By ROCCO LaDUCA / Talk of the Town – TALK! 100.7 FM
UTICA – If there’s anything Kaitlyn Conley could say to explain why Mary Yoder was killed, she’s keeping it to herself for now.
But as far as the jury is concerned, as well as the Yoder family, Conley did it. And as far as the 24-year-old Sauquoit women is concerned, she did not.
“With all due respect to the justice system and the jury system, I am innocent,” Conley spoke with tearful breaths Thursday in Oneida County Court. There are many voices who also believe in her innocence, and to them Conley said, “I would like to thank my family and friends and strangers for standing up in support of me. That is all, thank you.”
In the minds of Mary Yoder’s husband, son and daughters, however, there’s no doubt that Conley planned and plotted to kill the 60-year-old chiropractor with a deadly dose of the toxic powder colchicine on July 22, 2015. Although Conley was acquitted of intentional murder and found guilty of a lesser first-degree manslaughter charge, the Yoder family made clear that they will always see Conley as an evil and depraved murderer.
And for that, the Yoder family argued that Conley should receive the most severe punishment.
“I think the best thing we can do for everyone involved is to keep her locked away for as long as legally possible,” Mary Yoder’s husband, Bill, told Judge Michael L. Dwyer. “I am not asking for the maximum sentence out of vengeance or hatred, but out of a sense of justice – just payment for the years stolen from Mary, just payment for the years stolen from her family.”
Ultimately, Judge Dwyer sentenced Conley to 23 years in prison – just two years shy of the maximum, and far above the minimum of 5 years.
But as Conley now heads to state prison, so many mysteries will follow her. Nobody can prove exactly how, when or where Mary Yoder was poisoned, nor can anyone say with any certainty why Mary Yoder was targeted.
All anyone can do is speculate, and the Yoder family believes – “as far as we know,” they’ve stated – that Mary Yoder is dead for one simple and troubling reason: Because Conley wanted revenge against Adam Yoder, her ex-boyfriend, for some unknown reason.
“So what did she do? Did she post nasty comments on Facebook like other normal people do? No, to get even with my son she decided to murder his mother,” Bill Yoder said in court.
“What makes it worse for me is that Mary’s life ended as if it simply didn’t matter at all,” Bill Yoder added. “Mary was killed just to hurt somebody else…. Mary loved Katie as if Katie were her own daughter, and yet for Katie, Mary’s life simply didn’t matter.”
SAGA OF SPECULATION
It is the lingering questions surrounding Mary Yoder’s death that left so much room for speculation, where rumors and gossip could take on a life of their own. With so many unknowns, layer upon layer of circumstantial evidence made it ripe for people to seek out their own explanations for whatever they believe happened, relying upon open-ended interpretations that could seemingly validate any variety of theory that surfaced throughout this case.
Perhaps that’s why some pointed the finger of blame toward Bill Yoder in his wife’s death, while others saw Adam Yoder as the person responsible for killing his mother. While no tangible evidence ever linked Bill or Adam Yoder to the beloved chiropractor’s poisoning, their own behavior and comments before and after Mary Yoder’s death gave some people enough reason to be suspicious of them while Conley seemed like the least likely suspect.
No matter how much of Conley’s DNA was found on the bottle of colchicine, no matter how much Conley’s anonymous letter to investigators led them to believe Conley was trying to frame Adam Yoder, and no matter how much Conley’s cellphone and office computer were linked to ordering the deadly toxin, it just wasn’t enough to convince those people still struggling to accept the thought that Conley would have plotted such an awful act of torture.
Twelve jurors couldn’t agree the first time Conley went to trial for second-degree murder last May, while a second set of jurors rejected the prosecution’s original theory that Conley intended to kill Mary Yoder. Instead, on Nov. 7 the jury finally settled on a verdict concluding that Conley only meant to seriously sicken Mary Yoder, with the unintended consequence of killing her.
Either way, it was Conley versus Adam and Bill Yoder as Conley’s defense attorneys and prosecutors twice battled for the juror’s favor. In the end, Conley was found guilty, but only after Bill and Adam Yoder were painted as people who would kill their own family member.
‘I HATE KAITLYN ANNE CONLEY’
When it was time for Adam Yoder to finally address Conley in court this week, he slammed down his fist as he made clear that enough is enough.
“I want the lies about my mother and I having a negative relationship to stop,” Adam Yoder said, dismissing any speculation that he had a motive to sicken his mother. “But more importantly, I want the lies about my parents’ relationship to stop. Hands down, my parents have had the best marriage I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.”
While Conley has never admitted any responsibility for Mary Yoder’s poisoning, Adam did acknowledge his own “most unforgivable mistake.”
