By Ed Runyan
Claudia Hoerig, 54, will learn her sentence at 10 a.m. Friday after a jury convicted her Jan. 24 of the 2007 aggravated murder of her husband, Karl, in their Newton Falls home.
The trial had international implications because Hoerig is an ex-Brazilian who fled to her native country after the killing. It took 11 years for the Brazilian government to agree to let her be returned to the United States to face trial.
In addition to local media, the CBS news program “48 Hours” attended the trial, filming much of it. The website Law & Crime provided a live stream.
Judge Andrew Logan will have several options for Hoerig’s punishment: life in prison without the possibility of parole or life in prison with parole eligibility after 20, 25 or 30 years.
After sentencing, Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins is expected to answer questions about whether any U.S. official promised the Brazilian government that Hoerig’s sentence would not exceed the maximum of 30 years allowed in Brazil.
A Brazilian legal magazine and the British Broadcasting Corp. have reported that Brazilian officials allowed Claudia to be extradited to the United States on Jan. 17, 2018, only after the U.S. promised she would not get a life sentence if convicted. Her indictment did not allow for the possibility of the death penalty.
Watkins has thus far been tight-lipped about any deals.
Here are some highlights of the trial, which began Jan. 14 when 75 potential jurors were called to the Trumbull County Courthouse.
Readying a jury
About two-thirds of the potential jurors questioned individually about pretrial publicity said they knew something about the case from news accounts.
But Judge Logan and the attorneys for the prosecution and defense made the potential jurors aware that they could still serve on the panel if they could set aside what they had heard and judge her innocence or guilt based solely on “the evidence from the witness stand.”
Many agreed that they could do that, but some said they had made up their mind about the case already and were dismissed.
In the next phase of jury selection, the attorneys spoke to the roughly 40 potential jurors left and told them the case is “very simple” in that there is only one charge: aggravated murder with a gun.
They were made aware that prosecutors didn’t have to prove the motive for the crime for Hoerig to be convicted. “It would be nice to know why,” one potential juror admitted.
At the end of the second day of jury selection, 10 men and two women had been chosen, as well as four alternates. Next, the jurors were taken to see the Ninth Street home in Newton Falls where Karl Hoerig’s body was found March 15, 2007, having been shot three times.
Watkins then gave his opening statement, talking about Hoerig’s return to the United States on Jan. 17, 2018. He touched on physical evidence to be presented and the 21/2-hour interview Hoerig gave to investigators the day she was returned from Brazil.
In the interview, she “put blame on everybody else but herself” and made “attacks on her deceased husband,” Watkins said.
He concluded with an analysis of Hoerig’s explanations for why she shot and killed her husband, saying her “story is not in any way in reality” because “it doesn’t match the crime scene.”
She told detectives she shot Karl from a short distance as he descended the stairs. “She shot him from the top of the stairs as he was putting on his shoes” and “ambushed” Karl, Watkins said.
Fought with husband
John Cornely, lead defense attorney for Hoerig, focused much of his opening statements on the fight Hoerig said she had with her Air Force pilot husband about her being pregnant just before shooting him.
She intended to kill herself that day but killed Karl because of things he said that angered her, Hoerig told investigators.
When Karl told her to kill herself in the basement so she would not get her blood on his paintings, it “enraged” her, Cornely said.
“You won’t hear any evidence of premeditation, prior calculation and design,” Cornely said of a key requirement under Ohio law for her to be convicted of aggravated murder.
Two gun store employees were among the first witnesses.
Two days before Karl’s death, Hoerig went to Slug Masters, a gun store that once did business on state Route 5 near Newton Falls, where she bought a five-shot handgun with a laser sight for $530.19 for “defense at home,” Brian Martin said. She practiced with the gun that day at the J&L shooting range in Warren, Richard Sliter Jr. testified.
Peter Pizzulo, former detective with the sheriff’s office, testified about the crime scene, Hoerig’s BMW being recovered in the Pittsburgh area and her flights from Pittsburgh to New York and New York to Brazil on March 12, 2007. He testified to finding the gun used to kill Karl in the house.
On cross-examination by defense attorneys, Pizzulo said investigators found evidence on Hoerig’s computer she researched suicide and air travel the night before the killing but not how to commit a murder.
Trooper Chris Jester of the Ohio State Highway Patrol testified about the reconstruction of the murder scene he created. This indicated two of the shots fired in the house that missed Karl were fired from either a few steps up from the bottom of the stairs or from the landing at the top of the stairs.
During the testimony of sheriff’s detective Mike Yannucci, who worked on the case in 2007 and also interviewed Hoerig in 2018, jurors heard his 21/2-hour videotaped interview of Hoerig. She said she didn’t remember firing at Karl from close range. “It’s possible I did,” she said.
Forensic pathologist Joseph Felo of Cuyahoga County testified that Karl suffered one gunshot wound at close range to the side of his head that occurred at the bottom of the stairs. He said Karl’s body had no bruising indicative of falling down the stairs.
Krista Bridges, a friend of Karl’s from the Air Force Reserves, testified about a party in 2006 during which Hoerig told Bridges if Karl ever tried to leave her, “I’ll kill him.”
Another Air Force colleague and friend of Karl’s, Col. Gary Doge, testified that Karl was “trying to separate himself” from Hoerig at the time he was killed.
Hoerig was the only defense witness, testifying for about three hours. She was about 24 when she came to the United States. She married a doctor in New York City, and they were divorced in 1998 or 1999, she said. She and Karl were married 50 days after they met on an online dating website in 2005.
She described Karl as being “tormented” by his frustrations, said he had sexual hang-ups and treated her like a prostitute. The day she killed Karl, “I lost control of myself,” she testified.
In closing arguments, assistant Prosecutor Chris Becker asked jurors why Hoerig would have needed a laser sight on a handgun that she intended to use only to kill herself.
Cornely challenged the prosecution theory that Karl was putting on shoes when he died.
“No one has testified that Karl was putting on his shoes,” Cornely said. She killed him because of “the horrible statements [Karl] made” about her wanting to have their baby and killing herself, but she didn’t plan it and is not guilty of aggravated murder, Cornely said.
Watkins handled the final closing argument, recalling that forensic pathologist Felo testified that there were no bruises on Karl’s body.
“He sure never fell down those steps,” Watkins said. “He was at the bottom of the steps.”