Eric Koula’s marathon 20-day trial for the 2010 shooting deaths of his parents begins Monday, when prosecutors will try to prove through a circumstantial case that he was motivated to kill.
The investigation is the largest in La Crosse County’s history with more than 15 local and state investigators dedicating hundreds of hours.
Much of the state’s case will focus on what prosecutors believe is motive: The nearly broke West Salem day trader and heir to his wealthy parents’ estate killed them for the inheritance.
Koula’s defense team, stacked with four attorneys and a private investigator, will argue that a trained and professional killer executed Dennis and Merna Koula inside their town of Barre home on May 21. Their son will testify.
The defense also has to close a crucial 60-minute window of opportunity during which investigators say Eric Koula is unaccounted for.
“The state’s entire case is motive,” said La Crosse attorney Dan Ryan, who is not involved with the case. “If you can prove motive, then you can ask the question, Who else would have done it?”
Eric Koula, 42, said he found his parents’ bodies at 8:47 a.m. May 24 after his mother failed to show for a substitute teaching assignment that Monday morning.
“I touched my dad’s leg and he wouldn’t move, and my mom’s arm is purple,” said a hysterical Koula on the 911 recording.
Authorities found his father’s body in the kitchen, truck keys and a half-empty water bottle still in his hands. Investigators believe he was killed immediately after entering the house about 5:50 p.m. May 21 after a shift at a Black River Falls pharmacy.
Merna Koula sat at the home office computer, her head resting on the desk and her left hand on the keyboard.
Authorities believe she died at 5:41 p.m., when her computer recorded its last keyboard stroke.
Dennis Koula, 68, had a gunshot wound to the right side of his head; Merna Koula, 65, was shot in the back of the head, according to the autopsy reports.
Both died instantly.
Metal fragments extracted during autopsy are consistent with .22-caliber ammunition found next to a .22-caliber rifle in an upstairs closet. Several rounds were missing from the ammunition box, but no fingerprints or DNA were recovered from the firearm.
Eric Koula told investigators he owned a .22-caliber rifle, and investigators seized a block of wood from his house he used for target practice that had .22-caliber bullets in it, according to reports. They also confiscated a pair of black leather gloves from his pickup truck.
Prosecutors say markings left on bullet fragments recovered from Dennis Koula match those that would be left by the rifle found in the closet or Eric Koula’s firearm.
Pieces of a bullet found in Merna Koula are too deformed to distinguish markings, though the weight is consistent with a .22 caliber bullet. Defense experts can testify the bullets match various .22 caliber rifles or handguns, defense attorneys argue.
Authorities found open dresser drawers but no signs of forced entry to the Koula house at N3071 Fox Hollow Drive. Electronics, coins, jewelry, a purse and wallet were left behind.
Eric Koula denies killing his parents, telling investigators he spent the day they died day-trading at home until about 2:30 p.m. when he stopped at Walmart for roses and an anniversary card for his wife.
He also said he stopped at Walmart earlier in the day and didn’t leave his house until 3:30 p.m.
He said he helped a friend with tile work at a house on the 2000 block of Loomis Street until about 5:30 p.m., when he drove to Shopko on the North Side to buy a plant for his wife. He is not seen on surveillance video.
Searching for a better selection, Koula then drove to Shopko in Onalaska and volunteered a receipt verifying a 6:15 p.m. purchase. Koula’s wife said he called about 5:30 p.m., arrived home about 6:30 p.m. with the hanging plant and immediately showered.
“Sorry I’m late. It took me longer than expected,” Koula told her, according to reports.
The couple left for Wason’s Supper Club in Galesville about 7 p.m. to celebrate their 16th anniversary. Then they had champagne with friends.
Investigators believe Koula left Loomis Street before 5:30 p.m. Testing his alibi with traffic at 5:15 p.m. on a Friday, investigators determined it takes 14 minutes driving the speed limit to travel from Loomis Street to Dennis and Merna Koula’s house and 10 minutes from there to the Onalaska Shopko.
Koula’s wife, Christine Koula, said her mother-in-law was at their house until about 5:30 p.m. May 21 dropping off balloons and a TGI Friday’s gift card for their anniversary. Her statement contradicts evidence recovered from Merna Koula’s home computer that shows Internet activity at 5:14 p.m.
Koula called his parents’ home twice the day after they were killed to thank them for the anniversary present and to invite them to a barbeque.
Also on that Saturday, he deposited a forged $50,000 check drawn from his father’s investment account, but “did not seem himself” to a teller at the credit union, reports stated.
Koula said his father gave him a blank check on May 20 when he stopped by his parents’ house for 10 minutes.
The state Crime Laboratory later determined Dennis Koula’s signature on the check was forged, and investigators believe they found the checkbook that produced the forged check when they searched Eric Koula’s house.
It wasn’t until a July 29, 2010, interview just before his arrest for two counts of first-degree intentional homicide and forgery that Koula mentioned the deposited check. Until then, investigators have testified, “he did not feel it was relevant to the investigation.”
Koula’s expected testimony that he signed the check with permission of his father will contradict his statement to investigators that Dennis Koula signed it.
“I know it might look suspicious, but I know my husband didn’t do this,” Christine Koula told investigators. “I know 110 percent.”
A financial expert determined Eric Koula was deep in debt and behind on his mortgage, according to the complaint. An investment company told him during a May 21 phone call he had only $12.39 in his account.
Koula also called about a cash advance on his Discover credit card at about the same time he said his father handed him the blank check.
He had just $1,833 between three banks accounts before he deposited the forged $50,000 check. He also owed tens of thousands in back taxes, according to testimony.
Dennis Koula gave his son $500,000 in 2007, and another $100,000 in October 2009, but Eric Koula drained the funds down to hundreds within months, investigators testified.
Dennis Koula allegedly told his brother two days before he died that he was “all done giving to the kids,” though attorneys have argued who he meant by “kids.”
Eric Koula and his wife had no sources of income beyond his day trading.
A week after his parents’ death, Eric Koula said he received an envelope containing a letter saying only “fixed u.” The envelope had the same unique defect as two others found in his house with documents dated in 2006.
Prosecutors believe he sent the note himself, but his attorneys point out the State Crime Laboratory found five unidentified fingerprints on the letter.
Keys to the case
The state’s case is strong with motive and evidence of Eric Koula’s financial problems, said Ryan, a lawyer following the case. Eric Koula’s attorney must address his finances, inconsistent statements, the forged check and a shaky timeline.
“I think you almost have to have Eric Koula testify to explain those things,” Ryan said. “The check is an important piece. That’s the motive right there. That brings it together for the state.”
But, as his attorney points out, no one saw Eric Koula at his parents’ house the day they were killed, and his opportunity to commit the killings is tight, Ryan said.
“And that’s somewhat of a problem, but I don’t think it’s fatal because you have strong evidence of motive,” he said.
Prosecutors have not presented physical evidence or DNA tying Koula to the crimes, defense attorney Luis Delgado said.
“They have a mountain to climb,” he said. “Most people would be hard pressed to find a son to be capable of killing one parent much less than two parents for something like money.”
But prosecutors can present Koula’s financial troubles and evidence of motive to counter that, Delgado conceded.
The flawed envelope and forged check will be problems for the defense, Delgado said, but Koula’s inconsistent statements can be attributed to someone suffering shock, stress and grief.
Attorneys will present opening statements in Koula’s trial Tuesday before the jury tours his parents’ former house. The trial is set through June 29.