Kathy Taft's accused killer attacked wife days before arrest
The wife of Jason Williford described her husband's behavior leading up to and following state school board member Kathy Taft's death while testifying Tuesday in his first-degree murder trial.Posted — Updated
Jessica Foote said Williford, 32, had been drinking and was the most intoxicated she had ever seen him during the course of their four-year relationship.
"He grabbed my left arm and put it behind my back and threw me down so that my face and head were on the bed and my feet were on the floor," Foote recalled. "I just kept screaming, 'Get off me.' Eventually, he made one more forceful shove and threw his hands up in the air."
After Williford left the bedroom, Foote continued, she locked the door and pre-dialed 911 on her cellphone, in case she needed to call later.
On cross-examination, she admitted to Williford's attorneys that she neglected to tell police about the attack, because she thought it would make him look bad.
In fact, she told a police detective that Williford "wouldn't hurt a fly," his attorney, Michael Driver, pointed out. She also testified that, when he was sober, Williford was a caring person.
"I believed that withholding certain information would have protected him. I thought he was being framed for something that police couldn't figure out," Foote said. "My brain was working against me."
Police arrested Williford on April 16, 2010, and charged him with first-degree murder, first-degree rape and first-degree burglary in Taft's death.
The longtime school board member was recovering from cosmetic surgery at the Raleigh home of a friend and companion on March 6, 2010, when, prosecutors say, Williford intentionally attacked her in the early-morning hours.
Although Williford's attorneys admit he attacked Taft, they contend a variety of mental disorders kept him from having the capacity to form the intent to commit the crime, which is needed for a first-degree murder conviction.
The defense objected to Foote's testimony about the attempted rape, but in arguing for it, prosecutors said Williford was able to control himself because he did not carry out the attack on his wife.
Foote, who filed for divorce two weeks ago, told jurors that she knew Williford was seeing a mental health professional and had been prescribed lithium but wasn't aware of the extent of his mental issues.
"Jason never talked to me about anything that bothered him or suggested at all that he was having problems other than alcoholism," she said.
On the morning of Taft's attack, Foote said, Williford had been drinking and partying with a friend at their home and that she had been "furious" that they were keeping her awake.
Williford returned from taking his friend home around 2:30 a.m. that day, she recalled. The two argued some, and Williford left again.
He didn't return for a long time.
"I remember lying in bed and checking the clock. It was about 5, I suppose (when he returned)," Foote said. "He was in his boxer shorts. That was it. He didn't say anything. He crawled in the bed, rolled over and appeared to be asleep."
A couple hours earlier, less than two blocks away from the Willifords' apartment, Taft's sister, Dina Holton, was awakened by noises in the house.
Holton had been staying with Taft while she recovered from her surgery. The two spent the afternoon watching movies and eating ice cream. Holton helped her sister to bed around 9 p.m., then cleaned the kitchen and fell asleep on the couch.
She was subpoenaed to testify at Williford's trial but is in a local hospital, prosecutors said.
Raleigh police homicide detective Sgt. Jason Hodge, however, interviewed Holton several times after Taft's death, including once when she walked through the home and re-enacted the events of that night.
"At one point, she actually got up, leaned up on the couch and said, 'Who is in this house?'" Hodge said. "She kept hearing noises. She didn't know what it was."
Holton also got up and went to the door of the home and noticed it was unlocked. She opened the door, turned on the outside lights and yelled, Hodge said.
"I thought, ‘We're safe. Everything's OK,’" Holton told Hodge in a video of the re-enactment.
She then locked the door and walked to her sister's bedroom, pushing the door open slightly but keeping the lights off.
"I didn't want to wake her," Holton said. "It sounded like she was fine."
According to a clock above the TV in the den, that was around 3 a.m., Holton told Hodge.
More than six hours later, Holton found her sister unresponsive and bloodied in her bed.
At WakeMed, doctors realized she had been beaten in the head with a blunt object. She had also been raped.
Foote recalled seeing police cars in the neighborhood later that day and Williford researching what had happened while at his parents' house that evening.
"Jason went upstairs and went on Internet and was looking at what happened," Foote said. "He said a lady was attacked in our neighborhood, and I should lock the doors when he wasn't home."
Taft died from her injuries, three days later, on March 9, 2010.
Semen found on Taft's bed sheet prompted police to canvass the neighborhood where she had been staying and to collect voluntary DNA samples from male neighbors.
All but Williford consented, lead homicide detective Zeke Morse said.
"The whole interaction (with Williford) was different than what I was experiencing," he said.
Unlike other neighbors, who asked many questions and invited detectives into their home for interviews that lasted no less than an hour, Williford asked no questions, expressed no concern for his or his wife's safety and kept police outside his home and the interviews short, Morse said.
When confronted about not giving his DNA, Williford said his parents told him never to do so, and he cited his Fourth Amendment right to refuse unreasonable searches.
Police eventually got Williford's DNA from a discarded cigarette butt in the apartment complex's parking lot, and they arrested him late in the afternoon on April 16, 2010, at Jordan Lake.
"I found Jason handcuffed and seated in a lawn chair," Morse said of when he arrived at the campground after the arrest.
Foote was standing next to him, unsure of what was going on, she said.
"All I could really do was stare off into the space of the lake and trees and try and grasp that this was reality," she said. "I really don't know what was going on."
"Was that shocking to you?" Wake County Assistant District Attorney David Saacks asked.
"Yeah, very much," she replied.
Morse, meanwhile, told Williford he was under arrest, to which he replied: "Are you serious? How can this be?"
"I told Jason, at that point, I'd answer all his questions once we got back to the police station," Morse said.
Foote fell down and collapsed to the ground crying.
"She was hysterical," Morse said.