The murder trial of Zachary Abell, accused of taking part in the beating death of Aileen Seiden nearly six years ago in Eastpoint, ended on a cliffhanger moment Friday afternoon.
The testimony of Ivan Brenes, the FDLE crime scene analyst who collected evidence at the murder scene at Sportsman’s Lodge, is set to resume Monday morning in the third floor courtroom of the Apalachicola courthouse.
Brenes’ testimony is critical to shedding light on the manner in which Abell, and another woman, Christina Marie Araujo, 44, of Palm Beach, are alleged to have caused the death of Seiden, 31, of North Miami Beach, in room #15, where the three traveling companions were staying over the weekend of April 21-23, 2018.
In the testimony of Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson’s witnesses Friday morning – who included the Eastpoint couple that found Seiden’s battered body in a cul-de-sac at a vacant subdivision off U.S. 98, as well as the housekeeper who first came upon the disarray in Room #15 – a scenario emerged as to how Seiden may have been bludgeoned to death.
“I noticed a missing shower curtain, curtain rod and towels,” said Maranda Kilbourn, of Apalachicola, who along with Amanda Hall were the two cleaners tasked with preparing the room for the next guests.
“Whenever I first walked in the room, there was a bunch of trash, nothing on the bed, and the comforter was on the floor wet. There was vomit on the floor and a spot of blood on the sliding glass doors and blood on the toilet paper roll,” Kilbourn said.
After Sportsman’s Lodge employee Hope Creamer advised Kilbourn to leave the room right away, and the sheriff’s office was called, lead investigator Ronnie Jones arrived and looked over the contents of the room.
Following Brenes’ and the crime scene unit’s analysis of Room #15, Jones got permission from the Sportsman’s Lodge to keep it closed off. “Once they (FDLE) got through processing, I sealed it off, and she (Sportsmans Lodge owner Edda Allen) agreed to let us keep it for as long as we needed it,” he said.
Jones testified that when he returned days later to unseal the room, he found a piece of driftwood like a staff, three feet in length, that was taken into evidence. “One of the employees located it in part of the yard and saw some brown stains on it,” he said. “I went back to the room and…. moved the bed, the second bed closest to the bathroom, and found two pieces of wood similar to what we collected two days prior.”
In his opening statement to the jury Friday morning, Abell’s defense attorney Alex Morris raised the issue of how the evidence was collected, a subject sure to come up when he cross-examines Brenes Monday morning.
“There was a walking stick that was broken into multiple different pieces found under the headboard located later two or three days (after the FDLE) analysis,” Morris told the eight-woman, six-man panel of jurors hearing the case, two of whom are alternates.
“Twenty-three days later another piece was recovered in the parking lot,” said the Tallahassee attorney. “I don’t want to set the stage that there’s any conspiracy but there were difficulties in how the case was handled.”
Prior to Jones’ appearance, the jury heard the most graphic testimony of the trial, which included photos of Seiden’s bruised and lacerated body lying in the grass in a ditch not far from the paved road.
Amy George, a crime scene analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, described how she arrived from Tallahassee to find the body of a deceased woman, whose identity was not yet known, a few feet away from the road.
She took a series of photos and notes of the scene. “I work with the most fragile evidence first and move to the least fragile,” George said. “I worked with the victim first and looked for identifying marks. There were tattoos, but no IDs and no jewelry, and observed any wounds she had and the clothing she was wearing.”
To capture DNA, she took a buccal swab of cells within the cheek, after which the body was placed in a body bag and sealed.
She said she also photographed what appeared to be a shoe impression, as well as a set of keys spotted in the road. George said she used dental stone to make a cast of the shoe track, found next to the road just to the left of the body.
“There was no evidence it (the body) had been washed, it had rained the day before,” George said.
Morris, who said in his opening statement that his client would admit to tampering with evidence and, to some extent, to being an accessory after the fact, did not crossexamine George.
Nor did he cross examine the first two witnesses in the trial, Christopher and April Russell, of Eastpoint, who first discovered the body.
Christopher said he and his wife had begun fishing on Monday morning, April 23, 2018 first on St. George Island. “We didn’t catch no pompano, so I said ‘let’s go to our house and grab the bream pools,” he said.
He said April, who works at the Franklin County Schools, had discovered the secluded spot, just to the east of the school grounds, on one of her lunch breaks.
“It makes a little circle around and at the end of the turnaround there’s a pond,” Christopher said.
He estimated that it was some time after noon, and that he had spotted something as he drove into the cul-de-sac.
“I’m a bad junk collector,” he said. “I thought it was a junk pile, something that could have scrap metal, anything you can sell like aluminum, I was praying to find.”
When he went over to check, “that’s when I discovered it wasn’t no junk pile,” Christopher said. “I hollered to my wife ‘call 911.” I was praying she was knocked out or drunk. I couldn’t tell if she was dead or alive. Then I hollered and prayed to God she was just drunk.
“It’s not something you expect to see,” he said. “If you seen the visual I seen, there was no sense in touching her.”
