Defendant suffers seizures as kidnapping trial opens

Harper, 19, first of three accused of locking woman, then 89, in trunk
June 23, 2014
Rondaiges Harper, 19, suffered a minor seizure on the first day of trial. He is accused in the abduction of then-89-year-old Margaret Smith in March 2013. Harper recovered and trial resumed. He is facing charges of first-degree kidnapping, first-degree carjacking and two counts of second-degree conspiracy. BY FILE

A 19-year-old accused of kidnapping an elderly woman and locking her in the trunk of her own car suffered what appeared to be a seizure as his trial opened June 23 in Delaware Superior Court in Georgetown.

Rondaiges Harper, the first of three defendants in the case, began clutching his pen tightly, and defense attorney John Brady said he could tell Harper was having a seizure. Harper’s parents, who were in attendance, could be heard to say, “Oh my god!”

Judge Richard Stokes immediately called for a short recess; Harper was given water and a chance to catch his breath before the trial resumed. He suffered a second seizure later in the day as the trial continued.

Brady said Harper, who has been in custody at Stevenson House, had suffered two seizures there that Brady speculated could be stress-related.

Harper is facing two counts of second-degree conspiracy, one count of first-degree kidnapping and one count of first-degree carjacking for his role in the March 2013 abduction of then-89-year-old Margaret Smith of Slaughter Beach.

In her opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Casey Ewart recounted the day of Smith’s kidnapping. Ewart said Smith was going to the store, carrying $800 in her bra strap, $500 in her purse, her cane and a bag of medications. She said it was not atypical for Smith to carry large amounts of cash.

Ewart said Smith stopped at a store in Milford when she was approached by Junia McDonald, 15, and Jackeline Perez, 14, who asked for a ride. Smith drove the girls to several locations in Milford before they asked Smith for her keys. When Smith refused, a struggle ensued, Ewart said, and McDonald and Perez took Smith’s keys and locked her in the trunk.

McDonald and Perez met up with Harper and Phillip Brewer, 21; for the next two days, the four drove in Smith’s tan Buick with Smith in the trunk, spending the night in a motel during that time. Smith had no access to food, water, her medications or a bathroom, Ewart said.

Ewart said at first, Harper did not know Smith was in the car, but when it was revealed to him that Smith was in the trunk, he did not call police. Ewart said Harper put Smith back in the trunk and resumed hanging out with his friends.

Eventually, the teens drove Smith to an isolated cemetery off Calvary Road outside Georgetown. Ewart said Harper knew the cemetery because he had a relative who was buried there. Smith was later found disheveled and disoriented by Betty Edwards, who had come to the cemetery to pay respects to her late son, something she did every March 20, when it would have been his birthday. Edwards alerted Delaware State Police, who had been tipped off to Smith’s disappearance by her niece.

Police found Smith’s car, and in it they found the four teens, who Ewart said had a hard time keeping their story together. Later, Harper admitted to police he knew Smith was in the trunk but did nothing about it.

In his opening, Brady acknowledged Harper knew Smith was there, but that it was Harper who vetoed an idea the girls had of taking the car to Milford and burning it with Smith inside. Brady said Harper suggested they drop Smith off at a safe location. Brady said Harper was not a full participant in the kidnapping.

The first day of testimony was devoted to background information; Ewart and fellow prosecutor Melanie Withers established that the cemetery is in an isolated location, and that on a chilly March night, Smith, who has Alzheimer’s disease, could not possibly have found her way out. Cpl. James Gooch and Detective Mike Mahan said they had to use GPS  just to find the secluded area. Both police officers said they found marks on the ground consistent with someone crawling on their hands and knees.

Edwards testified about Smith's appearance when she encountered her in the cemetery. She said Smith’s socks were wet and dirty; Smith was wearing a jacket with no pants other than a girdle. Smith’s pants were later found in the cemetery by police, dirty and smelling of urine. Edwards said Smith showed her the money pinned to her bra strap; Smith noted the teens had not found it.

Harper, a short, stocky young man clad in a white Department of Corrections jumpsuit, sat expressionless, focusing in on the questions and answers from witnesses. Brady did not say whether he would testify in his defense.

Two people expected to testify later in the trial are Smith herself, and Brewer, who pleaded guilty to charges of carjacking and kidnapping and agreed to testify against Harper, McDonald and Perez.

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