“I introduced Katie Conley to my family,” Adam Yoder said. “I am the reason she met my family, and I am the reason she continued to be a member of my family after our romantic relationship had ended.”
All the severe anxiety, depression and PTSD that Adam Yoder has suffered in the two years since Mary Yoder’s death is, he said, for one simple reason: “Self-hatred.”
“I hate the defendant with every bone in my body and every drop of blood in my veins – I hate Kaitlyn Anne Conley because Kaitlyn Anne Conley murdered my mother,” Adam Yoder said, shouting and pointing toward his former girlfriend as she sat still and silently looking forward, with her family lining the seats behind her. “As far as any of us can guess, she did so to cause me maximum pain and to devastate me completely and permanently.”
Adam Yoder continued: “But make no mistake, as much as I hate her – more than I ever thought I would be capable of hating anyone – I hate myself infinitely more. I introduced her to my family. I got her a job with my parents. If I hadn’t done those things, my mother would still be alive.”
Overcome with emotion, he finished: “And I live with that pain from the torture of that truth. I promise every person in this courtroom that I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.”
THE WHOLE WORLD’S A LITTLE DARKER
Yes, Mary Yoder is the victim in all of this, Bill Yoder said, but so are all of her family and those who have been devastated by her death.
“I see pain in my children’s eyes every time I’m with them,” Bill Yoder explained to the judge, reading from a prepared statement. “Mary was the center of our family – the glue that held us all together, the person that everyone was closest to, the person that everyone turned to in times of need. It’s also a loss for all those she would have touched if her life hadn’t been cut short.”
Bill Yoder finished, “The day Mary died, the world lost someone truly, truly wonderful. Now the whole world’s a little darker without Mary here.”
Although Bill Yoder also expressed his everlasting love for his wife, there was no mention throughout the sentencing of the romantic relationship that Bill Yoder soon developed with his sister-in-law shortly after Mary Yoder’s death. Although Bill Yoder maintains that he became close with his wife’s sister, Kathy Richmond, only after her death, this relationship helped fuel the belief among some of Mary Yoder’s own sisters that Bill Yoder had something to do with his wife’s death.
IN MY HEART OF HEARTS
But when one of Mary Yoder’s sisters, Janine King, was able to speak in court Thursday on Conley’s behalf, she held back from personally attacking Bill Yoder. Instead, King explained that her sister only had “all good things” to say about Conley, who had been a “godsend” when she first began working for the Yoders’ chiropractic office at Adam Yoder’s request.
“Katie is from a good, supportive family,” King said. “In her own words, her goals are to finish college, get married, and to be a mother – hardly the goals of the calculating, diabolical monster the prosecution team has portrayed her to be.”
King continued, standing next to Conley as she teared up, “When my sister talked about Kaitlyn, it was lovingly and with pride – more like a mother talking about her own daughter. This is the bond that existed between them. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that Kaitlyn would ever hurt Mary. I believe that she has been wrongfully convicted, and this is an instance where our justice system has failed.”
Once King finished reading her statement and asking for mercy upon Conley, Judge Dwyer spoke up.
“May I ask you a question?” Dwyer said. “If Adam Yoder was sitting in that chair right now, what would you recommend to me?”
After a brief pause to this unexpected question about King’s nephew, she replied softly: “I have no answer to that.”
King’s son and Mary Yoder’s nephew, David King, submitted a statement on Conley’s behalf, but he was not allowed to speak in court.
“In spending time with Kaitlyn’s parents, siblings and friends, I do not believe Kaitlyn fabricated her entire persona from childhood to adulthood to achieve this one heinous act in a series of duplicitous events as a 22-year-old woman,” King wrote in a statement submitted to the court. “Kaitlyn is trusted and loved by those who know her, they are not spellbound by some diabolical nature… Despite my position as a victim of this case, and not without compassion for Mary’s loss and the loved ones she left behind, I continue to believe in the innocence of Kaitlyn Conley.”
Conley’s current defense attorney, Frank Policelli, also quoted from a number of letters written in support of Conley, including a comment from her own mother, Cathy Conley: “A mother knows her child.”
Those words had often been repeated many times over the years by another woman – Sylvia Barnes, the mother of Steven Barnes, who had served nearly 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of killing 16-year-old Kimberly Simon in 1985. Now, in court Thursday, Sylvia Barnes took a seat behind the Conley family as she watched Conley get sentenced for a crime that Sylvia Barnes believes Conley is likewise being wrongfully convicted of.
THE KILLER HAD BEEN IN MY HOME
As both of Mary Yoder’s daughters – Tamaryn Yoder and Liana Hegde – took turns tearfully addressing the court, they both recalled the horrible pain they witnessed their mother endure in the final two days of her life. As the toxic colchicine slowly destroyed Mary Yoder’s body from inside out, her family stood by in the hospital helplessly without knowing that someone had poisoned her.