Christopher said he tried to block his wife from seeing the body and the two of them waited about a half-hour for the law to arrive.
“I remember they was taking pictures of me,” he said. “They made me hold my arms out and they took pictures of my feet.”
Christopher, who like his wife April closed each of his answers with a crisp “yes sir,” told the judge “Sir, you have a great day” after he was dismissed from the witness stand.
In her testimony, April confirmed her husband’s recollections with some finer details.
He said they had fished for about three or four hours on the east end near the state park, before “the weather got bad and we decided to go to Eastpoint. I used to go there to take my breaks every day (because) I only had 15 minutes.”
After her husband remarked about seeing the pile, she thought “if it’s garbage we’ll take it home so nobody pollutes the fishing area and that’s when we found the girl.”
Law enforcement asked the couple to go out to the end of the road so they could be easily spotted by law enforcement.
“You’d have to have a machete to get down in there,” she said. “It’s one way in and one way out.”
April said they question both of them, mainly her husband “out of the process of elimination to make sure it isn’t us,” before allowing them to go home. “We finally left there about 5:30, 6 p.m. when we finally got home,” she said.
Jones, who worked with the sheriff’s office a little more than 17 of his 24 years in law enforcement, testified about what he did when he arrived on the scene. Jones has since retired from law enforcement, and is testifying in the last remaining of the cases that were pending when he ended his career.
He said he immediately called FDLE and then took photos of the scene, as well as had a mobile fingerprinting unit see if they could identify the body, which they could not.
”Based on the coloration of the body it was obvious the victim was deceased,” he told the jury.
In his opening statement, Patterson told the jury how “this is a long story that has multiple moving parts in different places,” beginning with a road trip by Abell and Seiden to Dallas, Texas, where they were met by Araujo, before the three drove back to South Florida through New Orleans to Pensacola and eventually to Sportsman’s Lodge/
“There were a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Patterson said. “It’s a little like a movie that has different scenes in different places. I’ll try to tell it in a straight line.
“The three people involved in this case were involved in several different relationships,” he said. “They were in business together, they lived together, they worked together and you’re going to hear they had sex together.”
He said that after the beating at Sportsman’s Lodge, Araujo and Abell drove down to South Florida, to the Davie home of a mutual friend, Michael Picavet, who is expected to testify.
“They first tried to minimize where she (Seiden) was and what had happened. Then it came out she was dead,” Patterson said. “Mr. Picavet is obviously taken aback a little and nervous by this. “He goes along with the story as if he’s helping.”
But after Araujo falls asleep, Picavet calls her father, Col. Antonio Araujo, who oversees the department of uniform operations for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Pattersoan said Picavet then gave a long statement to FDLE investigators and a “be on the lookout” teletype, for a body in the Panhandle, is sent out to Panhandle law enforcement agencies and what follows is the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office “starts connecting the dots.”
Patterson said the jury will hear from the chief medical examiner who conducted the autopsy as well as from Araujo. “She’s the person who was there from start to finish,” he said. “She can tell that story better than I can.
“There’s not a lot of disagreement about what happened before and what happened after the incident at Sportsman’s Lodge,” he said. “The beating that took place inside of Sportsman’s Lodge is one you’ll hear to make a determination about.
“I ask you not to lose sight of Aileen Seiden in all that,” he said.
Morris made clear in his opening statement that “Aileen Seiden suffered the wrath of Christina Araujo, of Christina Araujo scorned.” He said Seiden had gone to work for Abell Automotive, and for a period of time the individuals lived with Abell’s mother, Kim Clark, who is expected to testify.
“They move into a new location (and the relationship becomes) more and more explosive,” Morris said. “Mr. Abell has started an exclusive relationship with Aileen Seiden, and there are threats that culminate in physical altercations.”
He said Abell and Seiden leave South Florida “to get away from Christian Araujo’s physical aggressions.”
After learning of their whereabouts, Araujo makes contact, in an effort to make amends, Morris said. “But she may have had a different agenda than that.”
He said Araujo made threats that “she’s going to give them what they have coming to them. And she did and she pled guilty.”
Following the apparent murder, Araujo drives herself and Abell to South Florida, Morris said, noting that she will likely testify that “she felt so terribly threatened. You can evaluate it and make a determination if she’s being candid.
“Zachary Abell does not have a driver’s license,” the lawyer said. “She had multiple opportunities to summon help if her story was true.”
Morris said Picavet provided FDLE with a home security tape that he said captured Araujo making statements that she committed the murder, but that FDLE was unable to get any usable information from it.
The defense attorney also said that Col. Araujo told Picavet to meet him at a gas station, and that a later interview of Picavet was conducted at the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, when Col, Araujo “is allowed to remain in the room where (there are discussions) of his daughter is involved in a homicide.”
Morris closed his opening statement by saying there is evidence that evidence was lost from Room #15 following Abell’s and Araujo’s departure, and suggested Araujo may have scrubbed things clean with vinegar.
“You’ll have to see what her testimony is,” he said. “At the end of the day the evidence will show that Christina Araujo is a stranger to the truth and the state can’t meet their burden of proof.”