A jury convicted Izelia Golatt in the murder of Kristen Rodgers after a three-day trial that concluded Wednesday.
The seven men and five women returned the verdict after 2.5 hours of deliberation following a third day of testimony.
A scrapper found Rodgers, 35, face down in a dirt lot behind 1133 Caledonia St. shortly after 7 a.m. on March 6. Her jacket and shoes were next to her body.
Golatt, 45, has been in jail with a $1 million bond since his arrest on March 9.
The conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison, though it will be up to Judge Scott Horne to determine if he could eventually be eligible for parole.
Witness accounts and phone records show Rodgers and Golatt were in frequent contact as she was looking for crack cocaine on the night of her death. Surveillance video from the Rose Street Kwik Trip shows Golatt pumping gas into his van with a woman matching Rodgers’ description in the passenger seat. Minutes later the van is seen on another camera turning into the alley where her body was found.
Video shows the headlights go off and come back on about 17 minutes later as the van pulls away.
Golatt’s attorneys did not contest that the two were together that night but argued Rodgers died of a cocaine overdose and hypothermia.
Rodgers had cocaine in her system, but Dane County medical examiner Dr. Vincent Tranchida, who performed the autopsy, testified that strangulation was the cause of death.
Dr. Shaku Teas said she saw no evidence of strangulation and instead believes Rodgers died of cocaine-induced heart failure and hypothermia.
Teas, a former pathologist with the Cook County medical examiner’s office who was hired by the defense, based her conclusion on a review of an autopsy report, photographs and other evidence gathered by police. She did not perform a separate autopsy on Rodgers’ body.
Teas said the hemorrhaging in Rodgers’ neck muscles was likely the result of her lying face down and a botched autopsy. She explained that people experiencing hypothermia often shed their clothing because they feel warm, as do those under the influence of cocaine.
But under cross examination by District Attorney Tim Gruenke, Teas downplayed the role of cold in Rodgers’ death.
“If there is hypothermia it’s a small part of the cause of death,” she said. “What I’m saying is she has some evidence of hypothermia. I’m not saying it’s the major cause of her death. It’s cocaine.”
Exactly what happened in the alley that night remains a mystery.
Surveillance video – which Gruenke called the closest thing to an eye witness in this case – shows Golatt’s van enter and leave 17 minutes later.
Golatt did not testify, and prosecutors did not offer a motive.
“I don’t know why the defendant did it,” Gruenke said in his closing argument. “I do know they were arguing earlier in the evening. I know when they went into that alley they sat for 17 minutes… That’s a long time to start arguing. It’s a long time to develop anger.”
Gruenke argued that the most likely explanation is the obvious one: Golatt and Rodgers went into the alley together and only one emerged alive; the other showed signs of strangulation.
Defense attorney Allan Beatty argued that the process of elimination is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“It’s not a question of who killed her,” Beatty said. “It’s a question did anyone kill her.”
Beatty argued Golatt, who had helped Rodgers find crack earlier that night, had no reason to kill her. He left the alley; she stayed behind – perhaps to smoke more crack.
“While she was there, 12 hours of crack use and the cold got the best of her,” he said.
Rodgers suffered a seizure, fell to the ground and eventually died, Beatty said.
If that’s the case, Gruenke said, Golatt is “the unluckiest man in the world.”
Rodgers was found less than a mile from the halfway house where she was staying when she left saying she would be back in less than 10 minutes.
“There’s no reason for him to take her there and drop her off,” Gruenke said.
Gruenke questioned how Rodgers got scrapes on her knuckles and her throat by falling face down. Instead, he argued, they were defensive wounds from trying to pry someone’s hands from her neck.
A mother of three who had battled addiction, Rodgers was a fighter, he said.
“I can’t imagine how terrifying her last minutes must have been,” Gruenke said. “She went into a dark alley with a dangerous man. Imagine him on the back of her, pushing her into the ground.”