Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News
Mere weeks before Elizabeth Syperda married her alleged killer Michael Syperda on Jan. 31, 1998, Harper Tracey recalls overhearing him threaten to kill her and get rid of her where no one would find her, and no one would look for her.
As the trial of 58-year-old Michael Syperda continued for its third day Thursday, May 3, former friend Harper Tracey, previously known as Brenda Benda, recounted her relationship with the couple when they were residing in Winfield. Syperda is being tried by the state for first-degree murder of his estranged wife Elizabeth, who disappeared July 17, 2000.
Under oath, Tracey and later her daughter, Sadee Gideon, weaved a story of the domestic violence Elizabeth suffered at the hands of Syperda even before they were married. Tracey knew both Elizabeth and Syperda fairly well, attending church with them at Open Bible Church in Winfield and allowing her daughter Gideon to play with Syperda?s two elementary-school children at the time, Shantell Syperda and Michael Syperda, Jr.
It was winter of 1997 rolling into 1998 when Elizabeth knocked on Tracey?s door late one night looking for a place to stay. Tracey observed injuries on Elizabeth?s body, including finger marks around her neck and bruising on her arms and abdomen.
Tracey described Elizabeth as being frantic, scared and crying hysterically when she knocked on her door that night, which was only six blocks away from her home with Syperda. ?She couldn?t take any more of the abuse. She was afraid (of Syperda),? Tracey said.
Elizabeth stayed with Tracey one to two months that winter, even though Syperda came to Tracey?s home ?almost daily? to assert his presence in Elizabeth?s life. Tracey had no landline or cell phone at this time for Syperda to contact Elizabeth when she was staying at Tracey?s house.
Throughout Elizabeth?s stay with Tracey, Tracey recalled Syperda telling Elizabeth he would keep her from his children, Shantell and Michael Jr., Syperda also threatening to release compromising videos and photos of Elizabeth and threatening to kill her.
?He followed her everywhere,? Tracey said. ?(Elizabeth) said, ?I?m afraid he?s going to kill me.??
The defense argued they have no way of independently corroborating the events Tracey alleged. Defense attorney Kym Auge also repeatedly questioned Tracey as to why she did not contact the police about any of the alleged physical abuse or threats she witnessed.
Tracey said she attempted to convince Elizabeth to take the matter to the police or have her injuries looked over by a doctor, but Elizabeth refused.
At one point, Tracey and Elizabeth did talk to the one police officer in Winfield about Syperda stalking Tracey?s house, but were told nothing could be done if Syperda wasn?t on Tracey?s property.
Tracey lost touch with Elizabeth after Elizabeth married Syperda and she was no longer allowed in the Syperda residence. Elizabeth and Syperda eventually left Winfield and Tracey has had no further contact with Elizabeth since 1998.
Tracey wasn?t the only friend of Elizabeth?s to be called to the stand Thursday. Elizabeth?s best friend since elementary school, Shannon Gerber, formerly Fairman, from Truckee, Calif., recalled telling Elizabeth before she moved from Truckee to Iowa that it was a bad idea to go with Syperda and his then-wife Sally Syperda Crill.
When Elizabeth stayed with Shannon and her husband Chris Gerber in June 2000 for two days when Elizabeth was home in California for her younger brother?s high school graduation party, Shannon and Chris expressed frustration and concern over the numerous phone calls they received from Syperda at the time.
Shannon, too, overheard a phone conversation between Elizabeth and Syperda where he said he would kill her if she didn?t return to Mt. Pleasant. The threat even extended to Elizabeth?s mother, Donna Forshee, Elizabeth?s brother, Shannon herself and Shannon?s infant son.
Chris said calls seemed to come every 10 to 15 minutes, until Chris became so frustrated he unplugged the phone from the wall. Syperda?s phone records do not corroborate this account.
Before Shannon drove Elizabeth to the airport for her return trip to Iowa, she argued with Elizabeth because she didn?t want her to go back to Syperda. ?I was afraid I would never see her again,? Shannon said.
Two weeks after Elizabeth was reported as a missing person, Mt. Pleasant Police Chief Ron Archer, then a lieutenant and investigator for the department, was brought on the case to search for the woman.
After Syperda was questioned of his own volition regarding the whereabouts of his missing wife by DCI (Division of Criminal Investigation) Investigator Larry Hedlund on Sept. 3, 2000, inconsistencies in his story led Archer to seek a search warrant for Syperda?s home at 415 E. Madison Street.
Archer recalled the search lasting four hours on Sept. 5, 2000. While they found nothing to help determine the whereabouts of Elizabeth, Archer believes the most damning evidence that she is in fact dead is that her emerald and diamond ring, which she reportedly always wore, was found at Syperda?s house that day.
Archer also corroborated testimony Wednesday that Syperda was the last to see Elizabeth alive based on the case evidence of the ring and that Jarrod Krabill, a former friend and co-worker of Syperda, testified Tuesday that Syperda told him Elizabeth had been at his house on July 17, 2000 until 5 a.m.
Previously, it was believed Elizabeth?s roommate and romantic interest at the time, Sara Thomas Beckman, was the last to see Elizabeth on July 16, 2000 at 10 p.m.