SALEM — If one key to Peter Ronchi’s defense is to claim he brought the hunting knife to his pregnant girlfriend’s apartment on the night he killed her with it because he feared for his safety in a “sketchy” low-income housing development, two of the state’s first three witnesses may have undercut that yesterday.
Prosecutor Jean Curran asked Tomas Cruz, one of the men who went to the aid of Yulyia Galperina’s children after they found her on the living room floor, to describe the Salem Heights apartments where he also lived.
“A normal area, safe, good people,” Cruz responded, before Curran cut him off. She had meant for him to describe the buildings themselves, the two brick high-rises, where he lived down the hall from Galperina, 42, and her young children, ages 8 and 2.
Defense lawyer John Swomley, who is defending Ronchi, 48, of Marblehead, against two counts of first-degree murder, seized on the statement.
Did the prosecutor, asked Swomley, ask him to testify that the building was safe? “No, sir,” said Cruz, who explained that he’d simply misunderstood Curran’s question.
Swomley was unpersuaded. “Did you have an understanding that talking about the building’s safety would help this case?” he pressed, suggesting that he must have spoken to either Curran or lead Salem police detective James Page before taking the stand yesterday.
Cruz was firm. “No.” He’d spoken to them weeks ago, but not about the building’s safety.
Then veteran Salem Patrolman James Johnson was asked by Swomley how often he responds to calls at Salem Heights.
Johnson estimated he’d gone there 50 to 75 times over the course of his 27-year career as a police officer.
Swomley tried to suggest that Johnson had gone there more often than any other complex in the city. But Johnson said he’s probably responded to even more calls at Pequot Highlands, another privately owned apartment complex in the city.
And, he told Curran when she resumed questioning, most of the calls tended to relate to noise complaints and neighbor disputes.
Later in the morning, Galperina’s adult daughter, Yevgenya Nepomnyashchaya, took the stand.
Under questioning by Curran, she described how she was planning to spend one to 11/2 weeks with her mother, to help with the other children before and after the baby was born. Nepomnyashchaya, 26, is a cardiac nurse who lives in New Jersey.
On Sunday, May 17, 2009, she called her mother’s phone to arrange for a ride from the train station. A police detective answered.
“I was shocked,” Nepomnyashchaya told jurors. “I thought it was a joke, some type of cruel joke. I asked for his badge number.”
Nepomnyashchaya appeared on the verge of tears, blinking fast and hard, as she recounted how the baby’s due date, May 22, became “the day we buried her.”
Ronchi’s defense lawyer began his cross-examination by immediately seeking to elicit testimony about Galperina’s at-times troubled life and her unorthodox views.
It was a line of questioning that was, for the most part, shut down again and again with an objection by the prosecutor.
At first, Swomley pressed Nepomnyashchaya for the reasons she had stopped living with her mother at the age of 12.
As it turns out, Nepomnyashchaya simply did not get along with her mother’s second husband, Leonid Altshuler.
Perhaps she just didn’t like any of the men her mother dated?
“Objection,” said Curran, the prosecutor. “Sustained,” said the judge, who reminded jurors that the questions posed by lawyers are not evidence, only the answers.
Swomley did elicit testimony from Nepomnyashchaya conceding that Ronchi had wanted to marry Galperina, who was hesitant about a third trip down the aisle. But it wasn’t for fear of losing assistance she received for her younger daughter, who suffered from a form of autism, said Nepomnyashchaya.
She just feared she was a difficult person to get along with, her daughter testified.
Swomley then turned to a series of questions aimed at Galperina’s beliefs. He asked about Galperina’s objection to immunizations, about her use of “holy water” she had ordered online, about the Russian tradition of barring guests for the first 90 days of an infant’s life, about whether the 2-year-old had ever seen a pediatrician.
Curran objected to each question, challenging their relevance or the basis of Nepomnyashchaya’s knowledge, and each objection was sustained by the judge, who again reminded jurors that the questions themselves were not evidence for them to consider.
Ronchi at one point broke down in tears yesterday, as jurors were shown photos of Galperina’s pregnant, bloodied body on the floor of her apartment, her swollen belly, marked with wounds, exposed.
That photo was shown to jurors during the testimony of Alvaro Espinal, 26, who had arrived at the apartment complex that morning to meet his friend Cruz. The two friends, who had gone to Salem High School together, also worked together at the Courtyard by Marriott in Revere, and they carpooled to their job.
But on that morning, Espinal stepped off the elevator to find two young children, a boy and a girl.
“They grabbed my hand,” he testified through a Spanish interpreter. The children led him to their apartment.
How were they acting, asked the prosecutor.
“He was calm, but he didn’t know if his mother was alive or dead,” said Espinal.
Once at the apartment, he saw Galperina’s body.
“I was scared, so I called 911,” said Espinal. A dispatcher asked him to check to see if Galperina was alive. “They asked me to put my fingers here,” he said, pointing to his own neck, “to check to see if she was breathing or her heart was still beating.”
“How did she feel?” asked Curran.
“She was cold,” Espinal said.
Testimony in the trial will resume Monday.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.