The couple accused of killing Melissa Jenkins could face charges harsher than second-degree murder pending the outcome of an ongoing police investigation, Caledonia County’s top prosecutor says. Asked whether she might upgrade the second-degree murder charges levied against Allen and Patricia Prue on Wednesday, State’s Attorney Lisa Warren said, “At this point, the investigation is ongoing. One never knows what might come up.”
The Prues each denied the murder charge, along with a felony count of unauthorized removal of a body, at their arraignments in Vermont Superior Court in St. Johnsbury.
Vermont prosecutors can charge murder as second-degree, first-degree or aggravated. A conviction for second-degree murder carries the lightest possible penalty: 20 years to life in prison. If convicted of first-degree murder, the range shifts to 35 years to life.
The most serious offense, aggravated murder, carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison with no chance of parole. Prosecutors seeking a conviction for aggravated murder must prove the killing occurred during the commission of another serious crime, including sexual assault.
Chittenden County prosecutors applied that charge in the high-profile 2006 slaying of University of Vermont senior Michelle Gardner-Quinn. Brian Rooney, a 41-year-old construction worker, kidnapped, raped and killed the 21-year-old student from Arlington, Va., after meeting her by chance in downtown Burlington when she asked for directions. A jury convicted him of aggravated murder following a 2008 trial.
Evidence collected during the investigation into the slaying of Jenkins indicates the a 33-year-old mother and teacher might have been kidnapped and sexually assaulted, police wrote in court papers. Warren told the Burlington Free Press that the killing appeared to be “sexually motivated.”
Investigators continued to search the Prues’ home in Waterford on Wednesday an hour after the couple’s arraignments. Vermont State Police worked out of their mobile crime scene command post, parked on the dirt road outside the Prues’ trailer.
Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio, meanwhile, scrambled to find attorneys to represent the couple as the case moves forward. Caledonia County defense attorneys Doug Willey and Eugene Levine entered not-guilty pleas for the Prues on Wednesday.
Valerio said he would recruit attorneys from outside the close-knit county to avoid any possible or existing conflicts of interest.