Wayland Murder Trial Live Blog: 'This Can't Be' Testifies Woman Who Spotted Astley's Body
Wayland man Nathaniel Fujita is facing first-degree murder charges related to the death of Lauren Astley, also of Wayland, in 2011.
Editor's Note: Wayland Patch will post regular updates from the courtroom at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn. The most recent updates will be at the top of the story with a timestamp. For more about this case and trial, see "Wayland Murder: Nathaniel Fujita Trial."
2 p.m. -- Following the testimony of Seanna Lombardo, the Commonwealth called local resident Priscilla Antion to the stand.
According to her testimony, she was the cyclist and birdwatcher who discovered Lauren Astley’s body at about 7:30 a.m. on July 4, 2011, and reported the finding to police.
Antion, responding to Prosecutor Lisa McGovern’s questions, said she liked to bike from her home to the Longfellow Club where she swims and works out.
“I like riding along the scenic road Water Row, there's a lot of wildlife there,” Antion said. “I also like to take pictures."
Antion described Water Row as heavily vegetated, but she knows of two clearings in the vegetation that allow a view to the marsh beyond. She said when she passed the first clearing, she spotted a blue heron flying away with prey in its bill.
She said she was disappointed that she frightened the heron away, but consoled herself with the knowledge that a second clearing was ahead; she said she hoped to see the bird there.
"I thought to myself, ‘There's one more opening coming up,’ and I thought, ‘Maybe if I approach it quietly enough, I’ll be able to see the heron.’"
Antion said she arrived at the second clearing about five minutes down the road and stopped her bike. She didn’t see the heron, she said, but she noticed something was amiss about the clearing that she knows well.
"I didn't see the heron,” Antion testified. “But I'm so familiar with that scene that something jumped out at me that wasn't normally there, and I couldn’t tell what it was at first, but I noticed something was out of place."
Antion said she “tried to focus in on what the difference was” and noticed something that wasn’t the same color. She said most of the landscape there is a brown or gray shade and this “seemed to be more of a pinkish shade. It was something in the shape of an upside-down V.
“I tried to look harder and harder to see, ‘What is that?’” Antion testified. “I thought, ‘Could that possibly be a knee?’ and I said, ‘No, no.’
She said she kept looking, “harder and harder,” and then wondered if “under the surface, is that a leg?”
“And I thought, ‘No, this can’t be. That just happens on TV, you don’t see this in real life.’”
Antion continued to look and “almost talked” herself into leaving, telling herself, “This isn’t real.”
“And then I thought, ‘Somewhere if this is real, there’s somebody who is waiting for someone to call or someone to walk through that door and the woman’s not there.' And I had to make sure.”
She got off her bike and stepped forward 3 to 5 feet, she testified, before crouching down.
From that vantage, Antion said, “That’s when I saw a clenched fist sticking out of the water.”
Antion testified that she quickly turned her back and called 9-1-1. She told the dispatchers that she thought there was a body in the water.
Antion said Wayland Police arrived on the scene within about three to five minutes and she was quickly seated inside a responding ambulance, so she didn’t see other responders who may have arrived.
Upon cross-examination, Sullivan asked Antion to describe the remoteness of Water Row, asking her how many homes were on the street (she said two) and that the closest was about a quarter mile from where she spotted the body.
"A lot of wildlife there, areas where it's overgrown,” Sullivan asked. “In the areas where there aren't one of these two houses, it's a fairly isolated area?"
“Yes,” Antion responded.
Following Antion’s testimony, the Commonwealth called State Trooper Scott MacKenzie to the stand. During his testimony, it was revealed that MacKenzie is a member of the state’s underwater recovery team and had been involved in the investigation and removal of Lauren Astley’s body from the marsh on July 4, 2011.
According to his testimony, MacKenize said he and two other divers responded to the scene and were shown from the road where the body was in the marsh.
“The location was pointed out to us so we could assess the situation for water access," MacKenzie testified. "It appeared to be a deceased person. When we determined that there was no possibility of rescue, we began to methodically check the area instead of going directly to the body.
“In the water and mud and vegetation conditions, evidence can be lost very easily if someone stepped on something, it could be gone," MacKenzie continued, explaining why the divers did not go immediately to the body.
While doing a search of the water between the roadway and the body, MacKenzie said he observed a shoe in the vegetation about 30 feet to the left of the body, which he alerted detectives to, but did not immediately recover.
After the body was photographed, MacKenzie said he and a colleague, Trooper Robert Malloy “bagged the hands” – covered them in plastic bags to protect any evidence under the fingernails or between the fingers – and began to disengage the body from the mud and vegetation.
"It took both of us to pull it up out of the dirt and grass and the mud,” MacKenzie said. “It was firmly seated into the soft mud and vegetation and partially submerged. The majority of the body was submerged.
