Nov. 15, 2000: Plch convicted of murder, sentenced to life in prison
Jurors found Vaclav Plch guilty of first-degree murder yesterday for brutally stabbing Mary Stetson to death in his Orange Street apartment and cutting up her body with a saw.
The 40-year-old Czech native was immediately sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for a slaying that police described as one of the most ghastly and vicious in the city's history.
Judge William J. Groff made no observations about the crime when he handed down the sentence. He told Plch the mandatory penalty for first-degree murder is life without eligibility of parole. "You are remanded to the custody of sheriffs," he said.
Plch betrayed little emotion, but his face was ashen as he left the courtroom with his head high, looking straight ahead.
The victim's daughter, Tamara Haney, 23, hugged police investigators with tears streaming down her face as cameras closed in.
Haney, her siblings, along with Mary Stetson's mother and brother, had all kept their silence while attending the two week trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court.
"They're doing good, they're hanging in," said Haney as she sought a quick exit while sheltered by police officers.
Haney is the caretaker for her mother's younger children. She was the only member of the family present yesterday because some of the younger children were ill and their sisters had to stay with them, a victim-witness advocate said.
"I wouldn't be able to imagine how they've suffered," said Det. Lt. Mark Putney.
The verdict came in relatively quickly. The eight men and four women on the jury deliberated roughly four hours on Monday. They came to a decision just after 9:30 a.m. yesterday, about a half hour after reporting to the courthouse.
After the verdict, several jurors hurried across the lawn outside the courthouse to avoid waiting cameras and microphones.
One of the jurors said the panel tried to look at the evidence dispassionately, not letting their emotions take over. All were able to maintain detachment despite the gruesomeness of the crime.
"I'm really proud to be part of that jury," said Janet Balch. "The 12 of us wanted to get to truth. We really thought about it and discussed every possible scenario. We looked at all the evidence."
She said jurors were not unsympathetic toward Plch , whom they saw at his lowest moment telling police on videotape, "I'm garbage," and thanking his interrogators for their kindnesses.
"If emotions play a part, you can't give it your all," Balch said. "It wasn't how we felt about the witnesses, or the attorneys, or the defendant. It was about the facts. To me, the state's evidence was overwhelming.
"We had sympathy . . .," said the mother of four. "He's a human being like the rest of us. But you can't let that take a hold of you. You have to look at the facts and use your brain. It was the only possible verdict."
She commended all of the attorneys in the case and the judge.
Public defender Barbara Keshen had asked for a poll of jurors. When each was asked if he or she agreed that the verdict was murder in the first degree, as announced by the foreman, every one said "yes, it is." Several took a solemn glance at the defense table, acknowledging Plch 's guilt.
First-degree murder cases invariably go to appeal. Keshen said there are appellate issues in the case. "We'll be appealing," she said.
Swimmers found Stetson's torso floating in the Piscataquog River on July 20, 1999, two days after she failed to return home, setting off an all-out hunt for the killer.
Police at first had no fruitful leads after scouring the city's bars and neighborhoods and talking to hundreds of people. Their only clue was the torso.
"It started out as a 'whodunit,' " said Assistant Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. "Manchester police solved this crime through their hard work and excellent investigation."
She said a first-degree murder verdict -- and not second -- was important to the Attorney General's Office, the community and to Stetson's family.
"My hats go off to all the people who came to us with information," said Putney, who headed the investigation. "This is just an extraordinary community. So many people tried to help us."
Putney said Police Chief Mark Driscoll and Deputy Police Chief James Stewart threw all the resources they could into the case. "This brutal crime ranks right up there among the worst crime the city has ever seen," said Putney.
Putney said the defendant's ex wife, Donna Plch , helped break the case when she contacted police about three weeks after the body was found and the case was largely unsolved. She had remained close to Plch after their divorce and she hadn't heard from him.
She had a feeling that Plch might have committed the crime and she remembered he once told her he "could cut people up" if they crossed him. When she went to his apartment she found a section of bedroom carpet had been cut away and something felt wrong.
Donna Plch is one of the heroes in the case, Putney said. "She stepped up to the plate and did what was right."
Ayotte, who prosecuted with Assistant Attorney General Malinda Lawrence, said police collected an overwhelming amount of evidence and helped coordinate the more than 100 exhibits.
"The murder and dismemberment of Mary Stetson was one of the worst crimes that has ever happened in the city of Manchester," said Ayotte. "The jury's verdict today finding the defendant guilty of first-degree murder was just and appropriate.
"That verdict, however, will not ease the pain that Mary Stetson's five children still feel over her loss."
Ayotte said the city can be grateful to its police department. "The city of Manchester is blessed to have police officers who care about what happens in this city as much as the police officers I've worked with in this case," she said.
Mary Stetson was living in public housing on Kimball Street July 18, 1999. With a neighbor watching her children, she headed to Flo's Bar in the inner city to socialize, expecting to be home around 10 p.m.
She went to Plch 's apartment and never left alive. Prosecutors theorize that Stetson may have refused Plch 's advances, provoking the murderous rage during which Plch stabbed Stetson 12 times.
Blood that spattered during the crime provided proof that the murder took place in Plch 's bedroom.
Plch claimed he blacked out after drinking heavily and swallowing two white pills Stetson gave him. The defense maintained someone else had followed Stetson to the apartment and murdered her while Plch lay unconscious.
Plch told jurors last Friday that he awoke to find Stetson in his bedroom, cold and blue. He got a saw out of his closet and sawed off her head, her arms and her legs, he said. Then, he wrapped the parts in brown paper and placed them in plastic trash bags.