YAKIMA, Wash. — A Selah police officer who discovered the body of murder victim Carolyn Clift more than 15 years ago testified Tuesday she was an obvious victim of foul play.
Sgt. Guillermo “Bill” Rodriguez told a Yakima County jury he found Clift’s nude body on the living room floor of her apartment while investigating a suspicious circumstances call on the night of Aug. 28, 1997.
Clift had a “large hole” in her back, Rodriguez testified, adding that another officer checked her vital signs and found none. The killer, or killers, were gone. It was Selah’s first murder in 10 years; there hasn’t been another since.
Rodriguez was one of the first witnesses in the evidence-gathering trial of Michael O. Gorski, 62, and Frank Brugnone, 59, who are being tried jointly for their alleged roles in the slaying of the 56-year-old Clift.
In opening statements earlier Tuesday, veteran deputy prosecutor Patti Powers said Clift’s body was discovered by officers in response to a neighbor’s report of screaming from Clift’s apartment.
“This trial is about her death, ladies and gentlemen, and this trial is about the men charged with causing her death,” she told the jury.
She said an autopsy determined Clift, who lived alone at the Selah Square Apartments on North Wenas Road, had been stabbed several times. One of the stab wounds was so powerful that it penetrated her upper backbone and severed her spinal cord, Powers said. She also suffered stab wounds to the heart and to her abdomen.
Gorski once told a detective that he had given Clift a ride home from a liquor store that night, but didn’t go into her apartment, Powers said.
New DNA testing of forensic evidence now links him to the murder, she said, citing Marlboro cigarette butts that were found at the crime scene as well as a pair of eyeglasses and clippings from Clift’s fingernails.
Brugnone became a suspect after a witness came forward following a 2007 Yakima Herald-Republic story on the 10th anniversary of the unsolved slaying, Powers said.
The witness knew both suspects and remembered seeing them “ducking down” in the parking lot of Clift’s apartment complex on the night of the attack, Powers said, adding Brugnone later gave detectives a statement that incriminated himself and Gorski. They were roommates at the time.
Gorski’s attorney, John Crowley, conceded in his opening statement that his client had been to Clift’s apartment on the night of her murder and that he had lied about aspects of that encounter.
He described Gorski as a then-47-year-old furniture store salesman who had a drinking problem and a lifestyle of “tomcatting” that had led to two divorces.
Crowley said those reasons were enough for Gorski to tell a detective only “half the truth” because he didn’t want to upset a young woman he was seeing at the time.
Calling into question the sequence of events that night, particularly the time of the attack, Crowley said Clift “made a play” for his client at her apartment and that Gorski hurriedly left.
All of that happened long before Clift was killed, Crowley said. He promised the jury his client would testify in his own defense.
“Mike is certainly not perfect,” he told the jury, “but he’s also not a killer.”
Brugnone’s attorney, Adolfo Banda, directed his comments to trial judge Ruth Reukauf, who will decide Brugnone’s fate at his request, rather than the jury. Such a strategy is called a bench trial.
Banda told the judge a Selah detective elicited what amounts to a false confession from his client and that there is no physical evidence linking Brugnone to the scene of the crime.
“Not one witness can put Mr. Brugnone in that apartment on the night of the murder,” Banda said, adding “Not a speck of evidence, no DNA, nothing.”
• Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ChrisJBristol.