TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO Ernest Troy Freeby faces life in prison
A Carbon County jury panel deliberated for more than five hours late Monday afternoon and evening before finding a Lansford man guilty of first degree murder of his wife, who disappeared.
Ernest Troy Freeby, 36, faces a mandatory life without parole sentence. The panel of seven women and five men also found him guilty of tampering with evidence. They reached their verdict at about 9:25 p.m., after beginning deliberations about 4 p.m.
President Judge Roger N. Nanovic deferred sentencing in the matter after thanking the jury for its long and sometime grueling service as jurors.
Freeby was convicted of murdering his estranged wife, Edwina Atieno Onyango, 34, a native of Kenya, in the basement of his home and disposing of the body. The body was never found.
Freeby did not testify at the trial.
The verdict concluded one of the longest trials in recent memory for the county court. Jury selection took place on Monday, Jan. 9, with testimony starting the next day. The final witness was heard on Friday, Jan. 27. Closing arguments began about 9:25 a.m. Monday.
Defense attorney Paul Levy of the public defender's office, who was co-counsel with attorney George Dydynsky, told the panel in his two-hour closing that the case of the commonwealth "made no sense." He argued that if his client did commit the murder, he would have done a better job in covering it up.
Investigators found blood stains in the basement of the Freeby home at 207 W. Bertsch St. during a search. A large quantity of blood was found in the coal bin area. Expert testimony presented at the trial indicated the blood found in the coal bin, on the basement floor leading to the coal bin and on the stairs from the first floor to the basement, was that of Onyango. A DNA profile was developed by using samples taken from three of the victim's brothers.
Levy said if Freeby had killed Onyango he would have done a better job in cleaning up the basement of any blood and other evidence.
Levy also reminded the jury of Onyango using another person's Social Security number and having disappeared once before for several months.
He also said if Freeby wanted to get rid of Onyango he would have let her be deported. Testimony at the three-week trial indicated Onyango was having problems with the immigration department, which wanted to deport her.
District Attorney Gary F. Dobias, who prosecuted the case, argued to the jury that the actions of Freeby since Onyango disappeared on Dec. 9, 2007, indicated he was responsible for her disappearance and death.
He said the jury should consider a conscienceness of guilt of Freeby. He said Freeby repeatedly lied to investigators, made false statements to them, attempted to cover up evidence, and taunted them with claims of receiving cards from the victim but never produced the envelopes they came in so police could trace them.
Dobias also argued the expert testimony of the DNA experts, and a blood pattern expert, all added up to Onyango being murdered in Freeby's home.
He said with all the evidence presented in the case from all the 35 plus witnesses called by the Commonwealth there was one common thread. "That common thread was Freeby," Dobias said.
Dobias commended the tireless effort of the state police investigators in their quest to find the truth and get justice for Onyango and her family.
Onyango was first reported missing by family members on Dec. 10, 2007, when they stopped hearing from her. The investigation revealed Onyango told her sister and others she was going to Freeby's home in Lansford on Dec. 9 to get a phone bill. She was never heard from again.
Freeby said Onyango was at his home on that date but was only there for about 10 minutes. He said she was there with another black woman. He said she left her car with him because she was going to get a new one.
However, in other interviews with police, Freeby changed his story. The 10-minute visit turned into a two and a half-hour one.
There was also testimony about a credit card that belonged to Onyango which Freeby used several times after her disappearance after telling police he never saw the credit card.
There was testimony of Freeby painting the basement area including the basement steps, the coal bin door and other areas after Dec. 9.
One of the most damaging witnesses was Freeby's now ex-girlfriend, Julianne Frances Snearly. She told the jury about a conversation she and the defendant had on a ride home from visiting her parents in Whitehall. She said it occurred along SR145 when she was talking to Freeby about divorcing Onyango so they could get married.
She and Freeby had three children together while Freeby was still married to Onyango.
She said Freeby told her he couldn't divorce Onyango until she got her green card. Then Snearly added, Freeby said the only way he was going to get rid of her (Onyango) was by killing her. She never told police, she said, because she didn't take Freeby seriously, but added, "I never forgot it."
Freeby told investigators early on in the probe that his marriage to Onyango was one of convenience. He said he never loved Onyango and still didn't. He said the marriage was to help him with a child and youth problem and it would help Onyango get her green card.
Dobias said in his closing although the case is based on much circumstantial evidence, the testimony of the witnesses, the experts, all pointed to the guilt of Freeby.
Numerous state troopers were involved in various steps of the investigation. Many of them were in the courtroom Monday to hear the closing arguments.
The lead investigators were Cpl. Thomas McAndrew, of the criminal unit of the Hazleton barracks, and Trooper William Maynard, of the Fern Ridge barracks, who was stationed at Lehighton, when the probe began.
The case began as a missing persons investigation reported to Lansford police by Onyango's family. Lansford police turned the probe over to state police on or about Dec. 26, 2007.
Dobias noted in his closing the persistence of the Onyango family in trying to find their sister and their pleading with police for help.
The defense called two witnesses who claimed they saw Onyango after she was reported missing. Freeby's mother, Patricia Gordon, claimed she saw Onyango in Easton about a year after she disappeared. Doris Meitymer of Allentown, who works at a check cashing firm in Whitehall, claimed she saw Onyango twice after Dec. 9, 2007. She said Freeby and Onyango came into the business frequently to cash their paychecks.
Gordon claimed when she saw Onyango she was in a vehicle with one of her brothers. She said she couldn't get the license plate of the car and didn't have time to try and contact her because it happened so quickly. She failed to notify police until some time later.
Meitymer said she was too busy working when she saw Onyango to contact her, despite the fact she knew police thought Onyango was dead and Freeby was a suspect in the murder. Asked why she never told police of the two sightings, Meitymer said, "It slipped my mind."
Freeby and Onyango married on March 20, 2001. Onyango was in the country since Sept. 1, 1998. Sometime after the marriage Freeby moved back to Lansford and began his relationship with Snearly.
State police served a search warrant on Freeby's home on Jan. 17, 2008. That was when they learned areas of the basement and coal bin had been cleaned and fresh paint applied. It was also when they found the various blood stains. During a second search in August police found some dirt in the coal bin had been removed along with a two by four piece of support wood that had blood stains on it. They also found a piece of hair in the coal bin, on a wall with blood. A DNA comparison indicated the hair was that of Onyango.
Freeby was arrested in August 2009. At the time of his arraignment on the charges he told the media, "I didn't murder her." He also claimed to have seen her in Lansford in a vehicle after she disappeared.
The case has taken a long time to get to trial with numerous continuances filed by defense and prosecution as both sides prepared their cases and gathered evidence.
Freeby has been in the county prison since his arrest.