LACON — A rural Edelstein man has been charged with the first-degree murder of Tiffini Marie Murphy, a missing Peoria County woman who had last been seen about a year ago.
Gary C. Berchtold, 39, allegedly shot Murphy to death at his residence on or about Aug. 31, 2018; burned her body in a pile of tires and logs; and then dumped the ashes at a nearby remote site in rural Peoria County near the Marshall County line, according to charges filed late Friday and outlined Saturday morning at a highly detailed bond hearing in Marshall County Circuit Court.
Berchtold faces two counts of first-degree murder and one each of dismembering a human body and concealing a homicidal death. He could face up to life in prison, and Circuit Judge James Mack set his bond at $1 million.
The charges followed an eight-month Marshall County Sheriff’s Department investigation that culminated in a more than six-hour videotaped interview in which Berchtold confirmed that Murphy had been fatally shot and admitted that he had burned her body outside his home and dumped the remains that were discovered Tuesday, according to testimony by a lead investigator.
The remains were sent to Texas for DNA extraction and comparison with DNA from Murphy’s daughter and sister, according to Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood. Berchtold’s own statements left no doubts about her identity in the minds of police, Deputy Jason Spradling indicated.
“He confirmed that it was in fact Tiffini Murphy,” Spradling said.
Murphy, 38, was reported missing Jan. 9 in Peoria County, where she was last known to have lived, and that report was also referred to Marshall County because she was originally from Lacon and had connections to the area. The initial investigation indicated that she had last been seen around Sept. 1, 2018, in Lacon in the company of Berchtold, Spradling testified.
In January, Berchtold told police that he had dropped Murphy off at about 3 a.m. Sept. 1 at a Lacon Casey’s General Store, which has since closed, Spradling said. Berchtold said that Murphy had become drunk and belligerent when with him and a man named Christopher Williams earlier at an apartment in Wenona, Spradling added.
Both Murphy and Williams had been living at Berchtold’s home, Spradling said. Berchtold told police that his relationship with Murphy was “just a friendship” in which she was allowed to live there in return for cleaning the house, Sheriff Wayne Strawn said outside court.
Williams later contradicted Berchtold’s account and said Murphy actually had gone back to the residence with them, Spradling testified. Williams said that Berchtold told him to go in the house and stay there and that he then heard six gunshots outside, the deputy added.
The next morning, Williams told police, Murphy was gone and Berchtold was feeding a large burn pile in the yard, Spradling related. Williams said it burned for about three days and then Berchtold loaded the ashes onto a trailer with a tractor, hauled them to the other site, and scooped them off with a shovel, Spradling said.
The Peoria County property is owned by people for whom Berchtold apparently had done some work as a handyman, Strawn said later. They knew nothing about it and are not suspected of being involved in any way, he emphasized.
After a search warrant led to discovery of remains such as bones and teeth confirmed to be human, Spradling interviewed Berchtold again Friday in a session that spanned from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., he said. Berchtold eventually admitted that he had not dropped Murphy off in Lacon and that he had burned her body after she was killed, though his version of the shooting differed, the officer said.
Berchtold maintained that Murphy and Williams were arguing and that he could see a handgun in one of their hands, Spradling testified. Berchtold said he then put his own hand on the gun, and “It went off five or six times,” the officer continued.
“He said one (shot) hit her in the head,” and he confirmed that she was dead, though he wasn’t sure how many shots hit her, Spradling testified.
The formal charges allege that Berchtold shot Murphy “once or multiple times.” The two counts of murder are different ways of charging the crime.
Public defender Patrick Murphy, who already represents Berchtold in a pending aggravated battery case, was appointed to the murder case as well. Mack set a further hearing for Wednesday, though that is expected to address only scheduling matters.
Strawn stressed later that there is no other suspect in the murder. But the investigation is continuing, and evidence could implicate someone in other crimes, he noted, though he declined to elaborate.
“There could be another person charged with things related to this,” Strawn said.
It marks the first murder case since Strawn took office Dec. 1, and he was quick to praise the work of everyone in the department as well as Spradling and Chief Deputy Terry Hatton for leading the investigation.
“Jason did an outstanding job, him and Terry both,” Strawn said. “I give them a lot of credit for all the work they’ve done on this and all the hours they’ve put in.”
Gary L. Smith can be reached at (800) 516-0389 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Glsmithx.