"Trooper Malloy and myself were trying to free the body from the mud and vegetation,” MacKenzie continued. “We had to pull up on it with force. As we pulled the head up out of the mud and vegetation, we noticed a bungee cord was connected and caught in the hair."
He said the cord did not remain in place as the body was removed from the mud and vegetation.
MacKenzie said the victim’s dress was pulled up around her neck, covering what MacKenzie said was soon revealed to be a “A large cut wound across the whole front of her throat."
Upon noticing the wound, investigators went back into the water, MacKenzie said, to search for a sharp weapon, but didn’t recover anything.
They then searched on both sides of Water Row and noticed what “looked like a towel with blood on it."
At this point in the questioning, Judge Peter Lauriat adjourned the trial for the day. It will resume tomorrow at 9 a.m.
11:30 a.m. -- Defense Attorney William Sullivan presented his opening statements.
"It's a difficult case for you as jurors because it's going to force you to try and imagine the unimaginable," Sullivan said. "To explain the unexplainable.
"This case, there's going to be two questions: Why and How?" Sullivan said. "Why did this horrific thing happen and how? How does Nathaniel Fujita in the fall of 2011 …. big man on campus … dating one of the most popular girls in school … How does it go from there in the space of one school year to the summer of 2011, where Nathaniel by the middle of June is basically withdrawn from all of his friends, not seeing anybody but his family.
"Then on July 3, killing really the one person outside of his family who has shown any concern for him."
Sullivan went on to tell jurors that evidence will show Fujita was suffering from "a major depressive disorder" at the time of the killing and that the disorder caused "a single psychotic episode."
"As a result of this condition … what you will hear is that this defendant was not able to control himself or really understand what he was doing," Sullivan said. "The doctor will give you an opinion that he was not criminally responsible."
Sullivan told jurors they would meet Dr. Wade Myers, a psychiatrist who is board-certified in child, adolescent and forensic psychiatry. Myers, Sullivan said, has examined Fujita, spoken to him multiple times and conducted numerous tests.
"What Dr. Myers will tell you is that part of his opinion is based upon what Nathaniel told him. And Nathaniel told him that Lauren comes to the house sometime around 7 o'clock. They get out, they talk. She comes into the garage and she says to him, 'It's weird that you don't come out anymore.' Basically, 'I'm worried.' That's all that she says."
Sullivan said that Fujita told Myers that at that point "he was acting outside of his body. He was dissociative. He was unable to control what he was doing -- didn't even really know what he was doing and as a result this horrific crime occurs."
Sullivan continued, "When you have a major depressive disorder, it can drive you to what they call a brief psychotic episode. It causes you to lose contact with reality. When you're in that dissociative state, you don't know what you're doing, you don't really have any control over what you're doing."
Sullivan told jurors that one thing doctors look at in an assessment of criminal responsibility is family history of mental illness.
"As part of his investigation in the case, there are at least two family members of Nathaniel Fujita who suffer from schizophrenia," Sullivan said Myers found. He continued that Fujita's siblings also have been treated for depression.
"There's a significant family history," Sullivan said.
"One of the things they look at is whether or not there is what they call 'disorganized thought,'" Sullivan said. "Someone is acting in a manner that doesn't make any sense. What you'll here in this case is a significant amount of disorganized thought centered on the events of July 3."
Sullivan said that insensible nature of the crime -- the location, a detached garage at his parents' home facing a house across the street; the timing of the crime, given that Fujita knew his family would be home within an hour; and the lack of reason for the crime, there were no reports of arguing or fighting from neighbors who lived nearby, all indicate disorganized thought.
"There's no reason for this -- this is not a case where there was an argument," Sullivan said. "This is not a case … where something was said that something set him off. There's no reason that this happened. Again, that's the disorganized thought.
"I'm confident that you'll be able to listen, weigh all the evidence with an open mind," Sullivan told jurors. "When you weigh all of that, the verdict you'll return is that the defendant was not criminally responsible and the reason is mental illness."
Following the defense's opening statement, the Commonwealth called Wayland Police Officer Seanna Lombardo to the witness stand.
Prosecutor Lisa McGovern questioned Lombardo about her seeing a red Jeep at the Town Beach on the evening of July 3, during her regular patrols.
A check of the license plate revealed it was registered to Malcolm Astley, Lombardo testified. The next morning, after a body was found in the marsh off Water Row, Lombardo said she took the paperwork she pulled the night before to investigators on the scene at Water Row.
Upon cross-examination, Sullivan focused on Lombardo's experience during her patrol the evening of July 3. He questioned whether Lombardo had responded to any noise complaints or disturbances in the area of West Plain Street and Fuller Street, where Fujita's family lives.
