|Topie: Helen Marlene Major
||The murder of Helen Marlene Major of Verona, Ky. on Oct. 10, 1980 was not solved until more than 20 years after her death. William Major was convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to life in prison.
A skull was found a year after her disappearance but was not identified until years later.
Major apparently killed his wife because she was threatening to reveal that he was abusing their son.
Major was convicted after his father revealed his son had confessed to the killing. Police persuaded James Major to record a conversation with his son in which he again admitted to the slaying, which became the key evidence in the investigation.
||July 27, 2003
Slaying from '80 going to trial
By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
An ailing, 59-year-old William Alexander Major will be wheeled into a Boone County courtroom Monday to defend himself against allegations he shot and decapitated his wife 23 years ago in Verona.
Prosecutors are likely to say Major believed he had committed the perfect killing, confident enough to brag about it. Detectives say he thought that by decapitating his wife and knocking her teeth out he would make it virtually impossible to identify the body.
If so, he was nearly right.
Police found 25-year-old Helen Marlene Major's bullet-riddled skull in 1981, a year after she disappeared. But there were no teeth to compare with dental records. It wasn't until the advent of DNA analysis two decades later that detectives could conclusively say the skull was hers.
But it took more than DNA to finally indict Major murder. . It also took their daughter's determination and Major's father's decision to help police.
Defense attorneys are expected to say their client doesn't remember anything from before a stroke in April 1995.
Major reportedly told a neighbor shortly after the killing that his wife ran away, leaving him to raise their two children. Mrs. Major's 1972 Ford Pinto has never been found, despite several searches of the Ohio River.
The trial begins Monday in Boone Circuit Court before Judge Jay Bamberger. The prosecution might call two dozen witnesses and the trial could last through Aug. 6.
Major recently asked a judge if it was OK if he skipped his own trial. Major, extradited from his home in Fairhaven, Mass., to stand trial in Kentucky, said he didn't want to have to sit through it. The judge denied the request.
If convicted of murder, Major faces up to life in prison. Major could be eligible for parole after serving 20 percent of his sentence. Laws that would require Major to serve a minimum of 85 percent of his sentence were not on the books in 1980, and therefore cannot be used in this case.
"There are unique challenges to trying a case more than two decades old," said Commonwealth's Attorney Linda Tally Smith, who is prosecuting. "Memories fade and people's recollections are not quite as sharp. But the events surrounding the disappearance of (Mrs. Major) are very fresh in the mind of the people who have lived with them for the last two decades."
Jurors are likely to hear testimony that Mrs. Major was going to leave her husband after she became convinced he had molested one of their two children, LaLana Bramble of Mount Sterling, Ky., and Donald Oaks of Washington state.
||At the time of their mother's disappearance, Bramble was 4 and Oaks was 8.
Soon after Mrs. Major's disappearance, Major moved to Rhode Island with the two children. In 1985, he was convicted of child sexual abuse and served nearly 12 years of a 15-year sentence in Rhode Island. The children went to live with their maternal grandparents after their father's sentencing. The maternal grandparents later adopted the children.
Attending the trial will be Bramble, who authorities say was instrumental in reopening the cold case. Five years ago Bramble called her father asking where the rest of her mother's corpse was and promising not to seek his arrest.
A skull believed to be Mrs. Major's was found on a Boone County farm in November 1981. Major had worked as a handyman at that farm.
"He laughed in my face," said Bramble. "He said if I ever thought he would tell me where the body was, I was crazy."
The daughter who heard her father's laughter on the phone made it her mission to prove her mother was dead - possibly at her father's hand. She gave a DNA sample so modern-day technology could confirm the skull as her mother's.
Officers had become so frustrated that at one point in the mid-1980s, investigators hired two psychics, who held what would turn up to be Mrs. Major's skull and tried to divine the woman's fate.
Once Boone County Sheriff's Detective Todd Kenner joined the investigation in 2001, Bramble helped police find her paternal grandfather, Jim Major, who is in his 80s and lives in Nova Scotia.
The elder Major then allowed police to rig a tape recorder to his phone to catch his son's confession, police say.
After his arrest, police say, Major told investigators he fired two shots into his wife's head and four into her torso. He allegedly said he dumped the gun in a pond at a neighboring farm, and disposed of Mrs. Major's remains in a sinkhole several hundred yards way.
Oct. 10, 1980: Helen Marlene Major disappears from her trailer on Warehouse Road in Verona near the intersection of Ky. 16 and Ky. 14.
• Nov. 30, 1981: A skull suspected to be that of Helen Major is found on a Waller Road farm, about a mile from the Major home.
