Witnesses testify about evidence, relationship between victim, defendant

NILES — The night of Angela Cluver’s death on July 21, couple Robert and Emily Oxley were exiting their back door to go and get frozen yogurt with some family, when they heard raised voices and a loud crash.

The couple both testified Wednesday and said that they believe the noises might have come from the home of their neighbors, who lived at 996 S. 14th St.

That same night, James Parker Huffman is alleged to have strangled Cluver to death at their home and dragged her body to the laundry room at the back of the house, where it sat for nearly three days before Huffman confessed the killing to police the morning of July 24. Huffman has since claimed that the couple had arranged a suicide pact and that he was not able to kill himself after Cluver died.

James Parker Huffman

Robert and Emily were two of about 15 witnesses that testified at the Niles Berrien County Courthouse on the second day of Huffman’s jury trial. Huffman has been charged with first-degree murder following Cluver’s death. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Throughout the course of the day Wednesday, a jury of 14 people and Judge Charles LaSata listened to testimony from medical examiners, detectives and forensic experts. 

More than 50 photographs captured by Capt. Kevin Kosten, of the Niles Police Department, showing Huffman and Cluver’s home and were presented as evidence. Multiple shots of every single room in the house were shared, including photographs of the piles of appliances Huffman has claimed he used to attempt suicide following Cluver’s death.

Detective Chad Mitchell, with the Niles Police Department, said authorities removed duct tape rolls, some clothing, hair, hand-written notes and other items from the scene, some of which were analyzed at a forensic lab. Mitchell said he did note water on some of the appliances that Huffman claimed he had dropped in the water in attempt to kill himself. However, it was not determined whether those items had ever been plugged in, as there was no outlet in the bathroom and no extension cords that appeared to be plugged in at the home, according to Mitchell’s testimony.

A number of witnesses who knew Huffman and Cluver personally also testified before the court and spoke about the nature of Huffman and Cluver’s relationship.

Linda Torgeson lives across the street from 996 S. 14th St. While she said she had seen Huffman around the residence, it was “Angie” who she had more of a relationship with.

“I thought she was a very sweet person,” Torgeson said.

Torgeson said she first met Cluver when Cluver arranged to buy her cat. She also said Cluver stopped by on occasion to use Torgeson’s landline telephone about once a week in the two to three months before she died. Without meaning to, Torgeson said she sometimes overheard Cluver talking on the phone, one time pleading for her utilities not to be shut off.

Torgeson loaned her the money for the utility bills. She said the women sometimes talked briefly.

Not long before she died, Torgeson questioned why Cluver stayed with Huffman when it seemed she was the one pulling the weight on all of the couple’s bills.

“She told me they [Huffman and her] had been together for a long time and that she cared for him,” Torgeson said.

Cluver also told Torgeson she worried that they might break up, Torgeson said.

Torgeson said the last time she saw Cluver was the morning of July 21 — the day of her death, when Cluver dropped by to repay her for the money she had been loaned.

Others testified Wednesday about the relationship of Huffman and Cluver.

Breanne Blankenship appeared in court Wednesday to share what she knew about Cluver. Blankenship said she had been Cluver’s immediate supervisor at Modineer. She said she saw Huffman on occasion when he would pick Cluver up from work. While she said she did not know much about Huffman and Cluver’s relationship, one incident stuck out to her.

Blankenship said on a day about six months before Cluver’s death, Cluver was making a lot of mistakes at work. Blankenship said she went to talk with Cluver and said she appeared upset, because she had forgotten to give Huffman a credit card that morning.

“I was like ‘it’s OK, just give it to him when he gets here,’” Blankenship said. “She was like, ‘No. You don’t understand.’ She was emotional and her physical nature seemed very distressed.”

But defense attorney Scott Sanford, who is representing Huffman alongside defense attorney Jennifer Fields, questioned whether or not Blankenship knew if the credit card was one the couple shared, as Huffman and Cluver shared a lot of things, including a car and a cell phone. Blankenship said she was not aware whether they shared the card.

Huffman’s friend, Al Flat, also testified before court Wednesday. Flat said he had known Huffman since he was 17, but that the two had been out of touch until about a year ago when they ran into each other at a car show. Flat said they talked on the weekends about cars and “average life.” Flat said other than Huffman complaining about a lack of sex with Cluver, that he was not aware of any other issues that the couple might have had.

Between July 21 and July 24, Huffman contacted Flat a number of times via phone and text message — which he said was unusual. In his messages to Flat, Huffman asked him to come over to the house. In one of the messages, Huffman told Flat to enter through the front door, where Huffman said he would find a note on the table. 

Flat said he walks everywhere and did not feel like walking to Huffman’s residence that weekend, so he never showed up. When Huffman called him again Monday, July 24, Flat answered the phone.

“He told me he had ‘done something stupid’ and asked if I wanted to keep their cat,” Flat said. “I tried to ask more questions. He did not sound right.”

Cory Peek, who works in computer forensics at the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, analyzed the call log of the cell phone that Huffman and Cluver had shared. He cited more than five calls and text messages sent from Cluver/Huffman’s phone to Flat’s number that coincided with Flat’s testimony. He also noted calls to a “Rach.” Jurors heard Tuesday that Cluver had spoken with her daughter Rachael Burnette the day of her death. Peek said he cannot be sure who made those calls or who answered. 

The defense is expected to present more on their argument Thursday as the trial continues into its third day. Jurors are expected to reach a verdict Friday. 

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