SKOWHEGAN  — Slaying victim Ricky Cole, of Detroit, had an imaginary friend who lived in a black box. That friend told Cole to hurt some people, and sometimes to murder them.

That was part of the opening statement in Somerset County Superior Court by Caleb Gannon, one of the attorneys representing Jason Cote, 24, of Palmyra, who is charged with murder in the beating death of Cole, 47, in July 2013 in Cole’s Main Street home.

Cote has pleaded not guilty, and Gannon said Cote knew of Cole’s imaginary friend, whom Cole called Vern, and was afraid of Cole because of it. Gannon told the jury that Cote heard Cole having conversations with Vern and feared for his life.

Defense lawyers later in the day Thursday pointed to drugs found in Cole’s system after his death as a possible link to a psychosis that they said made him invent the imaginary friend.

Cole also bragged that he had killed two people in New Hampshire and was being investigated on weapons charges by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and had threatened Cote, the attorneys said.

The defense team of Gannon and lead attorney Stephen Smith has said Cote acted in self-defense in Cole’s death.

In her opening statement to the jury Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Zainea painted a different picture of Cote, describing him as a young man who would get his drugs from Cole. Zainea told the jury that when Cote didn’t get all the drugs he needed on July 17, 2013, he exploded, killing Cole in a revolting, savage and shocking way. She said Cole’s head was “stomped” by Cote and was bashed so many times with a pipe that blood was spattered everywhere.

She said the notion of self-defense “just doesn’t work in this case”.

“Evidence will establish that Ricky Cole is dead due to blunt force injury and that Jason Cote did it,” Zainea said. “It was depraved indifference to the value of human life.”

The first witness called to the stand Thursday was Brenda Brown, Cole’s ex-wife, who testified under oath that she recalled Cole’s imaginary friend, Vern. She told the jury that Cole would tell their children that if they misbehaved, he would let Vern know.

When Smith mentioned a tattoo that Cole had on his neck, spelling out “RIP” — rest in peace — Brown testified that it wasn’t meant to be menacing, as Smith has suggested, but rather was a tribute to her father, whom Cole admired and wanted to memorialize.

A jury of 12, with four alternates, and made up of 12 men and four women, was selected Monday.

Prospective jurors Monday were asked not only whether they were aware of the case from reading or hearing news media accounts of it, but also about involvement in drug or alcohol abuse groups, and whether anyone in their families had been involved with illegal drugs or prescription drug abuse.

The case against Cole includes testimony concerning drug use. Police say Cote snorted methadone and Xanax on July 17, 2013, at a friend’s home on Dogtown Road in Palmyra, according to the court affidavit. He was dropped off later at Cole’s residence, allegedly to get more drugs.

Cole was found bludgeoned to death about 3 a.m. July 18, 2013. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner concluded that Cole died from blunt force trauma. Cole had a fractured skull, extensive blood loss and deep internal injuries, according to the autopsy.

Cote is charged with beating Cole to death with a pipe in Cole’s mobile home on Main Street in Detroit.

Zainea called Robert Dunehoo, of Detroit, to the stand Thursday. Dunehoo told the jury that early on the morning of July 18, 2013, his neighbors David Lefleur and Amy Tarr had come to his home in panic, wanting to use the phone to call police.

Lefleur and Tarr had just left Cote, who told Tarr he had hit Cole with a pipe, Zainea said in her opening statement. They became restless after that and went to Cole’s mobile home in the middle of the night and saw him on the floor and called police.

Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state’s chief medical examiner, testified most of the afternoon Thursday, describing Cole’s injuries and concluding that he died from blunt force trauma, not of cutting or stab wounds.

“There were many injuries to the scalp,” Flomenbaum told the jury. “The back of his head had many injuries.”

Zainea contended that some of Cole’s injuries came from Cote “stomping” him, causing broken facial bones. The skull was fractured from ear to ear, she said. Smith said there was no physical evidence of the stomping.

In his cross-examination of Flomenbaum, Smith had the doctor explain the drugs that were found in Cole’s system, as submitted in a toxicology report to the medical examiner. Smith noted that some of the drugs were taken for depression and psychosis. He suggested that Vern, Cole’s imaginary friend, could have been the result of psychosis and tried to paint a picture of Cote acting in self-defense against a much larger and possibly psychotic Cole.

Closing the full first day of testimony Thursday, Zainea called Kelly Witham, of Levant, at the time the girlfriend of the man who owned the trailer where Cole was living. Witham said she, along with several others — including Cote — bought prescription drugs from Cole. She said she was addicted to Ritalin at the time but is now clean and sober

Witham testified that Cole was concerned that Cote had not agreed to “take the rap” for firearms that were found by investigators in Cole’s previous home after it burned, but Witham said she never heard Cole threaten Cote. Witham cried on the stand. As she left, she shot a glaring look at Cote, who, flanked by his lawyers, was seated at the defendant’s table.

Cote faces 25 years to life in prison if he is found guilty of murder.

The trail resumes Friday morning.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

 

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