• June 25, 2001: William Alexander Major is arrested at his home in Fairhaven, Mass., for the death of Mrs. Major.
||July 30, 2003
Friend: Suspect made threat
By Paul A. Long
Post staff reporter
In the weeks before Helen Marlene Major was killed, she was living a dangerous life, holding many secrets.
She was having an affair with a neighbor and planning to leave her husband of nine years, William Major. She secretly knew Major was sexually assaulting their 8-year-old son, and was afraid he was going to harm her.
Major seemed aware but unconcerned about what was going on, his wife's former lover testified during the second day of Major's murder trial Tuesday in Boone Circuit Court. Glenn St. Hilaire said Major seemed to push him and his wife to be alone together.
But, St. Hilaire said, Major made it clear what would happen if Mrs. Major ever tried to leave him. Major said he would shoot her, chop off her head and bury her body so "they never would find it," St. Hilaire testified.
"He told it to just about anybody -- anybody who would listen," St. Hilaire told a rapt jury during his more than four hours on the stand.
Authorities contend that Major carried out his plan on Oct. 11-12, 1980. A year later, Mrs. Major's skull was found in a Boone County field. Her body remains missing.
The Majors' relationship -- and their unusual friendship with St. Hilaire -- was the center of testimony Tuesday.
St. Hilaire, a Canadian by birth, a welder by trade, and a wanderer who settled for a while in Verona when his truck broke down on his way to Texas, stayed with the couple for about five months in 1980.
He met them when Major came to fix his truck. When it could not be repaired on the side of the road, Major took it back to his shop on Warehouse Road, next to the small trailer where he lived with his 25-year-old wife and their two young children.
While the truck was being fixed, the Majors let St. Hilaire set up his pop-up camper behind their trailer. He used their electricity, ate in their house and played with their children. In return, he helped Major in his mechanic shop.
When the truck was fixed, he decided to stay a while longer.
"We were very good friends," said St. Hilaire, now 51 and living in Grant County. "We had a very good relationship. They were good people."
But after several months, his friendship with Mrs. Major turned to love, St. Hilaire said. And Major appeared to know about and even encourage their sexual liaison.
One time, St. Hilaire testified, he came into the trailer on a hot day and said he was going to rest in his camper. He said Major told him his wife was sleeping in the back of the trailer, and told him to join her.
St. Hilaire said he refused. He was becoming afraid of Major, and had begun to fear for his own life. He said Major always carried a handgun, and he once saw Major enter his camper with his gun drawn.
He and Mrs. Major discussed a future together, he said. She told him she had been keeping a journal.
"We talked about the possibility of her leaving Bill," St. Hilaire said. "She wanted me to keep her diaries. She told me -- there was something in there (that) if anything ever happened to her, to take to the police."
He got the chance a few days later.
||On the evening of Oct. 11, 1980, he said, the Majors were embroiled in a bitter argument, and he was a part of it. St. Hilaire said he came to believe that Major was a manipulator of people, and told him he was tired of his lies. At one point, St. Hilaire said, he invited Major to step outside the trailer.
"I was going to punch him in the mouth," St. Hilaire said. "That's where his lies were coming from."
But Major refused, and the group inside the trailer grew quiet. About 15 minutes later, St. Hilaire said, he left for the Boone Inn, a coffee shop down the road that he often went to when things at the Majors grew heated.
It was about 9 p.m., he said, and he expected one of the Majors to come and get him when things settled down. But after an hour and a half, no one came, and he decided to head back home.
He found the trailer "completely empty,'' he said. "There was no one there. -- The lights were on. -- The children were gone.
"I was quite worried at the time.''
A few minutes earlier, Major had called another neighbor, Trinnie Brice, and asked him to watch his two children, then aged 8 and 4. Brice readily agreed.
Major told Brice his wife had left him, and he was going to look for her, Brice testified.
Meanwhile, St. Hilaire returned to the Boone Inn, then went back to the trailer sometime after midnight. Major was there, and St. Hilaire asked him what happened to Mrs. Major.
"He said he wished he knew," St. Hilaire testified. "He said she just took off with the kids."
The next day, Brice said, Major came to get his children and put them on a plane to Rhode Island, where their paternal grandparents lived. A few days later, Major, having either sold or given away some of his belongings, left the rest in the trailer and moved to Rhode Island.
Brice testified that Major sold him some of his equipment and gave him three guns. St. Hilaire said Major left his business files, furniture, the children's toys, and even a number of pets -- including a dog tied up in the front yard.
