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Previous Worley victim takes the stand

WAUSEON — The young woman was biking along tall cornfields in rural northwest Ohio on a hot July day when a large pickup struck her and knocked her into a ditch.

The man behind the wheel, James D. Worley, then held a screwdriver to her throat and threatened to kill her.

But Robin Gardner, now 54, survived that 1990 encounter and spoke to her experience in brief but powerful testimony during Worley's capital murder trial in Fulton County Common Pleas Court. Worley is accused of kidnapping and killing 20-year-old Sierah Joughin, and on Wednesday Ms. Gardner testified as the final witness in the prosecution's case against him.

Ms. Joughin, of Metamora, disappeared July 19, 2016, while riding her bike in rural Fulton County. Her body was found days later in a shallow grave in a cornfield.

DAY 1: Initial interviews with Worley played on first day of murder trial | DAY 2: BCI agent testifies during 2nd day of Worley murder trial I DAY 3: Testimony focuses on pornography searches I DAY 4: Financials, injuries focus of proceedings | DAY 5: James Worley trial centers on DNA, phone data | DAY 6: James Worley trial enters second week

WATCH: Robin Gardner testifies in court

Ms. Gardner recalled on Wednesday, her memory reaching more than 25 years into the past, riding from her home in Whitehouse before holiday festivities.

“It was all cornfields,” she said. “It was July 4, and the corn was high. There was nobody around.”

Then 26 years old, Ms. Gardner said she saw a large vehicle pass her on Obee Road, only to turn back and strike her. Ms. Gardner told jurors she stood up and she let her guard down when the first words out of the driver’s mouth were, “Are you OK?”

That relief soon turned to panic, she said, when he struck her in the head, put her in “a stranglehold,” and held a screwdriver to her throat.

“He said, ‘Get in the truck or I’m going to kill you,’” she recalled. 

Ms. Gardner, who spoke in a soft but steady voice, asked not to be photographed or videotaped during her testimony.

Prosecutors in Ohio are permitted to enter into trial evidence of prior crimes to establish “proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident,” according to documents filed last week by Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman. Judge Jeffrey Robinson read to jurors a similar advisory before testimony.

Ms. Gardner said her attacker forced her into his vehicle and put handcuffs on her right wrist.

“I didn’t want him to get both hands behind my back so I held onto the steering wheel with my left hand,” she said. “We fought and fought.”

She saw a passing motorcyclist and prayed he would see her struggling. Ms. Gardner said she was able to escape through the driver’s side door and approach the stopped rider.

"I said, ‘Please help me, he's going to kill me.’ ... I showed him my bike in the ditch, and I showed him the handcuffs that were still attached to my wrist,” she said.

Worley then told the motorcyclist, “’Don't listen to her, she's crazy. Don't listen to anything she says,’" Ms. Gardner recalled. But the passerby took her home, where her mother called 911.

Later that day she returned to the scene, where officers found Worley, and Ms. Gardner identified him.

Authorities later struggled to free her of the handcuffs, she said.

"I had many, many people trying different keys and tugging at it," she said. "I wanted them off right away. ... Nobody could get them off."

It was hours later they were removed with bolt cutters at the hospital, she said.

Ms. Gardner testified she spent three days in the hospital with a skull fracture and concussion and patted high on the back of her head to indicate where she was struck.

Worley was indicted for kidnapping and two counts of felonious assault but later entered an Alford plea — not admitting guilt — to abduction. He was found guilty and served three years in prison.

Defense attorney in the Joughin case Merle Dech asked Ms. Gardner if Worley was still at the scene when she returned with law enforcement. She said yes.

Worley, 58, of rural Delta, is charged in the Joughin case with two counts of aggravated murder — both with death-penalty specifications — as well as four counts of kidnapping, two counts each of murder, abduction, felonious assault, and having weapons while under disability, and one count each of possessing criminal tools, gross abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence.

Ms. Gardner’s was the only testimony Wednesday before the state rested its case. The defense will begin Friday, and the jury is expected to begin deliberating Monday.

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

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