The day Jetseta Gage disappeared, Roger Bentley had been at her family’s home for about 10 hours, working on their broken-down van.
The girl’s grandmother, Teresa Gage, testified Thursday that she sent Jetseta to bed about 8 p.m. that night and then escorted Bentley, a family acquaintance, out of the home with plans for him to return the next day. When she went to check on the girl a short time later, she was not in her bed.
Gage was the first person to testify in Bentley’s murder trial. The defendant, 38, of Brandon, Iowa, is accused of taking the girl from her Cedar Rapids home March 24 and is charged in neighboring Johnson County with with murder and kidnapping. The trial was moved to Scott County District Court because of the extensive pre-trial publicity the case received. Testimony began Thursday after three days of jury selection.
In addition to Gage’s testimony, jurors heard Thursday from Johnson County sheriff’s deputies who arrested Bentley as he was exiting a mobile home where the girl’s body was found the morning after her disappearance. Jurors also saw graphic photographs of the child’s bloody body stuffed under a sink with a plastic bag taped over her head.
Teresa Gage told jurors she watches her grandchildren while her daughter, with whom she lives, is at work and school. She was baby-sitting the night Jetseta went missing.
“She went down the stairs toward her room,” Gage recalled, noting that Bentley was upstairs with her at the time. “He said, ‘I’ll see you in the morning at 10 to work on the van.’ ”
After she heard Bentley drive away, Gage went to her granddaughter’s bedroom.
“She wasn’t there in the bed,” she said. “I looked all over the house for her.”
Teresa Gage cried briefly on the witness stand while identifying her granddaughter’s clothes and shoes, which were found at the mobile home along with her body.
Placing a hand on top of his head, Bentley looked down during Gage’s testimony. He did not appear to lift his gaze when a photo of Jetseta and the pictures of her body were displayed to the jury.
Jurors also heard testimony from two of Bentley’s friends who had shown him the property where the abandoned mobile home was located March 22. The friends were planning to buy the land from a woman living in Florida.
When Bentley’s friends heard police were looking for him in connection with the Gage disappearance, they thought he might have taken the girl to the mobile home and called authorities. Jurors heard a recording of a telephone call the friends made to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department.
Another witness said he saw Bentley a few miles from the mobile home about 11 p.m. the night of the girl’s disappearance. He said Bentley flagged him down from his truck as they were passing each other on a rural road and asked for directions to the Orville Yoder Turnpike, the road where the mobile home is located. He said no one was riding with Bentley in the front, but he could not see into the back of the pickup, which was covered by a canopy.
Kevin Kinney, a detective with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, told jurors he was the first officer to drive to the mobile home after getting the tip from Bentley’s friends. Kinney saw Bentley’s truck parked outside, stuck in some mud, and waited for three more deputies to arrive.
Once help arrived, Kinney approached from the back while the other deputies went around front. The deputies knocked on the front of the mobile home, and Bentley came out the back, where Kinney arrested him.
Kinney said Bentley told them he had been at the Gage residence the day before, but said he did not know a Jetseta Gage and did not tell police her body was inside. Bentley was then taken to the police station to be interviewed.
Deputies searched the mobile home for the girl twice and found some of her clothes and what appeared to be blood, but they could not locate her body, Kinney testified. He said the mobile home was filled with trash, making it difficult to search, and they did not want to move much because they hoped to preserve the scene for crime technicians.
About two hours after Bentley’s arrest, Kinney and Chris Langenberg, the department’s canine handler, used Lazer, a police dog, to search the mobile home. Lazer helped them find the girl’s body inside a cabinet in the bathroom. A file cabinet had been pushed up against the doors, both deputies testified.
In his opening arguments, Johnson County Attorney J. Patrick White told jurors that evidence will show Bentley’s semen was found inside the girl’s body and that her blood was found on his clothes. White will be calling various experts to testify about the crime scene evidence.
In the opening statement for the defense, attorney Quint Meyerdirk said there are no witnesses who saw Bentley kidnap or murder the girl.
“After seeing a lot of (the evidence), many of you are not going to like this man,” he said, pointing to the defendant. But “the State of Iowa can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Roger Bentley committed this crime.”
Dustin Lemmon can be contacted at (563) 383-2493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.