Kathy Taft

Kathy Taft's head wound was severe, doctors recall

Posted May 17, 2012 1:48 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2012 2:20 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina state school board member Kathy Taft was struck so hard to the left side of the back of her head that the medical examiner counted 22 pieces of bone as he tried to reconstruct the missing fragment of her skull.

Testifying Thursday in the trial of Taft's accused killer, Jason Williford, Dr. John Butts said the wound, about the diameter of an orange, was likely caused by multiple blows to the head with a blunt object.

Taft also had a triangular bruise on her left forehead and a 1-inch cut above her left ear, Butts testified. There were also injuries to her groin area that were consistent with rape.

The 62-year-old mother and grandmother from Greenville was recovering from cosmetic surgery at the Raleigh home of her boyfriend on March 6, 2010, when she was attacked.

Wake County prosecutors say Williford, 32, deliberately broke into the home and beat and raped Taft, leaving behind DNA in the process.

Her sister, Dina Holton, discovered Taft, bloodied and bandaged, unresponsive and foaming at the mouth hours later and called 911, initially thinking she was suffering from complications from the surgery she had a day earlier.

It wasn't until Taft's plastic surgeon, Dr. Ronald Riefkohl, examined her at WakeMed that it was learned she had been attacked.

"As I removed the bandage, I immediately found a huge defect in the left side of her scalp," he testified.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Robin Koeleveld said the severe injury extended to the stem of Taft's brain and that a craniotomy was needed to relieve pressure that was causing her brain to swell. There was also a laceration on the brain that couldn't be treated.

Taft made it through the surgery, but the prognosis was not good.

"I did not think she would survive," Koeleveld said.

She was placed in intensive care and died three days later.

Details and images – including Taft's bloody pajamas and blood- and urine-stained sheets she slept on – of the violence and horror surrounding the last moments of Taft's life have been difficult for her 15 family members, including four grown children, who have traveled to Raleigh for the trial.

"We're just ready to get this over with," her oldest son, Thomas Taft, said. "We just keep hearing the same things asked to each of the police officers and witnesses."

It's also been frustrating, he said, because who killed his mother is not in question.

"It doesn't make a difference to me, and I don't think it should make a difference to any other person," Thomas Taft said. "He's a disturbed individual, but that doesn't mean he should not be held accountable for his actions."

Defense attorneys for Williford, who could face the death penalty if found guilty of first-degree murder, don't dispute he attacked Taft but contend that he isn't guilty of first-degree murder.

The unemployed, amateur musician had been drinking, doing drugs and had been out to get an adrenaline high when he broke into the home where Taft was staying, hit her three times with a rock and raped her, his attorney, Ernest Conner Jr., said in his opening statement Wednesday.

The combination of alcohol, drugs and a variety of mental disorders, Conner said, made Williford incapable of forming the necessary mental intent to commit first-degree murder.

"It created the perfect storm of terrible conditions in Jason's mind," he said.

It was more than a month after Taft's death that Raleigh police officers arrested Williford.

Gerry Davis testified that he and several other officers of the Raleigh Police Department's Fugitive Task Force staked out Williford's home, less than two blocks from where Taft was attacked, in an effort to secretly get a DNA sample.

Prosecutor Trish Jacobs said Wednesday that Williford was one of only a few men in the neighborhood who, when asked for a voluntary sample, declined.

On April 15, 2010, Davis testified, they collected a discarded cigarette butt from Williford in the parking lot of his apartment building.

Williford's DNA matched evidence from Taft's bed, Jacobs said.

Police arrested Williford the following day at Jordan Lake, where he had been camping with his wife and a friend.