St. Hilaire said he stayed for a while, collecting the mail, taking the animals to the shelter and doing other odd jobs. He turned the diaries over to Mrs. Major's sister, who later gave them to police.
After a while, he moved on to Texas, where he lived for 17 years before returning to Kentucky and settling in Grant County. During that time, he kept in touch with police, always telling them where he was living, in case he ever was needed to testify or provide information.
Little happened in the case for two decades. While living in Rhode Island, Major was arrested, charged and convicted of molesting his children.
The children returned to central Kentucky, where their mother's family lives.
Before he got out of prison in 1996, Major called his father and, police said, confessed to killing his wife. After James Major told his granddaughter her father had admitted that he killed her mother, she went to police.
Eventually, they used Major's father to tape-record a second conversation with his son, and police said that tape was enough to arrest Major and charge him with murder.
In 2001, he was extradited to Kentucky and indicted for his wife's murder. He has been held for the past two years in the Boone County Jail.
If Major is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in jail.
||August 1, 2003
Testimony: Major abusive
Son, daughter paint portrait of molester
By Paul A. Long
Post staff reporter
Prosecutors pulled out all the stops Thursday against accused murderer William Major. Evidence presented showed him to be a violent father who sexually assaulted his toddler son and raped his pre-school daughter, who degraded their mother's memory by calling her a drunken street-walker, and whose own father called him a "no-good son'' and wondered how he could sleep at night.
Testimony and Major's actions during the trial portray him as cagey and talkative, a man who tries to joke with bailiffs and complains about the length of his trial. He's been married and divorced at least five times, spent 10 years in a Rhode Island prison for molesting children, and is estranged from his family. He joined the Navy at 16, said his father James Major, who signed the papers "because I was fed up with him."
When his daughter, LaLana Bramble, testified Thursday morning, Major conspicuously ignored her.
Instead, he read copies of the diary of Helen Marlene Major, who he is accused of killing back in 1980 when she threatened to leave him and tell authorities about his molestation. He never looked in Bramble's direction, sometimes literally turning his back to her.
Before his father's videotaped testimony began, Major insisted that court officials play the portion in which he refused to be in the same room with the man he called "my alleged father." On the tape, Major, dressed in black-and-white striped jail garb, proclaimed that if forced to listen, he would do everything in his power to harm his father.
He also asked to leave the room as the tape was played, saying he'd rather eat than watch James Major testify.
"I can't see that damned thing anyway, and I really don't want to see it,'' he told a bailiff. "Do you think they'll let me take my lunch break early?"
When the request was refused, Major wheeled his chair over to a corner to watch the tape.
Most of the evidence against Major has come from his family and himself. At one point during a taped telephone conversation with his father, James Major of Eureka, Nova Scotia, Canada, William Major said nothing he did bothered him much.
"I don't have any kind of conscience about anything,'' William Major said.
Bramble testified that Major began sexually abusing her when she was four or five years old. The abuse went on for years, and it happened "any chance he got -- any time he was able to be alone with me," she said.
"He'd come to my room at night. He took me to work with him on Saturdays.''
His son, Donald Oakes, testified about a time when he was about 12 years old and Major dragged him into their trailer and beat him half to death, believing the boy had told authorities about the abuse. He said he could barely remember a time as a young child when his father was not sexually assaulting him.
It began "when I was little. Real little,'' Oakes said. "I was told it wasn't too long after I learned to walk.''
Just about every day, his father would fondle him or force him to engage in anal and oral sex, said Oakes, who changed his surname to his mother's birth name.
It happened "in the trailer, in the truck, in the warehouse, at work, wherever,'' he said.
James Major, in testimony recorded last year on videotape, said Major told him that he killed Marlene Major because she pulled a gun on him in a drunken rage.
||Mrs. Major, who lived with her husband and two young children in a trailer on Warehouse Road in Verona, was 25 when she disappeared Oct. 11, 1980. Although police found her skull in a Boone County field the following year, her body has never been found.
Major, now 59, is charged with murder in her death, and if found guilty, could receive a life prison sentence.
The day after his wife disappeared, Major put his two children on a plane to Rhode Island to live with their paternal grandparents. A week later, he left Kentucky to join them, leaving behind furniture, toys, clothes, and the children's pet dog, a German shepherd named Lucky.
"He was there to stay," James Major testified. "He said he had no intention of going back to Kentucky.''
Once in Rhode Island, Major told his son and daughter their mother was a drunk, a drug abuser, and a prostitute. He told them she had left because she didn't love them, and they were so unwanted she wanted to have an abortion rather than give birth.
