was “just a starting point” and she intended to explain that to her husband.
“She felt it was a little strong,” Timmerman said.
Benninghoff questioned Timmerman about Melanie Pate’s supposed infidelity. Timmerman said she did not know at that time whether Melanie was seeing another man.
Mathews returned to the stand in the afternoon to discuss several envelopes that police found in a black binder inside Todd Pate’s car after the killing. The envelopes, which were addressed to various family members, contained letters and photos. One of the envelopes, Mathews said, contained a photo of Todd Pate and Karter on a fishing trip.
An example letter shown to the jury began with, “Let me start by letting everyone know ‘I had a good life.’ ” The letter went on to address Pate’s parents, his brother and sister, as well as Karter, Megan and Raphael. One section was addressed to Melanie Pate, beginning with “Melanie, we’ve been through a lot.”