JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A man who was 3½ years old when his biological mother, Bonnie Haim, was killed in 1993 took the stand Tuesday in the murder trial of his biological father, Michael Haim.
Aaron Fraser testified about a day 21 years later when he and his brother-in-law were digging up a nonworking pool and outdoor shower in the backyard of his boyhood home and found what would turn out to be his birth mother's remains.
"I accidentally busted the bag and saw something I describe as a coconut," Fraser testified. "I picked up the coconut object and it ended up being the top portion of her skull. I had it in my hand. .... Looked back in the hole and you could see teeth. At that point in time, you could see the top portion of her eye sockets."
UNCUT VIDEO: Aaron Fraser's testimony on finding remains
Fraser fought back tears as he described the most difficult part of the search for justice in his mother’s death. His testimony came on the opening day of testimony in the state's case against Michael Haim, who is accused of second-degree murder.
The trial is taking place more than a quarter century after the 23-year-old woman disappeared from the couple's Northside home. News4Jax.com is streaming gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial.
Prosecutors opened Tuesday by telling the jury that Bonnie Haim was planning to take the couple's young son and leave.
In the defense's opening statement, attorney Janis Warren said the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office conducted a sloppy investigation, didn't document their search of the property and focused from the start on Michael Haim as their suspect, ignoring other potential suspects and evidence.
"Nobody has notes. Nobody writes reports. Very few officers ever write a report," Warren said. "As a matter of fact (lead homicide) Detective Hinson's massive reports ... weren't written for almost four years. Four years later he goes back and writes down what he remembers and what everybody told him. Is that the type of police work we had in '93? Or was that detective Hinson's police work in '93?"
According to court documents, when his mother first disappeared, Aaron told a caseworker he saw “Daddy hurt Mommy," according to detectives.
“Aaron also stated that ‘Daddy shot Mommy’ and ‘My daddy could not wake her up,’” a 2015 arrest affidavit said.
The caseworker, Brenda Medders, testified Tuesday about her conversation with the boy in 1993, saying Aaron told her he knew his mother was hurt. When she asked who had hurt her, Medders said the boy told her, "His daddy. His father."
During defense cross-examination, Medders confirmed that she had a bachelor's degree in social work at the time and had worked in the field for about one year when she was asked to interview Aaron. Asked pointedly if she had asked the boy when his mother was hurt, if she had ascertained if he knew the difference between right and wrong or if she had tried to determine if the boy had been coached, she answered she had not.
Asked why she didn't, Medders answered, "Due to his young age."
"What I was trying to do is gather as many facts as I could, which he gave me many," she said.
While Michael Haim remained a suspect for the next two decades, detectives did not have a body nor enough evidence to charge him with a crime. That changed in 2014, one year after Aaron Fraser, now an adult with a different last name after his adoption, was renovating the family home that he had been awarded as part of a wrongful death lawsuit against his biological father.
A water leak that began while he and his brother-in-law were breaking up concrete in the backyard required Fraser to remove a concrete slab beneath the outdoor shower, where he found his birth mother's badly decomposed remains. DNA tests later confirmed the remains were those of Bonnie Haim and a medical examiner concluded she died from a homicide “by unspecified means,” according to the affidavit.
A spent .22-caliber shell casing found where Bonnie Haim was buried was the same caliber as a rifle that Haim owned. The medical examiner on Tuesday said there was a specific injury in her pelvis that was consistent with a gunshot wound.
"She examined the bone, essentially the pelvis bone, which she noticed there was a circular defect that was consistent with an injury that took place during life or right at death," Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi told the jury.
The defense countered that after more than two decades, it's impossible to say where the bullet casing came from.
Mizrahi noted in his opening statement that the lease Michael Haim used when he moved out in 2000 banned renters from doing any landscaping or digging in the backyard, or even having their dog in the backyard.
According to the arrest affidavit, Haim was abusive to his wife and she had made plans to move into an apartment with their son while her husband was away on a trip. She had secretly opened a bank account. When Haim found out about the account and made her close it, she started giving money to a trusted friend to hold for her.
In its opening statement, Michael Haim's defense made the suggestion that Bonnie Haim was involved romantically with another man at the time of her death.
SLIDESHOW: The disappearance of Bonnie Haim
Michael Haim, who had moved to North Carolina by the time of his arrest in 2015, claimed his wife left their home without their son late one night in January 1993 after they had an argument about their marital problems. Haim also said he went searching for his wife, although he didn’t notify law enforcement about her disappearance. Law enforcement wasn’t told about the disappearance until a maintenance worker found her purse containing $1,250 cash in a hotel dumpster and called police. Her car was later found in a parking lot nearby.
The prosecution's opening witnesses Tuesday were Michael Haim’s aunt and uncle, who testified they knew the couple well because they both worked in the family business. They said they never believed Michael Haim's statement that he had nothing to do with her death.
The final witness of the day was a woman who rented the Haim home around 2000, who answered questions about the house possibly being haunted. Friends had expressed concern because candles would mysteriously light on their own and a mattress all of a sudden became blood-soaked, then wasn’t later.
Haim's defense lawyer said police brought in a psychic to help solve the case without success.