It wasn't until some five years later -- after Major was convicted of abusing them and Mrs. Major's parents gained custody, that they learned the truth.
At the same time, Mrs. Major's family also gained a key piece of evidence from Major's new wife, who also had turned him in for the sexual abuse. She gave the family Mrs. Major's wedding rings, which she was wearing, and said that Major had given them to her.
Although Major was always the prime suspect, Mrs. Major's death went unsolved for decades. But in 1996 -- while he was in the Boone County jail facing charges related to the abuse of his children, charges which a grand jury refused to indict him on -- Major called his father.
In that conversation, the elder Major testified, his son told him he killed his wife -- who he said was drunk and pregnant -- after she pulled a gun on him and threatened to leave him. William Major grabbed the gun, and when Marlene Major screamed, he "lost" it and pulled the trigger of the six-shot revolver nine times, his father testified he was told.
Some five years later, after police gathered enough evidence, Major told essentially the same story, with extra, vivid details.
Boone County Sheriff's Detective Todd Kenner said Major told them that all six bullets from the .38-caliber revolver -- two in the head and four in the body -- went through Mrs. Major. Kenner said Major seemed proud that all six wound up in a tight, 10-inch circle in the passenger door.
Major told investigators he dumped the body in a sinkhole on the Waller farm in Verona, threw the gun in a nearby pond, and drove his wife's 1972 Pinto -- in which the shooting had occurred -- into the Ohio River.
He drew such a detailed map of where he said he put the body and gun that investigators went out that night -- even though it was past midnight -- to search. Although Mrs. Major's skull previously had been found nearby, the new search proved fruitless.
During the 1996 conversation with his father, Major said he committed the "perfect crime." But when his father called back in 2001 -- with Boone County investigators taping the call -- a suspicious Major refused to say much about the killing.
||August 2, 2003
Jury hears tape of Major admitting he killed wife
By Paul A. Long
Post staff reporter
As Boone County investigators took William Major from Massachusetts to the Boone County jail and then out to Verona to search for the remains of his dead wife in July 2001, the murder suspect never stayed quiet for long.
For more than 14 hours -- from the time he was picked up at the Bristol County Jail in New Bedford, Mass., about 2 p.m. on July 27, 2001, to sometime after 4 a.m. the next day, when he was finally taken to the Boone County Jail, Major laughed and joked and confessed to Detectives Tim Carnahan and Todd Kenner.
He regaled them with his sexual exploits. He bragged about his automotive knowledge. He claimed that he had been specially trained by the military to have heightened sensory perceptions.
He talked about the 1970s, when he lived in Boone County and owned an auto-repair shop, where he "was making money hand over fist." He talked about God, cigarettes, his boat, and his prized Cadillac.
And in a tape played Friday for a jury in his murder trial in Boone Circuit Court, Major admitted that he killed Helen Marlene Major on Oct. 11, 1980, then dumped her body on a nearby farm.
He told police he shot Mrs. Major as she sat in her 1972 Pinto, ready to leave him. As they argued, Major said, she pulled a .38-caliber revolver from the car's console. Major said he snatched it away from her, and when she screamed, unloaded the gun, shooting her twice in the head and four times in the chest. All of the bullets exited her body and embedded in the car door.
"But you know, the amazing thing about that, it's like I told you Tim, right there on the door, the size of a postcard -- the perfect pattern," he said, according to a transcript of the discussion. "Now, all this that I'm telling you guys tonight is going to come up in court, right?"
A short time later, he returned to the shooting.
"And the hell of the whole thing is, I did not intend to hurt her," he said. "I don't know what I intended. All I know is when she started screaming, something snapped, and I started -- I started pulling the trigger, but I wasn't aiming for her. Because if I was aiming intentionally, I'd have put six bullets in the same hole."
Authorities say little of what Major told them is true -- he never served in Vietnam, wasn't a prisoner of war, and had no special training. But they believe he intentionally shot Mrs. Major, and for the last five days, showed the jury physical evidence they say proves their case.
On Friday, Commonwealth Attorney Linda Tally Smith called Dr. Emily Craig, the state forensic anthropologist, who said a skull found a year later was that of Mrs. Major. And the skull -- missing its lower jaw and teeth -- was cut away from the body using a sharp, heavy axe, just as Major threatened to do if she ever tried to leave him.
But his attorney, Ed Drennen, said none of Major's tales are based on fact. Instead, he said, they are all made up by a cantankerous old man who likes to be the center of attention.
"He was always having problems remembering because he was never in recon training,"Drennen asked Kenner after the tape was played. "He was never in the jungle. You knew he was a storyteller."
