Sunday, 25 February 2024

Jack to be tried for Womachka murder

EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS STORY CONTAINS PASSAGES THAT SOME READERS MAY FIND GRAPHIC IN NATURE.


LAKEPORT The circumstances surrounding the last hours of Paul Womachka's life and his subsequent death are shrouded in a certain mystery. The weapon used to kill him hasn't been found, no motive has been offered for the father of three's murder, and no confessions have been made.


However, on Tuesday a judge ruled that the man who is believed to have been the last person to see him alive will stand trial for his murder.


Morgan Jack, 31, is accused of murdering 39-year-old Hey, Taxi! driver Paul Joseph Womachka in the early morning hours of June 27, 2007.


Following a preliminary hearing that stretched across most of Tuesday, Judge Arthur Mann ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold Jack to answer for the charges that he murdered Womachka, with a special allegation of using a knife.


Jack, who was arrested and charged in February, has pleaded not guilty in the case.


Mann ordered Jack return to court on May 5, at which time he'll be arraigned, said defense attorney Stephen Carter. “Fundamentally, what we'll be doing is setting the future dates and the trial date at that time.”


Prosecutor Richard Hinchcliff called four witnesses during the course of the day, all of them Lake County Sheriff's Office investigators and support staff.


Lake County Sheriff's Office Investigator Nicole Costanza gave the bulk of the day's testimony.


She detailed the case from its beginning – when Womachka was reported missing by his ex-wife and business partner in the taxi business, Erica, on June 27, 2007 – to the discovery of his body two days later.


Initially Costanza and Lt. Corey Paulich of the Lake County Sheriff's Office's investigations division began interviewing people – including Jack – to find clues to Womachka's whereabouts.


They also received an anonymous tip that they should search the area behind the rancheria's gymnasium off of Soda Bay Road, which they did on foot, through the use of a helicopter and with a cadaver dog.


On June 29, 2007, Womachka's body was found submerged in his taxi minivan in an area of the Big Valley Rancheria's marina by Tribal Chair Valentino Jack, who was out on the water in a row boat, checking the area after he had been notified that the fence along the water had been damaged, said Costanza.


Evidence at the scene indicated Womachka's minivan went into the water after crossing a field and going through a chain link fence.


Based on witness interviews and surveillance video, detectives allegedly identified Jack at Robinson Rancheria Casino the night of June 26, 2007, where he was seen drinking at the bar. It was there that Womachka picked him up at approximately 12:17 a.m. – which was reportedly picked up on videotape – and drove him to his mother's home at Big Valley in the course of about 17 minutes.


Jack told detectives he went to his mother's home at Big Valley rather than going back to the home at Robinson Rancheria that he shared with his girlfriend, because he was concerned his girlfriend would be angry because he had been drinking.


Costanza said the taxi was seen entering the rancheria on a casino surveillance video at 12:34 a.m. A few hours later, another video showed Jack making his way to the casino.


A neighbor reported hearing Jack at his mother's home that night, yelling and making noise, Costanza said.


Cause of death still a mystery


The exact cause of Womachka's death still isn't precisely known, said Costanza.


Womachka, Costanza explained, sustained four "sharp force injuries" in the left upper chest and left shoulder, and one on either size of the neck.


Both the injuries to Womachka's neck cut his jugular vein and could have been fatal, a ruling Costanza attributed to medical examiner Dr. Kelly Arthur of the Sonoma County Coroner's Office, who performed the autopsy. The injury to the left side of Womachka's neck was termed by Arthur as an "incision" rather than a stab wound.


Because Womachka's body had been submerged for a lengthy period of time, Arthur couldn't conclude if he had drowned or bled to death, said Costanza.


When his body was recovered, said Costanza, Womachka was still wearing his seatbelt, his hands on or near the steering wheel, and his foot on the gas. The minivan was in drive gear, its doors were locked and several of the windows were open.


Costanza said Department of Justice criminologists matched DNA evidence taken from a toothbrush belonging to Womachka to the DNA found in a speck of blood found on a pair of shoes allegedly belonging to Jack. The likelihood that the DNA could have belonged to someone else was one in 160 quadrillion.


The weapon used to kill Womachka wasn't found. In searching the van Costanza said a knife blade – which Hinchcliff said was about 3 inches long – was found wedged between the plastic center console and the front passenger seat. However, it had no fingerprints or DNA. A search of the area where the van was found conducted by the Northshore Dive Team also yielded no finds.


During cross-examination of Costanza, Carter questioned what he felt was thin circumstantial and physical evidence.


He raised concerns with the surveillance videos, which had a number of issues concerning inaccurate time stamps.


Carter also questioned how Jack could have only come away with a small speck of blood on his shoes after allegedly committing a stabbing. Asking Costanza if they found blood stains in the van, she replied, “Lots.”


Paulich, the day's last witness to take the stand, said Jack had admitted to drinking a significant amount of alcohol the night of June 27, 2007.


In a four-hour interview on June 29, 2007, Paulich questioned Jack extensively. He tried to encourage a confession by telling Jack that he believed whatever happened had been an accident. He also had asked Jack if what had taken place had been mutual combat.


Jack repeatedly told him he didn't remember anything, although at one point he said that “maybe something bad did happen.”


However, Jack made no confession. “He told us he didn't hurt anybody ever,” Paulich said.


Attorneys argue the quality of evidence


At the end of the testimony, Hinchcliff argued that there was sufficient evidence to move forward with trying Jack for Womachka's murder.

 

“There is substantial circumstantial evidence that places the defendant with Mr. Womachka at or near the time of death,” said Hinchcliff. “He's obviously the last known person to be seen with Mr. Womacka.”


Hinchcliff said he had “extremely strong evidence” that Jack either committed the murder or was involved in its commission.


Carter, however, argued that the prosecution hadn't done enough to show that Jack was guilty.


He pointed to the speck of blood on Jack's right shoe, which was so small that the DNA testing consumed it, which means no further tests can be performed.


“That is the evidence that ties my client to this killing,” he said. “That's just about the only physical evidence we have at all, this blood speck that has been consumed.”


Neither were detectives successful in finding any of the clothing Jack had worn. Clothes found at the home of Jack's mother didn't have blood or DNA evidence, and couldn't even be tied to Jack.


“The type of evidence that would suggest Mr. Jack was involved in this wrongdoing simply isn't here,” said Carter.


Hinchcliff replied that the evidence including statements from Jack and witnesses that placed him at the scene and the blood evidence was enough to move forward.


Responding to Carter's contention that the cause of Womachka's death and who was responsible hadn't been clarified, Hinchcliff said, “It's not clear whether he drowned or died of loss of blood. What is clear is that the way he died was approximately caused by being stabbed.”


Following Mann's ruling, Carter said that preliminary hearings require a much lower standard of proof – a reasonable suspicion versus proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a trial conviction.


Both Hinchcliff and Carter noted outside of court that the hearing had moved quickly.


However, at trial that's likely to change. Carter said the trial could become much more involved, with DNA and blood specialist and other experts called to testify.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


{mos_sb_discuss:2}

Upcoming Calendar

28Feb
2Mar
03.02.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Special Olympics Polar Plunge
3Mar
03.03.2024 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Pianists Benefit Concert
10Mar
17Mar
03.17.2024
St. Patrick's Day
31Mar
03.31.2024
Easter Sunday
1Apr
04.01.2024
Easter Monday
15Apr
04.15.2024
Tax Day

Mini Calendar

loader

LCNews

Award winning journalism on the shores of Clear Lake. 

 

Newsletter

Enter your email here to make sure you get the daily headlines.

You'll receive one daily headline email and breaking news alerts.
No spam.