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Prosecutors tout DNA under victim's fingernails as Pasco murder trial begins

DADE CITY — As she was being choked and beaten in the bedroom of her Land O'Lakes apartment, Teresa Lodge fought back.

She scratched and clawed and kicked until her body fell unconscious and she lost the fight for her life.

But before she died, Lodge, who was 46, managed to collect the key evidence that prosecutors say would seal the fate of her attacker. She held it under her fingernails.

More than a year after her death in September 2006, authorities charged Derral Wayne Hodgkins with her murder. His trial got under way Friday. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The state's main evidence is fingernail scrapings from Lodge that were tested for DNA and matched positively to Hodgkins, 51.

"Teresa Lodge held the key to identify her attacker," Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin told jurors in his opening statement.

She was a cook who worked the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at a cafe on U.S. 41, across from her lakefront apartment. She had known Hodgkins from years before he went to prison for raping a 12-year-old girl in 1987. He was on probation for life when he reconnected with Lodge.

They got into a fight in her apartment, authorities say, and Hodgkins went for her throat. Then he stabbed her seven times in the chest and three times in the neck. The next afternoon a friend found her dead in a pool of blood by her bed.

When detectives confronted him with the DNA tests, Hodgkins lied repeatedly, Martin said. He first said he hadn't seen Lodge since 2004. Then he said he'd run into her at a convenience store a couple of months earlier.

Finally, he told the detectives he was going to tell the truth: that he'd had sex with Lodge but lied because he didn't want his wife to know. He said that's when she scratched him and got his skin under her nails.

But Martin said the fragile DNA on Lodge's fingers would not survive normal daily hygiene like hand-washing. And it definitely wouldn't still be there after Lodge worked her restaurant job, putting her hands in scalding water to wash dishes.

She was "very clean, very meticulous," Melanie Zakel, who worked with Lodge at the restaurant, testified.

"How about her fingernails?" asked prosecutor Jim Hellickson.

"Always clean," Zakel said.

Zakel was at Lodge's apartment a few nights before the murder, helping her clean. She said she was in the restroom when someone knocked on the door. It was Hodgkins, Zakel said.

"What was his reaction when you appeared?" Hellickson asked.

"Not pleased," Zakel said. "I don't think he expected anyone to be there."

There was no affection shown between the two of them, Zakel said, and Lodge didn't introduce her to Hodgkins. Then he left.

"I asked her if she wanted to talk. She didn't want to talk about anything," Zakel said.

Hodgkins' attorney, Bjorn Brunvand, got Zakel to admit that she lied initially to detectives when she told them Lodge was not a drug dealer.

She later acknowledged that Lodge was a "small-time" dealer who often had a lot of cash.

The trial is expected to last into next week. If the jury convicts Hodgkins of first-degree murder, there will then be a penalty phase when they will hear more testimony and recommend a sentence of either life in prison or death by lethal injection. The final decision lies with Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Prosecutors tout DNA under victim's fingernails as Pasco murder trial begins 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 8:55pm]
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