FORT WAYNE — Eighty-five-year-old Claude Berkshire awoke early on June 24, 2002, and went into his garage, probably to feed the birds before heading to morning Mass at nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church, which he did every day.
Unknown to Berkshire, someone was lurking in the garage and attacked him shortly after he opened the garage door. Later that day, Berkshire’s daughter found her father’s body inside the garage.
In June 2010, Allen County prosecutors charged Joseph A. Kast with Berkshire’s murder. Kast, 35, allegedly confessed to the crime while in the Indiana Department of Correction. He is serving a 55-year sentence for the murder of Huntington County Building Inspector Earl Bowman, who was killed days after Berkshire in July 2002.
After 18 months of delays in the case, Kast faces a trial this week in Allen Superior Court on a single charge of murder. Judge John Surbeck spent Monday picking a jury. Opening arguments began Tuesday morning. A nine-man, three-woman jury, along with two alternates, will hear the case, which is expected to take the rest of the week.
No physical evidence tying Kast to the homicide was collected inside Berkshire’s neat-as-a-pin garage. His daughter, having seen him days before at her wedding, hadn’t heard from him and stopped by after work to see whether something had happened, according to her testimony.
He was found lying facedown on the garage floor surrounded by blood and birdseed.
During Tuesday’s testimony, the jury heard from crime scene investigators who handled the scene, and from the Fort Wayne police detective who interviewed Kast in 2010, after the convicted killer wrote a letter asking to talk to him. The audio- and videotapes of those interviews were played for the jury.
On those tapes, Kast interspersed details about the homicide – confusing the birdseed for fertilizer – with claims of telepathic abilities. He told the detective he combined license plate numbers into phone numbers and then dialed them, asking the people who answered what they wanted from him.
Kast told the detective he saw demon faces in the wood grain on floors, saw shadows moving without any light source and saw “corresponding proof” of his telepathic abilities.
Kast’s mental health has been an issue since he was charged in this case. The delays in the case were largely related to issues of Kast’s competency to assist his defense attorneys – William Lebrato and Michelle Kraus.
In May 2011, Surbeck heard from three experts who were split in their assessment of Kast, with two finding him unable to assist in his own defense and understand the proceedings, while one disagreed.
Surbeck found him incompetent and ordered him sent to a state mental hospital. But that hospital would not take him until he served his murder sentence, so he was returned to the Department of Correction.
In July, Surbeck heard from more mental health experts who found that, while Kast suffers from paranoid and delusional thinking, he is capable of assisting in his defense.
Throughout the 18 months since he was charged in this case, Kast often appeared in court with wild hair and a braided beard.
On Monday and Tuesday, he sat between his attorneys with his hair neatly cut, beard trimmed and wearing a dress shirt and tie.
In March 2003, Kast pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the murder of Bowman, who had stopped by a job site to inspect concrete footers on a house. Kast was working with his father at the site and ran up to Bowman, stabbing him four times in the chest.