Clay D. Starbuck is either a calculated, cold-blooded killer who desecrated the body of his ex-wife or the victim of investigators who stopped looking for the real killer, according to opening arguments in his murder trial Thursday.
Attorneys on both sides spoke during the long-awaited trial to determine the fate of Starbuck, 48, who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if he’s convicted of aggravated first-degree murder and sexually violating human remains.
Chanin D. Starbuck, 41, who married and divorced the defendant twice, was found dead in a sexually suggestive position in her home at 509 N. Reiper St. in Deer Park on Dec. 3, 2011. Although she made a brief 911 call on Dec. 1, 2011, the dispatcher did not turn that information over to deputies, and the body wasn’t found for two more days.
Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz calmly described the evidence, including DNA evidence found on Chanin Starbuck’s neck and fingernails that probably came from either Clay Starbuck or their two sons. Both the boys were either at work or school on the day she was killed.
The victim “had bruising from head to toe,” Steinmetz said. “She had six fractured ribs from the beating.”
The autopsy determined that Chanin Starbuck, who also had bleeding under her scalp, died from strangulation which took “a half-hour to two hours” to kill her.
Steinmetz pointed out to the jury that the doors to Chanin Starbuck’s home showed no sign of forced entry. Detectives didn’t find any evidence to back up Clay Starbuck’s claim that his car broke down on the way to pick up their children to take them to school, he said.
In court records, Spokane County sheriff’s detectives wrote that they believe the broken-down car story was a ruse to allow Clay Starbuck to walk to his ex-wife’s home and surprise her. Steinmetz noted that two other men – John Kenlein and Tom Walker – both were texting Chanin Starbuck about upcoming dates on the day she probably died.
In fact, Kenlein, a Lewis and Clark High School teacher, told detectives he went to Chanin Starbuck’s home three times on the day investigators believe she was killed. But Kenlein claimed he knocked on doors and a window and got no response.
Someone then began texting messages to Walker and Kenlein from Chanin Starbuck’s phone, probably after she was killed, Steinmetz said.
Defense attorney Derek Reid said investigators tested that telephone and found the DNA of an unidentified man who wasn’t Clay Starbuck.
Investigators also found semen on the victim’s body that came from yet another unidentified male.
Reid offered a possible explanation for how the victim had Clay Starbuck’s DNA on her: “Chanin had been to Mr. Starbuck’s house as recently as the night before.”
On Dec. 1, 2011, Chanin Starbuck did not show up for son Blake Starbuck’s basketball game, and phone records indicate Clay Starbuck was texting his ex-wife, inquiring about her whereabouts.
The next day, Clay Starbuck called Crime Check asking for deputies to conduct a welfare check on his ex-wife, Reid said. But she wasn’t discovered until yet another call on Dec. 3.
After they found his ex-wife, Clay Starbuck agreed to be interviewed, offered samples of his DNA and handed over his telephone “freely, willingly and voluntarily,” Reid said.
“Law enforcement does a cursory investigation on other individuals. But running out of leads, they turn their attention on Mr. Starbuck,” Reid said.
He noted that Detective Mike Ricketts requested several items to be tested for DNA. But technicians at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for some reason didn’t test everything.
What they did test found “two male contributors” whose identity is unknown. Technicians also found what appeared to be blood on one of Chanin Starbuck’s fingers “but they intentionally swabbed around the blood,” Reid said.
Reid indicated that Starbuck will testify in his own defense in the trial, which could stretch into June and has attracted the attention of national television shows “48 Hours” and “Dateline NBC.”
“At the end of all the evidence,” Reid said, “I will ask you to find Mr. Starbuck not guilty.”
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