Lombardo testified that she had not responded to any calls in that area. She also testified, when questioned about it by Sullivan, that the Fujita garage in which the crime apparently occurred, is across the street from a neighboring house.
"There's nothing obstructing the view from the house to the garage?" Sullivan asked.
Lombardo responded that there was not.
The court is now in a morning recess and will resume at about 11:55 a.m. Court is expected to adjourn today at 1 p.m.
10:32 a.m. -- Prosecutor Lisa McGovern has made her opening statements.
"Lauren Dunne Astley lived for 18 years, 3 months and 3 days," McGovern began, adding that jurors won't hear much about that life because the trial would be focused upon the circumstances of her death.
"Nathaniel Fujita, a man Lauren Astley had known and cared for," McGovern continued. "A man she had gone out with in high school for three years, coldly and cruelly killed her because she wounded his ego."
McGovern explained to jurors that Astley broke up with Fujita a final time in mid-May, after a few other breakups.
McGovern told jurors that both Astley and Fujita had much to look forward to, both had been accepted to college with plans to attend in the fall.
But on July 3, McGovern told jurors, Astley's phone records show that she agreed to meet Fujita at his house after work. Phone calls and a text message to him were the last that she would make and send.
Inside the garage at his parents house, McGovern said, Fujita "arms himself with a ligature -- a cord -- in this case a bungee cord and strangles her. Not to death, but to the point that it leaves a furrow on her neck.
"Then he arms himself with a second weapon -- a sharp force instrument -- and aims for her throat … her throat," McGovern continued.
McGovern told jurors that evidence shows he hid her body in his Honda, drove Astley's car to the nearby Town Beach where he abandoned the vehicle and threw her keys down a storm drain, and then drove five miles north in Wayland with Astley's body in the back seat of his vehicle.
Fujita, McGovern said, drove to a conservation area in north Wayland -- an area he knew because of school project there as well as from working out at the nearby Longfellow Club -- and "Doesn't just put her down by the side of the road … carries her over his shoulder into the water 36 ft, 10 inches into the water, where he stuffs her … into the vegetation."
McGovern then told jurors that a classmate who knew Fujita well subsequently saw him "drive in the opposite direction, window down, shirt off, music blaring.
"I again ask you," McGovern said. "What was he thinking at that time? What were his intentions? Where was his focus?"
McGovern continued to present a timeline that includes three separate police interviews at Fujita's house, before Astley's body was discovered by a passing birdwatcher bicycling past the marsh on July 4, 2011, at about 7:30 a.m.
"Lauren Astley's body will testify in a sense because her body will reveal to you the choices that this man made," McGovern said, talking about the testimony of the medical examiner that will occur in the course of the trial. "You will see from the evidence, the choices this man made. She was battered."
McGovern concluded her remarks, saying, "Lauren Astley's death was immeasurably tragic. But the evidence will show her death was not a tragedy, it was a crime. The killing committed by this man was the result of this man's actions, actions that were purposeful and deliberate."
Following McGovern's opening statements, the court went into a short recess after one of the jurors indicated he needed to check his blood sugar.
Defense attorney William Sullivan will make his opening statements next.
9:15 a.m. -- Jury has been seated and Judge Peter Lauriat is welcoming the jurors.
Court Clerk Mark Toomey has sworn in the jury and is reading the charges against Fujita. Fujita is standing between his attorneys, lead attorney William Sullivan and second attorney Sabrina Bonanno. He has pleaded not guilty to four charges: first-degree murder, two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery.
His parents are sitting quietly.
Lauren Astley's parents are sitting in the front row quietly listening to the charges being read.
Judge Lauriat is reminding the jurors that the indictments are accusations, but are not meant to be statements of guilt.
"In every criminal case the defendent is assumed innocent unless and until he is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Lauriat said.
Attorneys will present opening statements, Commonwealth first, and the defense can postpone making an opening statement or not make one at all.
"The opening statements are not evidence in this case," Lauriat said. "They are helpful, they are appropriate, they are somewhat like road maps."
After opening statements, the Commonwealth will introduce evidence in the case. After the Commonwealth completes the case, the defense can present his case, but he isn't required to do so.
"The burden is on the Commonwealth," Lauriat said.
8:55 a.m. -- Nathaniel Fujita is waiting at his attorneys table as the lawyers from both sides meet with Judge Peter Lauriat in a sidebar.
Three rows of friends and family sit behind Malcolm Astley and Mary Dunne, Lauren Astley's parents. On the defendent's side of the courtroom, Fujita's parents, Tomo and Beth Fujita, sit with a couple of other individuals, though that side of the courtroom is relatively empty. It should be noted that there are not "assigned" seats in the courtroom, with the exception that the first few rows are reserved for family of the parties involved.
The jury is not yet in the courtroom.