Prosecutor: Suspect Charles McCormick's DNA found under slain woman's fingernail

January 30, 2008 

BEAUFORT -- Charles McCormick's DNA was found beneath the fingernails of his slain estranged wife, Solicitor Duffie Stone revealed in his opening statement Tuesday at the Beaufort County Courthouse.

The body of Ellen McCormick, 50, a Hilton Head Island Realtor, was found inside her burned Bluffton home on New Year's Day 2006. She had been severely beaten and shot in the back of the head with the shotgun, Stone said.

Charles McCormick has been charged with murder, second-degree arson and possession of a firearm during commission of a violent crime. He and his wife legally separated two months before her death. He has denied all charges.

Stone alleges that the 51-year-old suspect killed his wife because he was losing control of his marriage, spouse and home.

"Ellen McCormick before she died took something with her," Stone said. "She didn't go quietly. She fought. She held onto something until a pathologist removed it. That something was Charles McCormick's blood under her fingernails."

Investigators also found a drinking glass and lemon peel along a wooded footpath between Westbury Park and Baywood, the neighborhood where Ellen McCormick was living. After his arrest, Charles McCormick -- described as drunk and belligerent when initially questioned -- told a detective he had been drinking vodka and tonic that evening at his sister's home in Westbury Park.

The glass, consistent with his sister's glassware, was processed for DNA and the liquid inside analyzed. Results from those tests are expected to be presented today.

So far, no evidence or testimony has directly linked Charles McCormick to the slaying or fire.

Defense attorney Sam Bauer asked the jury of six men and six women to reserve judgment until all the facts are in. He did not address specific evidence in his opening remarks.

"This is, in some degree, a circumstantial-evidence case," Bauer said. "There's going to be no one who gets up and says 'I saw Mr. McCormick shoot Mrs. McCormick.' "

The prosecution spent the day setting the scene, listing the evidence and describing how detectives quickly honed in on the estranged husband as a suspect.

Prosecutors spoke of a Charles McCormick as a jilted lover and ruled out a robbery motive through the testimony of detectives who found Ellen McCormick's camera, cash and jewelry untouched.

During his interrogation in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 2006, lead detective Capt. Bob Bromage noticed a bleeding cut on the palm of Charles McCormick's right hand. McCormick told him it was more than a day old and was caused by Barley, the couple's large dog.

Dr. Roger Sorg, a Hilton Head pathologist, examined the cut that morning and determined it to be much fresher, between four and 10 hours old, within the timeframe of the slaying. He characterized it as a "defensive wound," and said it was consistent with a fingernail scratch, although he conceded other hard objects could have caused it.

Early testimony focused on the fire at the home on Baywood Drive and the discovery of Ellen McCormick's body.

Firefighters testified to finding an open propane cylinder and empty gasoline can. All of the home's smoke detectors were dismantled. The garage looked like a "big bright fireball," said firefighter Derek Franks, leader of the first truck to arrive that evening.

Franks and another fireman found Ellen McCormick's body in the smoke-filled living room and carried it the porch, where a paramedic testified, "her brain was missing from her cranial cavity."

Stone said Ellen McCormick was shot while laying on the floor with the pillow on her head.

State crime scene investigators collected a slug from the home's concrete foundation and several pieces of plastic. No usable fingerprints were found in the home because of the heat and water used to extinguish the flames, according to Special Agent Al Stuckey of the State Law Enforcement Division.

Repeated searches by deputies, dogs and divers did not recover the murder weapon.

While searching the house of Charles McCormick's mother in Pennsylvania, a Beaufort County detective found a case containing a 12-gauge shotgun. The memory foam next to it indicated another long-gun consistent with a shotgun previously had been stored there, Cpl. Eric Calendine testified.

A state arson expert said the fire originated in the garage sometime around 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2006, but said the flames never made it into the main living quarters of the home. Six carpet samples taken throughout the home tested positive for the presence of accelerants.

"Whoever set this fire wanted plenty of time to get out and be somewhere else by the time it was found," said Lt. Timothy Craig Collier, the SLED arson investigator.

A note recovered from Charles McCormick's pickup was admitted into evidence over defense attorney Bauer's objections. The handwritten note, addressed to Charles McCormick's sister read, in part, " ... sorry, but some (stuff) happens ...Ellen thinks she's in control well Here's the Monkey Wrench ... I know this may seem wrong. ..."

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