SALEM — Peter Ronchi and Yulyia Galperina had bonded on a Marblehead tennis court over a shared spirituality, his lawyer told jurors yesterday.
“They were both out there,” defense lawyer John Swomley said. “They believed they could feel each other’s energy and see each other’s auras.”
But on the night Ronchi killed Galperina, Swomley contends, Galperina had taken things too far. Ronchi had already acquiesced to her refusal to undergo prenatal testing, even though her pregnancy was considered high-risk because of her age, 42. He’d already accepted that she wanted to take high doses of apricot seed, Swomley said, despite Ronchi’s concerns over their toxicity to the baby she had already named David.
Now, she wanted to bar his family from seeing the baby for the first 90 days, citing the custom in her native Russia.
On the night Galperina died, in May 2009, she began to tick off the things she wanted done. Ronchi, 48, grew angry and got up to leave, Swomley said.
“Look, if I can’t participate in any of the decisions involving our child, maybe I should just leave and send money,” Swomley quoted his client as telling Galperina.
“Don’t bother to send money,” Swomley said Galperina told Ronchi. “The child isn’t yours anyway.”
“Mr. Ronchi snapped,” Swomley told jurors.
Galperina and the baby boy she was due to deliver that week, a baby that was, DNA tests showed, Ronchi’s son, died that night. Galperina died from as many as 10 stab wounds, many of them to her back, and the unborn but viable fetus died of suffocation.
Prosecutors have charged Ronchi, of Marblehead, with two counts of first-degree murder, saying they can prove that he not only planned the killing but that he left her dying with the knowledge that her other children would find her.
But the defense is hoping to convince the Salem Superior Court jury that Ronchi, a Cornell graduate turned massage therapist, is guilty only of manslaughter, because he was unable to control his actions, due to a series of neurological and psychological problems, as well as the stress of being told the baby was not his.
“He snapped,” Swomley said, acknowledging that Ronchi killed Galperina but that he did so in the “heat of passion.”
Prosecutors see the case quite differently, pointing to evidence they say shows Ronchi planned the slaying, including the fact that Ronchi brought a hunting knife with him to the apartment that night, along with a change of clothes.
Prosecutor Jean Curran described for the jury how Ronchi had spent the earlier part of the evening of May 16, 2009, with Susan Slowick Smith. She teaches at Cape Ann Waldorf School, where Ronchi had once taught Spanish and where his two older children had gone to school.
Around 10 p.m., he arrived at Galperina’s apartment in the Salem Heights complex on Pope Street. Surveillance video showed him arriving in a pair of tan-colored pants.
About an hour later, he’s seen again on surveillance video getting on the elevator, but now dressed in a pair of dark-colored pants, Curran said.
The tan pants were found by police in Galperina’s apartment, stained with her blood.
By the time Galperina’s young children, ages 8 and 3, had awakened to find their mother’s body on the floor in a pool of blood, Ronchi was already in Connecticut, shopping at Walmart for a bicycle.
He’d packed some personal items and left others behind at his Taft Street home, including a bloodstained jacket and sneakers.
He also left behind, in a wastebasket, a torn-up copy of a will he’d written, a will that made no reference to the baby he and Galperina were expecting. Ronchi named his older children the “sole beneficiaries” of the trust his own mother had established for him years earlier.
Ronchi had, however, taken the knife, a nearly 6-inch long hunting knife that investigators found in his minivan in Connecticut. Both the knife and its sheath were stained with Galperina’s blood, Curran said.
Swomley told jurors that Ronchi “always” brought the knife when he went to visit Galperina, describing the low-income but privately owned Salem Heights as a “sketchy” place where “someone like Mr. Ronchi might not feel safe.”
The change of pants? Swomley said Ronchi changed into a pair of pants he found on the floor.
As for the will, Swomley told jurors, it had, after all, been torn up. Ronchi’s brother later produced a will from a file cabinet that included the unborn child, the defense lawyer said.
Ronchi turned himself in to police in Norwalk, Conn., the following day. Swomley said Ronchi was lying in the woods when he suddenly “felt Galperina’s aura,” then went in search of a police station.
But prosecutors have moved to bar the confession, calling it “self-serving.”
Earlier in the day, before the jury was sworn in, the prosecution and defense continued wrangling over the evidence they’ll be allowed to use during the trial.
One issue that remains unresolved is whether Galperina’s son, who is now 12, will be allowed to testify and, if so, whether he can be asked about finding his mother’s body.
The defense has subpoenaed the boy, who now lives with his father in Florida, with the intention of asking him about the relationship between Ronchi and Galperina.
During a hearing yesterday, those lawyers asked Judge David Lowy to bar prosecutors from then eliciting testimony from the boy about finding his mother, saying it would be too prejudicial against their client.
While Curran told the judge she had not sought out the boy’s testimony, if he takes the stand, she may seek to ask him about the discovery.
The defense, however, countered with a case very familiar to both Curran and the Salem police detectives in the courtroom yesterday, that of Jerome McNulty, whose first-degree murder conviction was overturned. In a side issue in that decision, the state’s highest court raised concerns about the effect on the jury of testimony of the daughter of McNulty’s victim, who found her mother dying on the bedroom floor.
Lowy has not yet ruled on the issue of the boy’s testimony.
Testimony from witnesses is expected to get under way this morning.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.