Testimony centers on autopsy in man’s trial over wife’s 1999 death

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HARDIN — A federal agent who investigated the death of Kathryn Laird, whose body was found almost 17 years ago in the Yellowtail Dam Afterbay near Fort Smith, testified on Thursday that the tone of the case changed during an autopsy. 

The FBI agent, Randall Jackson, who was present during the Aug. 1, 1999, autopsy, testified Thursday during the murder trial of Kathryn Laird’s husband, Brian David Laird.

Jackson said that the pathologist, Dr. Kenneth Mueller, now deceased, had pointed to multiple areas of hemorrhaged blood in the vessels of Kathryn Laird’s neck and said, “’This is troubling.’ He said it repeatedly.” 

Jackson and several other law enforcement officers were among witnesses state prosecutors called on Thursday as they continued to present their case against Brian Laird, 46.

The jury trial with state District Judge Michael Hayworth presiding began on Tuesday at the Big Horn County Courthouse.

Brian Laird is charged with deliberate homicide in the July 31, 1999, death of his wife, who was 28 years old. The couple had been married less than six months when Kathryn Laird’s bruised body was found in the water, court records said.

If convicted, Brian Laird faces the death penalty or a minimum 10 years in prison.

A former fly fishing guide and lawyer, Brian Laird was arrested in 2014 in Fort Collins, Colo., on the Montana murder charges. At the time of Kathryn Laird’s death, the couple was living in Fort Smith and working in the fishing business.

Medical examiners ruled that Kathryn Laird died from asphyxia by drowning and had unusual bruises to the muscles on her neck. But the manner of death remained undetermined after an autopsy at the time of her death, and it was not clear from court documents exactly how authorities believe she died.

Sandy Selvey, one of Brian Laird’s attorneys, unsuccessfully objected to Jackson’s testimony about the pathologist’s comment, calling it hearsay and prejudicial because Mueller could not be called to the stand.

Selvey said the defense is questioning the prosecution’s case alleging a homicide when Kathryn Laird died from drowning. Brian Laird also is being represented by Matt Wald.

Selvey said the defense had not decided whether Brian Laird would testify.

Other witnesses on Thursday included U.S. Park Service rangers, who responded to the initial call of a missing person and went to the Afterbay’s overflow parking area where Kathryn Laird’s body had been found.

Wendy Bredow, a USPS district ranger in Alaska who was working in Fort Smith at the Big Horn Canyon Recreation Area in 1999, said she assisted a Big Horn County deputy sheriff, Delmar Morrision, at the scene.

Bredow described seeing Kathyrn Laird’s body partially in the water along the shoreline. A man was kneeling beside the body and was “sobbing, wailing,” she said.

Another park service employee assisted the deputy sheriff in escorting the man away, Bredow said.

Deputy Morrison, now retired, testified he initially responded to a missing person report and talked to Brian Laird at the couple’s home in the Fort Smith trailer park. Brian Laird, he said, told him that he and his wife had argued earlier in the morning and that he had gone to bed. When Brian Laird woke up, he couldn’t find his wife, Morrison said.

Morrison then learned a body had been found in the water. Morrison said Brian Laird did not follow his instruction to ride with him, but drove himself to the Afterbay overflow parking lot. The deputy followed.

Brian Laird ran to the water and tried to pull his wife from the water, Morrison said. “I told him to leave her alone,” he testified.

Prosecutors Ole Olson and Chad Parker, assistant attorneys general, also showed the jury photos of Kathryn Laird’s body as it lay by the water. She was lying on her back with her sweat pants low on her abdomen and her shirt up around her head. She was wearing a bra but no shoes or socks.

Prosecutors allege Brian Laird killed his wife after an argument.

Brian Laird, prosecutors said, told the FBI that his wife drove off from their trailer house after an argument on the night of her death and that he never saw her alive again.

Neighbors of the couple apparently were not questioned in the case until the FBI interviewed them in 2012. The neighbors reported a bitter argument the night of Kathryn Laird’s death, court records said.

The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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