Insurance documents linked to couple accused of murder plot
Mother challenged about differences
in statements to authorities and her testimony in court
By Janice Gregorson
Fingerprints found on life insurance documents matched those of the couple accused of conspiring to kill a relative to collect the insurance money.
A forensic scientist told Olmsted County jurors Thursday that the fingerprints of William and Brenda Shorter were found on life insurance application documents seized during a search of their rural Dover mobile home.
The application and policy documents were in the name of John Shorter, William’s older brother. Authorities allege that William Shorter took out a $300,000 insurance policy in his brother’s name and made himself the sole beneficiary. Authorities also allege that Brenda Shorter, William’s wife at the time, attacked John Shorter with a hatchet and tried to strangle him with a rope just weeks after the effective date of the policy. William and Brenda Shorter have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
William Shorter is on trial in Olmsted District Court in Rochester. No trial date has been set for Brenda Shorter.
Joshua Bergeron, a forensic scientist with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, was one of several witnesses who testified Thursday.
Jurors also heard from 72-year-old Doretta Shorter, the matriarch of the family, who broke down several times on the stand.
The investigation began April 25, 2008, when a friend of John Shorter reported the assault. Sheriff’s investigators met with family members that evening, a day after Brenda Shorter is alleged to have attacked her brother-in-law with a metal hatchet and lariat at the farm.
Doretta Shorter said she and her husband, James, were at the St. Charles Elementary School at the time, where they spend about six hours every weeknight doing janitorial duties.
Doretta Shorter said William came to get her after supper and said there was a problem at home. He took her home, and she found John bleeding from the head, sitting in a recliner. She said William tried to help John clean up.
Earlier this week, John Shorter testified that he fled the milk parlor after the attack and tried to clean up before driving to a friend’s house in Elgin for help. He didn’t mention seeing his mother. He said he might have briefly encountered his brother outside the house.
Doretta Shorter testified that in helping John, she and William went to his mobile home on the farm property so William could take Brenda to the emergency room. He said she had been injured in the incident. Doretta Shorter said that at the time, she believed John had been kicked by a cow. She said she stayed with her two grandsons while William and Brenda went to the hospital. She said when she returned to the "big home," John was walking down the driveway. She said a friend picked him up.
Under questioning by prosecutor Eric Woodford, Doretta Shorter admitted that there are blank spots in her memory of things her sons said.
She remembered talking to investigators about a letter that John had received about a week before the assault from a life insurance company. She testified that John wasn’t surprised by the letter because John, William and her husband had talked about getting life insurance.
Woodford asked if she didn’t tell an investigator that John’s reaction to the life insurance letter was a sharp, "Who the hell did this?"
"I suppose I could have said that," she responded.
Woodford persisted, asking if her memory was better now or then.
"I don’t know," she said.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Rick Smith, Doretta Shorter said William tried to help John when they returned from the school. Woodford asked if she told that to the investigator the night after the attack.
"No," she said.
Woodford asked whether she told the investigator that she was suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the life insurance policy letter that John received.
"I don’t remember," she said.
"Didn’t you say, ‘That sounds fishy?’" he asked.
"I could have," she said.
Two weeks after the investigation began, detectives were back at the Shorter farm with a search warrant.
Sheriff’s detective Mike Ranfranz testified that during the search, investigators found insurance applications and policy information in John Shorter’s name.
Bergeron, the state forensic scientist, testified that he found several fingerprints on the documents, five of which matched William and Brenda Shorter’s fingerprints.
Under cross-examination, Bergeron said he didn’t know under what circumstances the fingerprints got on the documents. The defense asked if the fingerprints could have gotten there while someone was cleaning, and he said he didn’t know.
On Wednesday, jurors listened to 22 telephone calls between someone who identified himself as John Shorter and officials at Insure.com, an insurance brokerage firm in Illinois. Those calls led to a $300,000 life insurance policy.
Ranfranz testified Thursday that the voice on all of those calls was William Shorter’s. He said he played the tapes for John Shorter, who identified his brother’s voice.
Ranfranz told jurors that after being told of the suspected insurance scheme and hearing his brother’s voice on the tapes, John was "devastated."
"He had a hard time and was breathing heavily," Ranfranz testified. He said that John Shorter told him, "I was a dead man walking for two years and didn’t know it."