A Putnam County jury deliberated for two hours Thursday afternoon before being told they would continue their discussions Friday morning.
Richard Kereta, 45, formerly a Putnam resident now residing in Princeton, is charged with 10 counts for allegedly running over and severely injuring 17-year-old Nicole Engelbrecht in 2007. Kereta, whose charges include aggravated reckless driving and aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, took the stand Thursday morning to testify.
Kereta's testimony did not match up with the statements made earlier in the trial by Michael Engelbrecht, Nicole's father. According to Michael, Kereta, who was living with the family on Nov. 30, 2007, drank three alcoholic beverages throughout the day and six more beers on the ride home after a day of trapping raccoons.
Kereta said he had two drinks with lunch that day, and one more in Henry at approximately 4:30 p.m.
He met with Nicole shortly after his drink in Henry because he received a call from her.
"Nicole was not in a really good mood," he said.
Kereta claims Nicole had found marijuana in her house several days earlier and was upset with her mother.
When they reached their Putnam home, Kereta said Nicole was still angry.
"I stuck up for her mom and dad kind of," he said.
The two were going to pick up Kereta's children in Henry after he put away the milk he had just purchased in town, he said. When Nicole didn't come in the house, he looked out the
window and saw the truck was not in the driveway, he said. He then saw a vehicle's headlights on the road near the house.
"I tried calling Nicole," he said.
When she didn't pick up, Kereta said, "I went down to get her."
He walked the approximate one-third of a mile, including walking through a creek, in around three and one-half or four minutes, he said.
The headlights were on the Toyota sport utility vehicle Nicole and Kereta co-owned, the door was open, but Kereta said he didn't see Nicole.
"I looked for Nicole. I found her on the side of the road," he said. "Her hair was over her face. When I pulled her hair back I could see dried blood on her face."
Kereta denied attempting to put the truck keys he was holding into her hands, as a former Henry police officer said Tuesday Kereta tried to do.
"I was just worried about keeping her alive," he said. "They had to physically remove me from her. I couldn't move."
Kereta posed a different scenario for how Nicole was struck by the Toyota, compared to an accident reconstructionist's testimony Wednesday.
Whereas the reconstructionist said a motorist had to be operating the vehicle, Kereta said he believes no one was operating the vehicle, that Nicole was struck by the rear of the truck as it rolled on the level road.
"How was the headlight broke then?" special prosecutor Charles Zalar asked.
When Kereta answered that question with a question of his own, Judge Kevin Galley lectured him about answering the questions posed to him. Galley had previously told Kereta during his testimony that he was to only answer questions that were posed to him, and not provide unprompted narratives.
"We will not have this conversation a fourth time," Galley told him.
Nicole claimed in her computer-assisted testimony on Tuesday - she is still unable to speak almost two years after the accident - that she and Kereta had a verbal argument about how she didn't want him to smoke pot in her vehicle. Because of the argument she exited the truck, started walking toward her home and saw Kereta enter the driver's side of the vehicle. That was the last thing she remembered before waking up after a six-month coma, she testified.
Kereta denied being in the truck at the time Nicole was hit, as well as making any statements about pot.
"No, I don't smoke pot," he said.
When asked why he didn't tell the dispatcher what had happened to Nicole during his 911 call that night, he said he doesn't really remember talking to her because he was too busy trying to help Nicole.
"I love her with all my heart," he said. "She's family, like my kids."
Kereta was asked about the statement he made on the 911 tape: "I didn't want her to get hurt."
"No, I don't believe I would have said that," he said.
"If he did, that would not be any kind of admission, he added.
"I did not hurt her, sir," he said.
During closing statements, Putnam County State's Attorney Jim Mack said, "The defendant's a liar. (Putnam County Deputy) Chad Haage had it right that night."
Kereta's claim that he had two drinks at lunch and another drink at 4:30 p.m. doesn't jibe with his blood alcohol content, which was .038 when it was tested at approximately 8:30 p.m. that night, Mack said.
"He would have had no alcohol in his system," Mack said.
Mack said Kereta's claim that Nicole had dried blood on her face shortly after the accident was not plausible
Any blood would not have dried in such a short time, he said.
"Again, not credible," he said.
Kereta was only truthful about one thing on the stand, according to Mack.
"He admitted that his license was revoked," he said.
Mack said Kereta was under the influence of alcohol during the accident.
"The evidence is clear," he said.
In closing, Mack quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying, "No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar."
Kereta's attorney Bob Nolan argued during his closing statements that not enough proof had been presented to show that Kereta was drunk or even driving the vehicle that hit Nicole.
"We don't think that the full story has been told," Nolan said.
He cautioned the jurors that they can't let sympathy for Nicole sway their verdict.
"These cases are hard," he said. "It's a shame what Nicole has had to go through."
Zalar, during his closing statements, told the jury they only have to decide two things: Was Kereta driving the vehicle when it struck Nicole and was he under the influence of alcohol.
The taped interview between Haage and Kereta showed one thing quite clearly, he said.
"He's (Kereta) got a hair-trigger temper," Zalar said. "What if he was just trying to scare her?"
He reminded the jury of Kereta's comment on the 911 tape - "I didn't want her to get hurt."
"I can't think of any other reason he would make that statement unless he was the cause," Zalar said.