Lerah Parker’s testimony sees few interruptions
The questioning of Lerah Parker took up the remainder of the morning’s session, with just a glimpse of testimony yet to come from Dr. Alan Whitehouse. Parker’s questioning went much more smoothly than that of her husband, with few objections from the defense.
Parker entered the courtroom for her testimony with some obvious trepidation. A petite woman with graying dark hair and librarian’s glasses, she seemed unsure as she settled into the witness chair. Her initial responses were somewhat hard to hear and she was asked to lean into the microphone. But as her testimony progressed, her resolution appeared to overcome her uncertainty.
At the prosecution’s request, she told her story. She had moved to Libby in 1980, worked for the St. Regis nursery, and when given the chance, purchased the nursery with Mel Parker. They did well and eventually needed to expand. One night, at a social event, she happened to meet Alan Stringer, general manager of the Libby mine. During casual conversation, Stringer learned the Parkers wanted to expand their nursery and offered to sell them land owned by Grace. This was the pivotal moment that Lerah said changed the Parkers’ life was forever.
Soon the Parkers drove up to the property with Stringer. Eventually Stringer and the Parkers developed a friendship. Many amenities at the screening plant site worked well for a tree nursery. The Parkers were shocked with the relatively low asking price and Parker said they couldn’t pass it up. They moved onto the property in 1993.
During this story, the jury was shown some exhibits but it wasn’t until the prosecution started showing pictures taken by Parker that the defense came to life. The prosecution presented six photographs, all of which showed Parker’s children and grandchildren playing in the yard and in the vermiculite speckled dirt around the family home. Asked to describe the photos, Parker’s voice cracked as she identified her 2-year-old granddaughter happily sitting amid tulips in dirt studded with vermiculite. Although each photograph was described for the jury, the defense objected to actually showing the jury because the photos were taken before the time being investigated by the trial.
A photo that the jury was allowed to see was taken in 2000 from the Parkers’ porch. It showed a billowing dust cloud kicked up by a truck rumbling past on Highway 37, coming down from the mine. Parker’s anger was evident when she said she took the photo after hearing about the asbestos danger because “I thought there should be some way to control the dust. ”
“Dust happened all the time,” she said.
She learned about the asbestos problem from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer articles in 1999. In quiet anger, Parker recalled her confusion. “I just couldn’t believe it.” She met with Stringer soon after, but he told her it was just people in town talking. “Gayla was shooting off her mouth,” she remembered Stringer telling her, referring to Gayla Benefield, a Libby resident who would come to lead a local fight to hold Grace accountable for the Libby contamination. Still, Parker said, shortly after that conversation, the Parkers received an offer from Grace to clean up the property.
In March, 2000, the Parkers received a check for $40,000. Parker’s emotion rose again as she talked about the money and she had to stop at one point for a coughing spell.
“I didn’t cash it until the last meeting (in April). I didn’t want the money; I just wanted out of the problem.”
She said part of the reason she didn’t cash the check was a feeling of betrayal. In 2000, Mike Crill, a Libby resident and vocal Grace critic, had given her a 1992 letter from Grace that explained, “Average exposure (to asbestos fibers) on Highway 37 was the highest of all the sampling points.”
Shocked, she said she asked for a meeting with Stringer. Her voice shaking, she said she asked, “As my friend, when selling us this property, did you know this was going to happen to us?” She said Stringer just set down his coffee and left.
Only one defense lawyer questioned Parker. That was to point out that the letter the Parkers had received from Jack Wolter announcing the availability of the Grace property was obviously a form letter.
Parker was released as a witness and greeted her pulminologist, Dr. Alan Whitehouse, as he moved to take the stand. After some initial questioning from the prosecution about his history, Judge Donold Molloy interrupted so the court could recess until the afternoon.
- Laura L. Lundquist (posted 4:00 p.m.)