Eric Koula vowed to continue looking for whomever killed his parents, even as a judge sentenced him Wednesday to life in prison for their murders.
La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne’s sentence — two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of release — means the 42-year-old West Salem man will spend the rest of his days behind bars, unless his conviction is overturned on appeal.
“You took the life of the two people who gave you life,” Horne said. “And you’ll spend the rest of your life incarcerated.”
Koula, who has been in the La Crosse County Jail since July 29, 2010, will be turned over to the Department of Corrections. He will go first to the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, where all male inmates begin their sentences.
Horne pointed out that Koula had a “magnificent defense” by four talented attorneys and a retired police investigator, while the state had to meet a high standard of proof. A jury deliberated for two and a half days in June after one of the longest trials in the county’s history. The verdict: guilty on two counts of first-degree homicide.
“Frankly, I think the jury got it right,” Horne said.
Horne noted that Koula had a motive — he was a struggling day trader with just enough money left to pay that month’s bills — access to the type of weapon used and the chance to kill Dennis and Merna Koula in their town of Barre home on May 21, 2010.
Eric Koula dialed 911 three days later to report finding the couple, both shot in the head.
Horne dismissed the defense’s theory it was a botched hit intended for a neighbor.
“No other person had the means, the motive and the opportunity,” Horne said. “The idea that a skilled, professional hit man would venture into the wrong house is really stretching the imagination.”
Horne pointed to lies Koula told throughout the investigation: He denied forging a $50,000 check from his parents’ account, though his attorneys argued at trial he signed it with his father’s permission; he wrote “fixed u” on a piece of paper and pretended it was from the killer.
The judge also sentenced Koula to three years behind bars for forgery, to be served on top of the life sentences.
Koula gave himself away in the first days of the investigation, Horne said, even as investigators treated him as a grieving family member. The question is whether he was merely a liar, or a liar who could kill his own parents and feign grief.
“I think when you wrote the ‘fixed u’ note, when you pretended to family and police and friends that the killer was now after you … when you sold that lie it became apparent to me … that you were capable of that,” Horne said. “That was a masterful act of deception.”
‘Not giving up’
Koula sat in shackles and a blue jail uniform surrounded by his team of attorneys in a courtroom packed with more than 50 people, including investigators, family members and media.
A cameraman filmed the proceedings from the jury box for the CBS show “48 Hours”.
“From May 24, 2010, until today I’ve went over and over in my mind of how I found my parents,” Koula told the judge. “Every day I miss them just as much — if not more — than anyone else. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss them.”
As he did during his 3½-week jury trial, Koula insisted on his innocence.
“I did not kill my mom and dad,” Koula said. “I never thought of doing something like that to them.”
The real killer, Koula said, is still at large.
“I’m not giving up,” Koula said. “I’m going to fight and fight and bring this person or people forward that did this, because I did not. I’m going to do this for my family. I pray that I’ll be able to go home and be with them some day.”
Plea for justice
District Attorney Tim Gruenke described Koula as a selfish and manipulative person who carried out a planned and cold-blooded killing for money.
“He only cared about what he wanted,” he said. “He wanted money.”
Eric Koula’s sister spoke on the victims’ behalf.
Choking back tears, Cynthia Cowell described her parents as honest people who worked hard and enjoyed life. Her mother loved Christmas; her father, who grew up poor, didn’t but learned to fake it for his grandchildren.
A pharmacist, Dennis Koula was a fount of medical knowledge who taught her to play sports, Cowell said. Merna Koula, a school teacher, could tell her the name of every bird and flower in the tri-state area.
“Now if I want to know something I have to go on the Internet,” she said. “It’s not the same. It’s not personal.”
She said her father often told her life is not fair. If it were, she’d have her parents back.
“Life is not fair,” she said. “All I can ask for is justice.”
‘It just doesn’t make sense’
Defense attorney James Koby said he’d known Eric Koula for most of his adult life and was shocked when he received a call from Christine Koula saying her husband had been arrested for their murders.
“I know the relationship Eric had with his father,” Koby said.
The first words Koula said to Koby: I didn’t kill my mom and dad. He said the same thing after the verdict was read.
In the intervening two years, Koby said, his team spent thousands of hours tracking down leads from Florida, Alaska, Pennsylvania and California — “all to protect the rights of an innocent man.”
He vowed to continue his investigation and invited information “from anyone, anywhere — no matter how insignificant it seems.”
After the sentence was read, Koula was comforted by his attorneys. Later, Koby said Koula’s first words were “We’re going to keep fighting.”
Before being led away, Koula turned to his wife and his 18-year-old son, Dexter, who sat in the front row.
His chin trembled as he held his son’s hand and received a hug from his wife, who left the courtroom without comment.
Cowell, who did not look at her brother as he addressed the judge, said afterward, “Nothing is going to bring Mom and Dad back. But justice has been served.”
Cowell said she hasn’t spoken to her brother since his arrest.
“I don’t know what I’d say to him, except ‘why?’” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”