Warning: this story contains graphic content
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – If it hadn’t been for her neighbor, Sarah Zent’s family may not have known for hours that the 26-year-old mother and her three young children had been stabbed to death in their home on Gay Street.
But Richard Bevelle was angry.
Bevelle knew the man who lived with Zent – the man accused in her and her children’s killings – had taken off in his black Ford Harley Davidson F-150 pickup truck just before 6 a.m. June 2 without his knowledge.
Furthermore, he’d never given 22-year-old Cohen Hancz-Barron the right to use the truck. He only let Sarah do that, according to testimony and the probable cause affidavit.
Zent and Bevelle had a friendly, neighborly relationship where they helped each other out, so it wasn’t unusual or out of the ordinary for him to go into her home. When he did that morning, he found the house “a disaster” with a backpack open in the kitchen and sneakers and clothes on the floor.
Someone had propped a chair up at the front door to keep the knob from turning. On the stove he found a can of WD-40 sitting next to a skillet.
The stove was on.
“Something ain’t right,” he would tell the family.
That’s just a sampling of testimony jurors heard inside an Allen Superior Courtroom on Wednesday as proceedings in the murder trial for Hancz-Barron began. They were also presented with opening statements, police testimony and a graphic photo of the crime scene showing how the bodies of Zent and her three children were discovered.
In his testimony, Bevelle said Zent’s son, 5-year-old Carter, would come running to the door whenever he was around.
Carter Zent, his 3-year-old brother, Ashton, and 2-year-old sister, Aubree, were found dead next to their mother.
As family and friends of Zent as well as detectives came to the witness stand to testify, Hancz-Barron’s public defense team, lead by Anthony Churchward and seconded by William Lebrato, did little – if any – cross examination.
Allen County Prosecutors charged Hancz-Barron with four counts of murder this past June and are seeking to put him away for life without parole. He has been incarcerated at the Allen County Jail since his capture in Lafayette several hours after the killings.
He’d been “crashing” at Zent’s home for about a month just prior to the killings.
Joselyn Zent, Sarah’s sister, said the family had known Hancz-Barron since he was in middle school and at one point, he and Sarah and were in a relationship. But Joselyn said during testimony Wednesday that her sister made it clear before her death she wanted him gone.
Chief counsel and lead prosecutor Tom Chaille said in his opening arguments that when Hancz-Barron left the home that morning, he took Zent’s credit card along with a knife.
Upon finding Zent’s home in disarray and still looking for his truck, Bevelle called Sarah’s mother, Melanie Fields, as well as Joselyn.
Fields testified that the house was so cold when she walked in that she turned down the air conditioning so the children wouldn’t be cold. She didn’t know what to make of the mess in the house where she found toilet paper in wads as if someone tried to clean up. Upstairs in her daughter’s bedroom, the bed was covered with a pink bedspread, but there were potato chips all over the floor and food as if it had been thrown.
Another witness, Jeremy Nielsen, uncovered the first body after he felt something “rock hard” on the coverlet. He lifted it up to find Carter. He said there was a streak of gravy – or at least he thought that’s what it was – on the wall.
At the time, Nielsen and Joselyn were a couple, he said.
In the bathroom, they found vomit.
While Melanie could barely speak on the witness stand, choking on her grief, Joselyn kept herself in check to tell the story. Nielsen described the discovery after Joselyn, accompanying him up to the bedroom, “flung back” the bedspread to find Sarah on her knees with her arms on the bed with her children on top of the bed.
All had been stabbed in the neck multiple times.
Chaille said in his opening that the two boys had also been struck and beaten because there were bruises on the back of their heads.
Chaille played Nielsen’s phone calls to 9-1-1 around 10:44 a.m., his exasperation evident as he repeated the address, the situation and how he wanted the police to come quickly.
“My girlfriend’s family has been murdered,” he said over the phone.
The next 911 call came three minutes later. Nielsen could barely speak, his sobs and Joselyn’s keening made it obvious they were overcome with emotion. The 9-11 calls brought quiet tears from the 20 family and friends who sat in about a third of the courtroom.
The jury of 16 people took up the rest of the room.
Chaille also played a 40-minute video of Bevelle’s ring doorbell video that showed the black pick up truck leaving the scene and the comings and goings of the morning, ending with the arrival of the first police squad car.
Lebrato asked if Bevelle, Nielsen or others had been aware of any physical violence or arguments between Zent and Hancz-Barron. None of them had.
Wasn’t it true, Lebrato asked, that Hancz Barron had asked Sarah to fetch him a beer the night of June 1 at a cookout at 2904 Gay Street where they lived and called her “babe?” Yes, Bevelle said, that was true.
Thursday, more testimony is expected from witnesses, detectives and forensics experts. Jurors are expected to hear about the autopsies.
While the jurors were shown a shocking photo of Sarah kneeling at her bed after she was strangled and suffocated as well as her children lying around her, more disturbing photos are expected in the days ahead.
During the afternoon testimony, one juror became “violently ill” in the courtroom, Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull said. That juror was sent home, leaving 15 jurors to complete the trial.
If Hancz Barron is convicted at the end of the week, then there will be a trial next week with the same jurors to affirm or deny the life without parole sentence.