“I saw the life fade from her eyes again and again,” Tamaryn Yoder recalled. “She wanted to live. She wanted to enjoy life with her family and friends, and to watch her grandchildren grow up.”
But, Tamaryn said, “My family now has a life sentence of anger and loss, fear and pain.”
It was fear that paralyzed the Yoder family, Liana Hegde said, once they learned that Conley was believed to be responsible for Mary Yoder’s shocking death.
“She had been in my home – the killer had been in my home,” Hegde said. That fueled “unrelenting, all-consuming fear that someone else was going to die, and we were powerless to stop it. Not only was my mom’s life taken, but we were all under attack.”
As Mary Yoder’s marriage, her family and her integrity were “publicly ripped to shreds” in the two years since, Liana Hegde never lost sight of the true person her mother really was.
“My mother represented the very best of humanity,” Hegde said as a photograph of Mary Yoder stood in the front of the courtroom, smiling upon them. “Her guiding force through life was simple – love – a love that was abundant, generous, forgiving, unconditional and limitless.”
Yet, no matter how much love Mary Yoder showed Conley, Hegde said Conley stood by in the hospital as Mary Yoder died, without saying a single word that may have helped saved her life.
“She did nothing,” Hegde said of Conley. “She wanted to be there to see it happen.”
THE JUDGE’S FINAL WORDS
It was those final moments that left the biggest impression upon Judge Dwyer as he considered what punishment Conley deserved to face.
“The last two days of Mary Yoder’s life stand out to me,” Dwyer explained. “Two days may not seem like an awful long time, but if you have a ventilator down your throat and your arms and legs are strapped to the bed, they are an excruciating long time. She went through agony over and over until the end.”
Dwyer continued, “I am also aware of the fact that the evidence presented at the trial indicates that Ms. Conley was the only person at that time that knew why this was happening, and how her life was going to end.”
And for this “agony and torture,” Dwyer sentenced Conley to prison for the next 23 years. Without any reaction, Conley stood up, looked over her shoulder and gave one final quick wave and smile to her family before being taken away.
LITTLE TO SAY FROM KAITLYN
Outside the courtroom, Policelli said he already filed a notice to appeal Conley’s conviction, which will be handled by Syracuse appellate attorney John Cirando. As far as why Conley had said no more than a few words at her sentencing, Policelli explained that there was nothing much more Conley could say.
“Here’s the problem: You can get a lower sentence if you’re a defendant who admits their guilt, is remorseful, shows that they’ve learned their lesson and they’ll never do it again,” Policelli said. “But when you’re innocent, you can’t say anything except ‘I’m innocent,’ and that’s what happened here. So, it becomes a question of retribution.”
Although Policelli believes Conley’s 23-year sentence is a “little bit harsh,” the prosecutor believes it is a “very good sentence,” considering “the hell she put the family through.”
JURY’S VERDICT – THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS
“It will never bring Mary Yoder back, and I think the Yoder family is so fractured I wonder if they’ll ever be a family again – a true family again,” said Oneida County Assistant District Attorney Laurie Lisi, who prosecuted the case with First Assistant District Attorney Michael Coluzza and Assistant District Attorney Stacey Scotti. “Mary Yoder was the heart and soul of that family, so whatever sentence was meted out today is never going to make up for that.”
While Bill and Adam Yoder faced public accusations that they may have been involved in Mary Yoder’s death, Lisi said “thank God we have the jury system that we have.”
“The only thing that I’m concerned about, and that I care anything about, is the jury verdict,” Lisi told news reporters. “I don’t care what public sentiment is, I don’t care what the media has to say, I don’t care about the speculation and the rumor and the innuendo – the only thing that matters is what the jury’s verdict was.”
After persisting with this case for more than two years, working hand in hand with investigators from the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office, Lisi held back tears as she described her feelings at finally achieving the long-awaited justice she sought.
“Great… great,” Lisi said, her voice softening. “I had a great team. We worked very hard, and … just ecstatic, just ecstatic. But it is an emotional toll, so I can only imagine what the family has gone through those last two years.”
For a time, Conley had been treated like a member of the Yoder family. She was there to celebrate holidays and to babysit their grandchildren, to work the front desk at Mary and Bill Yoder’s chiropractic office, and then Conley was there once again with the family as Mary Yoder died. And in their time of mourning, Conley did whatever she could to help the Yoder family.
But now, after Conley disappeared into custody one last time, each member of the Yoder family walked out of the courtroom, silently one by one, with Conley never to be part of their family ever again.
You can follow Rocco on Twitter at @RoccoLaDuca, or email Rocco at: RoccoL@wutqfm.com.