The trial for a homeless couple accused of killing a Newport man in 2016 began Thursday with a twist.
Christian Wilkins and Adeena Copell are charged with murder, second-degree abuse of a corpse and two counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle in connection with the death of 71-year-old Howard Vinge, whose body was found off U.S. Highway 30 about three miles east of Astoria.
The couple is suspected of murdering Vinge and dumping his body, and then stealing his motor home with a car attached on a trailer. Days after abandoning the trailer east of Seaside on U.S. Highway 26, the couple was found traveling in the stolen car in northern Arizona.
Moments before opening statements in the trial at Circuit Court, Wilkins pleaded guilty to all four counts.
David Rich, an attorney who represents Wilkins, said he had made attempts in the past for Wilkins to enter a guilty plea, but was unable to reach an agreement with prosecutors and the judge that wasn’t dependent on Copell.
“My issue for many months was that this never should have gotten this far,” Rich said.
Wilkins’ sentence will be decided at a hearing in June. No sentencing deal was agreed upon between the state and the defense, but murder in the first degree carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years.
Copell, however, is still standing trial.
Prosecutors intend to prove that Copell — who has claimed she was sitting in the driver’s seat of the motor home at the time of the alleged murder — is guilty of murder and of abuse of a corpse by stuffing Vinge in a bag and throwing him down a hill.
In opening statements, Senior Deputy District Attorney Scott McCracken outlined the state’s timeline of events. McCracken described how Vinge welcomed Copell and Wilkins, who were homeless, to stay with him in his motor home in a Newport RV park.
At the time, Copell and her partner helped Vinge take care of projects, like fixing up the car they eventually drove to Arizona, in exchange for food.
The state brought in multiple former neighbors of Vinge, who testified he was a kind and reserved man, with several health issues.
One day, the three left the RV park apparently unannounced, driving north and eventually up to Astoria. The state alleges Vinge was murdered in the motor home, dying from blunt force trauma from being hit by a piece of driftwood.
After allegedly wrapping up the body and leaving it on an embankment near the John Day bridge, McCracken described how the couple then sold Vinge’s collectible coins and items at a pawn shop in Longview, Washington.
“They sold his walker for $5,” McCracken said.
Alexander Hamalian, an attorney who represents Copell, characterized the defendant as a flawed individual held captive by a lifetime worth of physical, mental and substance abuse.
The defense argues Copell lived in fear of Wilkins, following his orders and direction.
“Like a dog who has been beat, she’ll tell you what happens when she doesn’t do what she’s told,” Hamalian said.
While conceding Copell played a role in helping Wilkins, the defense claims Copell was merely a shocked bystander as Wilkins bludgeoned Vinge.
“The evidence is going to show she has been with a man like (Wilkins) all her life,” Hamalian said. “That doesn’t make her a killer.”