MUSCATINE — After several hours of deliberations, a Muscatine County jury found Douglas J. Foster, 36, guilty Friday of first-degree murder in the death of Lea Ponce.
"I think it was a fair verdict," said Ponce's aunt Becky Wurr, of Victor, "and I thank everybody on the jury for doing justice."
"My belief in the justice system has been renewed," added Wurr. "I am thankful for everything that they've done. My family thanks everybody for the man-hours that they've put into this, and making sure justice for Lea was done."
The body of the 21-year old from Fairfield was found just before 1 a.m. Jan. 8 on the side of the road on Highway 38 just north of Muscatine. The jury heard Foster and Ponce first met while using meth. The two would hang out, and at times their relationship was sexual.
In messages found on Foster's phone, Ponce asked Foster to give her a ride to Cedar Rapids from Muscatine. Ponce was last seen on surveillance camera around 12:30 a.m. Jan. 8 getting into Foster's truck in the Walmart parking lot. The jury also learned a bounty had been put out on Ponce by a drug dealer. Ponce allegedly stole from the drug dealer, and he was going to pay $100 to $300 in meth to the person who brought her to him.
The prosecution represented by Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren argued that was the reason Foster, of Marion, picked up Ponce that day. Ostergren said the most damning piece of evidence against Foster was a message he sent to a woman before he met Ponce.
The message read in part, Foster was going to turn Ponce over "to get beaten have (sic) to death." Ostergren also argued Foster was mad at Ponce when she wouldn't perform oral sex and struck her on the head with a .40 caliber handgun before kicking her out of the truck traveling at around 60 mph.
Foster was initially arrested Jan. 11 as a material witness in the murder case and then charged with Ponce's murder Jan. 15. At sentencing, scheduled for May 31, Foster faces life in prison without parole for the Class A felony.
Ponce's mother Jennifer Matthess, of Des Moines, said she had mixed emotions after the trial.
"I still think this is a nightmare," Matthess said, "and I don't know how I'm going to go on."
"One day at a time, sis," Wurr said consoling her. "One day at a time."
Though she agreed with the verdict and the sentence, Matthess felt life in prison wasn't an equal punishment for the death of her daughter.
"He took my baby away," she said.
Testimony revealed Foster had used meth before meeting Ponce. The defense argued Ponce was mad at Foster because he said he didn't have any meth with him and jumped from the moving truck. Foster's attorney Derek Jones argued Ponce's death was accidental and Foster's actions the day she was killed were "stupid," those of a drug user trying to avoid trouble.
Matthess said the defense wrongly blamed Ponce's death on Foster's drug use.
"It doesn't bring my baby back," she said. "It was his actions that did this."
Foster is being held in jail without bond.
The trial began Monday with jury selection then testimony started on Tuesday in Muscatine County Court held in the Community Services Building due to ongoing renovations at the courthouse. 7th Judicial District Court Judge Stuart Werling presided.
The jury heard testimony Ponce died from blunt force injuries to her head and chest, and the injuries indicated she had jumped or been thrown from a vehicle. An inmate, Rodney Foutch who interacted with Foster in jail, testified Foster told him details about the murder, including he had hit Ponce with the gun and pushed her out of the truck.
Several of Ponce's family members attended each day of testimony and hugged and cried in the courtroom after the jury was dismissed. They said Ponce wasn't just a drug user, she was a daughter, sister to a twin brother and older brother, niece, cousin, friend and mother to two young children.
"She loved her babies so much," Wurr said. "She might not have been with them, but her babies were in her heart every day, and she loved her family."
Matthess and Wurr talked about how Ponce was a "wildfire" who looked just like her mother.
"She spoke her mind," Wurr said.
"And she had no problem telling a person how she felt," Matthess added.
Ponce had other struggles, too. Matthess said her daughter was bipolar and her moods were up and down most days. Ponce had lost custody of her children, Matthess said, and it "was her downfall." To help other mothers who are struggling, Matthess said she wants to start a support program so they don't have to go through what Ponce went through.
The family is planning a balloon release memorial ceremony in Fairfield, where Ponce grew up, later this spring.
"She was the sparkle of my eye," Matthess said.
"She will be in our hearts forever," Wurr said, "and there won't be a day that I won't go without thinking about her."