(CBS) GUNNISON, Colo. - Opening statements were made Thursday in the murder trial of wealthy West Texas businessman Fred Mueller, accused of killing his wife Leslie near Lake City, Colo., in 2008.
The defense contends Leslie Mueller fell to her death.
Lake City is a small community deep in the San Juan Mountains in the southern part of the state - it is a spectacularly rugged and beautiful area, with cascading streams and waterfalls, abundant deer and elk herds, and literally breathtaking views at nearly 9,000 feet of elevation.
Leslie Mueller's body was found trapped under a log in Cottonwood Creek, just outside of Lake City. Fred, her husband of 27 years, told investigators that he and his wife had been hiking in the area, and that he had stopped to take a photo of Leslie at the top of a steep waterfall with the family dog, a border collie named Gracie. He said a bluebird flew by and startled Gracie, which caused Leslie to lose her balance and then fall some 15 to 20 feet onto a granite ledge before slipping into the creek, about 150 feet upstream from where her body was eventually found.
Almost immediately, law enforcement investigators began to question Mueller's story. He had described his wife's fall as "a swan dive" off the steep creek bank, and that she had landed head first onto the granite ledge below. That didn't seem to make any sense to them, because an autopsy would reveal that she had suffered no head injury, no broken bones, no scrapes or bruises, nothing they thought would be caused by the type of fall Fred had described. They also doubted that a body would be able to travel 150 feet downstream because they believed the rate of the water flow in the creek wasn't strong enough to drag a body through a series of shallow pools and narrow turns in the creek's path. And when the autopsy also determined that Leslie Mueller had died from drowning, their growing suspicions would eventually, four years later, turn into an accusation of premeditated murder.
In opening arguments Thursday, the prosecution is urging the jury to pay close attention to the lack of injuries found on Leslie's body, the fact that some scratches were found on Fred's face, and that his explanation of what happened has been inconsistent over time. They suggest that the couple had grown apart, and that Fred had taken advantage of an opportunity to stage an accident to get rid of his wife.
But the defense, led by noted Texas attorney Michael DeGeurin, told the jury that the couple had a wonderful marriage, and that there was absolutely no motive for Fred to kill her. He promised that the jury will hear not just from his family members but from Leslie's family as well that the two were deeply in love, and completely committed to each other and to their three children. The small courtroom in Gunnison is indeed full of relatives of both Fred and Leslie, all of whom seem to support Fred.
DeGuerin says that once investigators developed their suspicions, they began to systematically construct a case that would result in the murder charge. He called Leslie's death a tragedy, and he urged the jury not to cause another tragedy by convicting Fred Mueller of murder.
The trial continued in the afternoon with testimony from some of the first responders to the scene, describing in detail what they saw when Leslie's body was found and their unsuccessful effort to revive her.
Written by 48 Hours Producer Peter Henderson