MONTICELLO — Piatt County prosecutors opened their case against a Mansfield man accused of murdering his wife 27 years ago with an unlikely witness — the dead woman.
After three long, tedious days of waiting during jury selection, the eight men and four women finally selected to hear the case against Gregory Houser, 57, heard first from Sheryl Ann Houser, who was 29 when she was found dead Oct. 5, 1990, in the garage of the family home between Mahomet and Mansfield on the Champaign-Piatt county line.
"He grabbed me with both hands on my jacket and dragged me into the bedroom. He had his hand over and in my mouth. He pushed me on to the water bed. He sat on my abdomen and legs. He took a rope and wrapped it around my left wrist. He put the sheets in my mouth to keep me from screaming," said Monticello attorney Tara Grabarczyk, reading Mrs. Houser's testimony.
Grabarczyk and Assistant Piatt County State's Attorney Elizabeth Dobson read to the jury a transcript of a Sept. 24, 1990, hearing in Gregory and Sheryl Houser's divorce case in which Mrs. Houser was seeking a protective order from a judge, temporary custody of their children and sole use of the marital home.
The hearing came just days after Mrs. Houser alleged that her husband asked her to come to their home to see the children and talk about reconciling, then sexually assaulted her.
The blockbuster testimony from the hearing came immediately after opening statements during which State's Attorney Dana Rhoades told jurors they would hear about a pattern of escalating domestic violence by Houser against his wife that culminated in him strangling her.
"All the evidence points to one person. Only one person had the motive for Sheryl Houser to be dead and that was the defendant, Gregory Houser," Rhoades said.
Defense attorney Todd Ringel of Bloomington said the state would not be able to give the jury any "direct evidence" linking his client to his wife's "horrific" death.
"Greg is not the one who did this," Ringel said, urging the jurors to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions in a case based largely on circumstantial evidence.
In September 1990, the Housers were living apart but taking turns being with their sons while their divorce was unresolved.
'He tried to suffocate me'
Mrs. Houser described to her attorney, the late Art Lerner of Champaign, and her husband's attorney, the late Keith Hays of Monticello, what had happened late on the evening of Sept. 20 after she got off work in the obstetrics unit of Carle Foundation Hospital, where she was employed as a registered nurse.
Her husband had called her earlier in the day to invite her to dinner with their three sons, then ages 6, 2 and 14 months. One of the boys had been ill and she was concerned about him. During the call, she said her husband told her that he had been in the garage late on a recent night and "heard someone in the cornfield."
When she arrived, she said her husband did not answer her knock at the door leading from their garage into the house. She entered anyway and found the house quiet and mostly dark but for a light coming from a lower-level laundry room.
She went directly to her sons' bedroom and found them sleeping. As she stood watching them, Houser appeared in the doorway and told her not to wake the boys. She smelled alcohol on his breath.
He then invited her to sit in the dining room and talk, which they did, interrupted shortly thereafter by the baby crying. She comforted their youngest son, got him back to bed, then returned to the dining room with Houser, who talked of getting back together.
When she told him she wanted no part of reconciling and that she was leaving, he grabbed her, she said.
In detail, she described how her husband pushed her on to the bed, sat on top of her, tied her wrist and stuffed sheets in her mouth.
"He tried to suffocate me by pushing my head into the mattress," she testified.
Mrs. Houser said he used a yellow nylon rope that was tied to the bed frame — first on her wrist, then later over her mouth and neck. He then got some of her clothing off her and sexually assaulted her with his hand.
'I was hysterical'
She said she tried to talk to him but he held her down with the rope across her mouth. Eventually, he got up and got a piece of paper and a pen and ordered her to write that she had consented to sex.
She ran for the door, screaming for her oldest son, only to be caught by Houser. Standing by the door, he said he would let her out if she would not call police.
"He let me out and I ran to the neighbor's," she said.
Mrs. Houser identified for the lawyers and judge several pictures taken of scratches to her face, marks on her neck, bruises on her legs and a blood blister in her mouth that she said was caused by the rope.
The photographs were taken by her mother several hours later, following her treatment at the Carle emergency room. Mrs. Houser had gone to her parents' home in rural Farmer City, then to the hospital in the early-morning hours of Sept. 21.
Later that day, she met with Lerner, then-Piatt County State's Attorney Roger Simpson and a Piatt County sheriff's deputy, who took her report.
Under questioning by Hays, Mrs. Houser said that when her husband first called her to come to their home after work, he was also upset and asked her to account for a large expenditure of money that he believed she had spent on cocaine. She denied using cocaine.
"He wanted me to drop all this and come back. He said I could lose custody. I was hysterical and don't know that I remember every detail," she told Hays, estimating they were in the bedroom 20 to 30 minutes.
At the conclusion of the transcript reading, Judge Karle Koritz adjourned the trial, underway for less than an hour, and told jurors to return at 9 a.m. Friday.
The trial is expected to take all of next week.