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Gruesome murder trial underway in Moorhead for man accused of beating two before torching home

MOORHEAD - They viewed gruesome video and pictures of the victims in the charred apartment.

They heard a prosecutor describe how police believe the two victims were brutally murdered and heard tearful testimony from the mother of one of the dead.

But one thing jurors didn't hear on the first day of the double-murder trial for Tracy Zornes was what reason he would have to murder John Cadotte and Megan Londo.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense referred to a motive during opening arguments on Monday.

However, Assistant Clay County Attorney Matthew Greenley did reveal for the first time how authorities think 20-year-old Cadotte and 25-year-old Londo died.

Both victims had their skulls smashed, and each was stabbed in the ear, Greenley said. Cadotte also was stabbed in the back and Londo in the heart.

Zornes, 38, who like Londo is from Naytahwaush, is accused of killing the two and setting fire to the apartment at 901 9th Ave. S. where their bodies were found after the morning blaze on Feb. 19, 2010.

Cadotte's mother, Verzella Grey, broke down crying as she testified about how she and her son were supposed to visit his father in Sisseton, S.D., on the morning of the fire to talk about Cadotte's American Indian naming ceremony.

"He never came home," she said.

Members of the Londo family also wiped away tears as the prosecution's first witness, Nathaniel Pearlson, a forensic scientist with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's office in Bemidji, led jurors through a five-minute video and 35 pictures of the crime scene that included graphic images of the victims.

Pearlson noted how the soot deposits and water from the firefight made it difficult to obtain fingerprints and DNA evidence.

Greenley claimed Zornes took what few valuables were there and removed smoke detectors before setting the fire to the lower-level apartment in the three-unit complex.

"Fire is good at destroying many things, forensic evidence included," he said.

A tenant who lived in an upstairs unit will testify she left at 10 p.m. and saw two Native American men and a woman in her 20s -later identified as Zornes, Londo and Cadotte - arrive at the building in a little red car, Greenley said.

Cadotte's car was found badly burned on a dirt road in rural Mahnomen County two days after the apartment fire. Zornes was named a person of interest early in the investigation and found by authorities March 4 in a makeshift shelter of branches, blankets and vegetation in the snowy woods of rural Mahnomen County.

Zornes hid in the hut because he had prior warrants out for his arrest, defense attorney Mara Rausch told jurors. As for the burned remnants of a smoke detector found in Cadotte's torched car, she said evidence will show that no one knows where it came from or how long it was in the car.

"There is no direct evidence linking Tracy Zornes to this apartment or to these murders," she said.

Greeley said it was a common desire to get a ride from Moorhead to Naytahwaush that brought together the loosely acquainted Londo, Zornes and Cadotte on the night before the fire.

According to testimony from several of the trial's first six witnesses:

Cassandra Cruz, who rented the one-bedroom apartment, and her boyfriend, Saul Grado, drove to Wahpeton, N.D., Feb. 18 with Londo and Cadotte.

Cruz and Cadotte were friends, and Londo was engaged to Cruz's brother.

At her brother's request, Cruz agreed to let Londo stay at the apartment so that Londo wouldn't have to drive back to Naytahwaush between medical appointments for a broken nose she had suffered in a fight with her brother.

Grado was going to Wahpeton because police were after him for a drunken-driving probation violation, he said. Once in Wahpeton, he planned to catch a ride with his parents to his home state of Texas.

Being the only one with a car, Cadotte drove them to Wahpeton, dropped off Cruz and Grado and returned to Moorhead with Londo, who had the only key to Cruz's apartment.

Meanwhile, Zornes had spent the day trying to arrange a ride to Naytahwaush, Greenley said.

Sarah Bush, a friend of Londo and acquaintance of Zornes, said she had been talking to both of them that evening. When Zornes told her he was going to get a ride to Naytahwaush from his sister, Bush gave Londo the number of the phone Zornes was using.

Bush said she never heard from Londo again.

Testimony continues this morning in the trial, which Judge Galen Vaa has estimated could last three weeks or longer.

The 15-person jury, which includes three alternate jurors, consists of nine men and six women.

Zornes faces life in prison without parole if convicted on either of the two counts of first-degree premeditated murder.