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Valedictorian Murder Trial: What Really Happened?

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Jeffrey Pyne had always been considered the perfect student and son. He was a star basketball player and top of his senior class at West Highland Christian Academy in Milford, Mich. “Everyone wanted their kid to be like Jeffrey,” says Donna Gundle-Krieg, his former high school teacher. “When his mom didn’t want him to play sports his junior year so he could focus on his grades, he obeyed,” says Gundle-Krieg. “He got teased about that, but he would always defend her.”

So when his mother, Ruth, 51, was found brutally beaten and stabbed to death in May 2011 and Jeffrey was charged with first-degree murder five months later, the arrest shocked the small community of Highland Township. The evidence against him? Blisters on Jeffrey’s hands and a shaky alibi. Neighbors, friends and relatives quickly rallied around the 22-year-old University of Michigan-Flint student, whose trial began Nov. 16. “Everyone I know supports him. The courtroom has been packed daily, and hundreds attended a fund-raiser for him,” says Gundle-Krieg, who is blogging about the case. “This kid lost his mom.”

No one is more convinced of his innocence than his father. “I am not a naive father that absentmindedly believes in my son’s innocence,” Bernie Pyne, a 53-year-old engineer, tells People. “Rather, I am a father that truly believes his son is innocent.”

Prosecutors insist Jeffrey, furious that Ruth was bipolar and refusing to take her medication, beat and stabbed her dozens of times in the attached garage of the family’s home on May 27, 2011. “This was an angry killing that was the result of years of living with a difficult person who was bipolar,” prosecutor John Skrzynski told jurors.

In an emotional interview with police the day of the murder, Jeffrey insists he only wanted his mother to get better. “I’ve never had a problem with her,” a tearful Jeffrey said in a video played in court on Nov. 29. “The only issue I had is I wanted her to take her medicine.”

He later told detectives that after leaving his home around 1:30 p.m. on the day of the murder, he went to plant lilac bushes at the home of a local woman he did odd jobs for and then went to work at Spicer Orchards. The woman, however, testified that Jeffrey planted those bushes four days prior to the murder. Jeffrey’s father and sister Julia, now 12, found Ruth’s body about 2:30 p.m. When Oakland County sheriff’s detective Steven Zdravkovski arrived at the home a short while later, he found a very bloody crime scene, but an immaculately cleaned home. “There’s not a drop of blood anywhere,” Zdravkovski testified. But the defense has questioned why no blood was found on Jeffrey, his clothes or in his car.

What the prosecution and defense do agree on is that Ruth’s mental problems had been tearing the family apart for years. “She has invented a religion that deems all medication a form of sorcery,” Bernie wrote in a July 2010 petition to have her committed, “and will not take her meds for that reason.” Court documents show that not long after that, Ruth was committed to a mental facility after she tried to strangle Jeffrey when he attempted to get her to take her medication. Despite all the turmoil, Christine LaPeer, another former teacher, says, “Those of us that knew Jeffrey can’t believe he could have done it.” The scariest part, she says, is “if we’re right, then someone who committed a brutal crime is still running around.”