Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ranch Hand's Skull Crushed For $200,000

Second conviction in murder of ranch hand for insurance money
The Associated Press

ELKO, Nev. - An Elko County man whose wife is serving a life sentence for the 2003 killing of their ranch hand was found guilty on Monday of the same crime.

A jury in Elko found John Vernon Fields guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the beating death of his former ranch hand, Jaromir Palensky.

Fields' wife, Linda, was convicted earlier of the same crime and was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

The jury received John Fields' case on Friday and returned its verdict just before noon Monday. The judge will hand down his sentence later after conferring with both sides.

Palensky was found in January 2004 in the frigid Jordan River near Salt Lake City. His head was crushed, his boots were missing, and his wallet was not where a witness said he kept it. By most accounts, the Czech immigrant was last seen alive at the Fields' ranch east of Elko, where he worked after being released from a DUI-related prison sentence in October of 2003.

In closing arguments on Friday, the prosecution and defense acknowledged there was no direct evidence linking Vern Fields to Palensky's death. They differed, however, on how much weight should be assigned to an abundance of circumstantial evidence.

Deputy District Attorney Troy Jordan told jurors whoever killed Palensky was certainly stronger than the small Linda Fields. While a murder weapon was never found, medical examiners said Palensky was struck with a pipe, ax handle or baseball bat with such force the blows cracked his skull in three places and bruised his brain.

Jordan reminded jurors the Fieldses told people Palensky simply left, but told others he was fired and, according to one witness, Linda Fields even confessed to killing the man because he had molested a 2-year-old relative. No evidence has been produced to indicate the child was harmed by Palensky or anyone else.

Jordan said the circumstantial evidence indicated Palensky was killed somewhere on the ranch, his body was placed in the bed of a Toyota pickup and transported to Utah, where it was dumped.

"Vern Fields had 300,000 reasons to kill Jerry Palensky," said Jordan, referring to a $300,000 life insurance policy Linda Fields took out on the man and named herself as beneficiary.

In his closing, defense attorney Roger Stewart told the jury there was no evidence his client killed Palensky and there was no weapon.

"This is a very thin case," Stewart said. "It's thinner now than it was when we began."

Stewart also hypothesized Palensky was killed in Utah and challenged the county's jurisdiction since it could not be proved the victim was killed in Elko. He also suggested his client was at the mercy of an overbearing wife and questioned whether the motive theorized by the state held merit.

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