In November 2015, Lester Parker and his wife Bertha were “underwater” financially, behind in mortgage payments and living off a limited income from flea market sales, Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser told a jury Tuesday during opening statements.
That is when Parker allegedly hatched a plan to burn his house down for insurance money, and his nephew agreed to help for payment in pills, Gmoser said.
Parker, 67, and his nephew, William “Billy” Tucker, 46, are both charged with arson and murder in the fire at the Pater Avenue residence that killed Hamilton firefighter Patrick Wolterman on Dec. 28, 2015.
The jury of five women and seven men viewed the residence Tuesday before opening statements began in the trial in Butler County Common Pleas Court.
“This was supposed to be a simple insurance job,” Gmoser said. “They didn’t intend for Patrick Wolterman to get killed, they just didn’t give it any thought.”
The prosecutor said Parker planned a trip to Las Vegas that he could not afford and his daughters were going to take him to the airport on the afternoon of Dec. 27.
In the weeks leading up to that date, Parker took pictures of items in his house and even moved out some items, including pictures and a handcrafted log cabin decoration that he held dear, Gmoser told the jury.
Before flying to Vegas, Parker told one of his daughters that if anything happened the important papers about the house were in the garage.
Gmoser said Tucker, Parker’s nephew, agreed to light the fire in exchange for pills that Parker’s daughter will testify were kept in the second floor of the house.
Tucker was “desperate” to get a ride from Richmond, Ky., to Hamilton on Dec. 28, 2015, and enlisted a former girlfriend and another woman in exchange for pills, Gmoser said during opening statements.
The women dropped Tucker off early on Dec. 28, 2015, at the intersection of Pater Avenue and Grand Boulevard. Gmoser said a Hamilton Police license plate reader will verify the car was at the intersection during the time frame of the fire.
When Tucker returned minutes later, “He is out of breath and he is carrying his bag, he is carrying a gas can and has pills,” Gmoser told the jury.
The prosecutor said when Tucker popped the clasp of the lock in the basement of the Pater Avenue residence he found a “gas can and pills waiting for him.”
Tucker then poured gas on “stuff” and ran, Gmoser said.
David Washington, Parker’s defense attorney called the prosecution’s opening statements a “fantastic story” that was without proof and questioned the credibility of witnesses that he said are “pill heads and dope thieves.”
“Lester Parker had nothing to do with any fire at his house,” Washington said.
Tucker’s defense attorney, Tamara Sack, said her client has an alibi for the time of the fire. And while he he did come to Hamilton on Dec. 28, 2015, she said, he went to a different house to get pills.
“Coincidences galore,” said Sack about the prosecution’s case.
Two neighbors of Lester and Bertha Parker, along with several firefighters, were called to the stand Tuesday, including Hamilton Fire Lt. Ben Adams, who found Wolterman after he fell into the basement of the home while fighting the blaze.
Adams said he saw firefighters approach 1310 Pater Avenue.
“It changed from heavy smoke to heavy fire,” Adams said. One of the firefighters was pushed back on the front porch by a wall of fire.
Adams said he learned Wolterman was still in the house.
He and another firefighter were able to locate Wolterman through the squelching of his personal alarm. He was unconscious and his face mask had been knocked off, he testified.
Firefighters pulled Wolterman from the basement, Adams said.
A neighbor, Milford Radin, said he suffered from glaucoma and could not point out his longtime friend Lester Parker at the defense table, but remembered talking to him the night of the fire.
When the fire broke out, he called Parker at the request of police, he said.
“He said, ‘didn’t I tell you I was leaving for Las Vegas?” Radin said.
Radin said Parker usually told him when he was going to be away from home.
He added that Parker told him to take care of his house, but did not indicate he was rushing home.