Brother of accused Barbara Howe killer: ‘I just knew in my gut’

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Technical evidence testimony expected in French trial Friday

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Kenneth French gave tip to Monroe police about his brother

Kenneth French said he wrestled with himself for weeks before calling Monroe police detectives to tell them that his brother “Danny” might be involved in the death of 87-year-old Barbara Howe.

“I struggled with it,” Kenneth French testified Thursday in Butler County Common Pleas Court. “He’s my brother. I thought, what if he didn’t have anything to do with it?”

His testimony came on day four of Daniel French’s death penalty trial. Daniel French, 57, of Berea, Ky., is charged with aggravated murder and stands accused of killing Howe on Oct. 28, 2012 in her cottage at Mount Pleasant Retirement Community in Monroe.

Kenneth French said he had a bad feeling when he met his brother, who he referred to as “Danny,” in the parking lot of a Kroger in Walton, Ky. on Nov. 1, 2012.

“When I get out of the truck, he gives me a big hug and tells me he loves me,” Kenneth French told prosecutors during direct examination. He said that was odd behavior for his brother, who had called him the day before to ask if they could meet on his way from Monroe back to their sister’s house in Berea.

“I felt like he was telling me goodbye for the last time,” Kenneth French said, sobbing at times during his testimony.

He testified that “Danny” was dressed in a ball cap and a Mount Pleasant Retirement Community sweatshirt and asked if he could borrow some money. Kenneth French said he gave him $20 for gas, and they parted ways.

Kenneth French said his bad feeling turned into a “sick feeling” when he began reading news reports about Howe’s homicide and then his brother went missing for weeks.

“I saw the time line … I know the shirt he had on, I just knew in my gut,” Kenneth French said, adding he “struggled” with what to do for about three weeks before calling Monroe police with the tip.

During cross-examination by defense attorney Melynda Cook, Kenneth French said he believed after meeting his brother in that Kroger parking lot that “I honestly thought he was going to go kill himself.”

Howe’s sister, Patricia Marshall, 85, of Middletown, testified she and Barbara talked often, and she became concerned when she left messages that went unanswered on Oct. 27, 28, and 29 of 2012. Eventually, she called Mount Pleasant security, which reported nothing was amiss and Howe’s car was not in the garage.

“I said that’s not right. She never would have left without letting her family know,” Marshall said.

Marshall then called her niece, Donna Wesselman, Howe’s daughter, who went to the residence the next day.

Wesselman took the stand after her aunt, recalling walking into her mother’s Paxton Circle house on Oct. 30, 2012, with retirement community security.

“Right away everything looked to be fine, everything was neat and tidy as usual,” Wesselman said. But then, she said she spotted three things that were out of place, a towel, an overturned rug and a half glass of iced tea.

“There would never be a towel on the floor of her house … everything had a place,” Wesselman said, adding her mother also would never have left a glass of tea on her wood furniture because it might have caused damage.

“I knew it was time to call the police,” she said.

Howe was found dead two days later in the trunk of her red Cadillac, parked outside Woodridge Park Apartments in Middletown.

When shown autopsy photographs of her mother’s dead, battered body, Wesselman choked back tears and answered in a strong voice, “Yes that is my mother.” She also identified Howe’s purse, which was found with her body in the trunk, when it was pulled from an evidence bag.

Prosecutors say Daniel French, a former maintenance man at Mount Pleasant Retirement Community, hatched a plan to rob Howe using the ruse of repairing her medical alarm system. Once he gained entry to her home, Daniel French shocked her with a stun gun, but when she didn’t go down, he choked her, then slit her throat with a double-edged knife.

Fellow Mount Pleasant resident Phyllis McDaniel testified that she received a call on Oct. 28, 2012, from a man who said he needed to fix her medical alarm.

“I said this is Sunday and whatever has to be done can be done in the morning,” McDaniel said during testimony. She said she waited the entire next day and the repairman did not come. After hearing that Howe was missing, McDaniel told retirement community administrators about the incident.

Edward Beck, director of environment services at Mount Pleasant, testified French made repairs to Howe’s residence and McDaniel’s residence in 2011 while he was still employed there.

The prosecution played a four-minute video tape of Stephanie Blanton, a woman who cleaned Barbara Howe’s cottage at Mount Pleasant, demonstrating how she cleaned the residence’s utility room and the crawl space in March 2012. Daniel French is accused of trying to put Howe’s body into that crawl space after allegedly killing her.

Daniel French’s DNA was found on the lip of that crawl space. Prosecutors want to make the case that any of his DNA left behind when he was an employee would have been cleaned away by Blanton in March 2012 and should not have been present in October 2012.

Dr. James Swinehart, forensic pathologist and deputy coroner at the Butler County Coroner’s Office, testified Howe’s cause of death is exsanguination or hemorrhage caused by the slicing of her neck. He said he found no sign of strangulation or sexual assault.

During opening statements, the defense said French did cause the death of Howe, but not it was accidental after she didn’t fill when shocked with a stun gun. The defense said French then choked Howe and only cut her throat when he thought she was dead.

During cross examination, Swinehart said Howe was near death when her throat was cut and may have been unconscious.

The trial continues Friday with the testimony of a taxi driver who drove French from Walmart to his sister’s home in Monroe just hours after Howe’s death.