Drennen has told jurors that Major has no memory of what happened before 1995, when he suffered a series of strokes. His statements to police were based on fabricated details and what he thought they wanted to hear, Drennen said.
But Dr. Victoria Yunker, who oversaw a mental evaluation of Major in early 2002, said he was clearly resistant to being tested. And, Yunker testified. Major appeared to be faking many of the claimed effects of the stroke.
She said Major claimed to be unable to get dressed without assistance. But many times while he was in the state prison hospital for his evaluation, he dressed himself, she said.
Major also said he is unable to use his left arm or leg. But several times, she said, doctors and social workers watched as Major lifted his left arm.
Major refused to cooperate or undergo an MRI or brain scan, she said. "Other times, we found he was very much malingering his memory loss," she said.
Yunker was the last prosecution witness. Afterward, Circuit Judge Jay Bamberger, who is presiding over the trial, told jurors they might begin deliberating as early as Monday afternoon.
If convicted of charges of murder and tampering with evidence, Major faces a life sentence.
||August 5, 2003
Dad convicted; two children glad
By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The children of Helen Marlene Major expressed relief Monday afternoon after their father was convicted of killing their mother more than two decades ago in Verona.
It took a jury only 57 minutes to find William Alexander Major, 59, guilty of murder for his wife's death. Jurors recommended the maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for eight years.
Major, who showed no emotion as the verdict was read, remained in jail Monday night awaiting Boone Circuit Judge Jay Bamberger's sentencing, expected next month. "Good-bye, Dad, I hope you spend the rest of your life behind bars," said Major's daughter, LaLana Bramble of Mount Sterling, Ky., after the verdict was read. "You deserve it."
Prosecutors said Major killed his wife so he could continue to molest Bramble and her older brother, Donald Oakes, 31, of Washington state.
Both testified last week that their father sexually molested them for years and then threatened them in sadistic ways if they ever told authorities.
His children eventually told their stepmother while the family lived in Rhode Island. Major served 12 years on molestation charges before being released in the 1990s.
"The verdict today gave my mom some justice," Bramble said. "Justice has been long in coming, but she can now rest in peace. I know the verdict will not take the sting out of what happened, but it will help us move on."
Authorities have been able to find only Mrs. Major's bullet-ridden skull.
"I don't know if we will ever uncover the entire remains of my mom," said Bramble, 27. "Only (Major) knows where it is, and I'm not sure he will ever say."
Oakes said he and his sister will now shift their focus on organizing a private memorial for their mother.
"I think the quick verdict speaks for the strength of the evidence," said prosecutor Linda Tally Smith. "This has been an emotional case for me, but I couldn't have asked for a better outcome."
During the six-day trial, jurors heard from more than a dozen prosecution witnesses. Major, 59, of Fairhaven, Mass., did not take the stand in his own defense.
Smith played a taped deposition of Major's father, James Major, 81, of Nova Scotia, who said Major told him several years ago that he shot his wife four times in the torso and twice in the face and then stuffed her body in a sinkhole. Detectives also testified that Major gave a second confession after his arrest and extradition to Kentucky.
Authorities say he shot and decapitated his wife in 1980.
Her skull was recovered in 1981 on a farm on which Major had done some work. It took modern DNA analysis to positively identify the skull because the teeth had been removed.
The jury heard from multiple witnesses that Major had bragged before his wife's disappearance that he could commit the perfect killing. That scenario involved removing the victim's teeth to prevent identification.
Major's defense attorney, Edward Drennen of Florence, argued that a stroke in 1995 made his client delusional. Drennen said Major makes up stories.
"In fact, you have a delusional individual who is admitting to anything they want him to," Drennen said. "Maybe he has the guilt of the world on him. He did molest these individuals, but that does not make him a killer."
Drennen objected to the prosecution's repeated references to Major's child abuse conviction in Rhode Island.
"He abused his kids," Drennen said during his closing arguments. "What does that have to do with this case? It was introduced to inflame you."
Drennen told the jurors that if they did believe his client killed Mrs. Major, they should find him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Drennen proposed an alternate theory to Helen Major's death, a scenario in which Major killed his wife under extreme emotional distress. Drennen said the stress was brought on by Helen Major's admission that she was pregnant by another man.
After Drennen's closing arguments, Major leaned to his attorney and complimented him on a job well done.
Major then wheeled around in his wheelchair and smiled at his two children, who were in the gallery.
As the guilty verdict was read a short time later, Oakes leaned to his sister and said, "It's finally over."