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Suspect Consoled Victims' Families

Eric Copple, charged with murdering two women in Napa, could face the death penalty.

September 30, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

NAPA, Calif. — In the months that followed the Halloween night stabbing deaths of two Napa women last year, the man now charged with the double murder often was among the small circle of friends who comforted the victims' grieving families.

Eric Matthew Copple, a reserved 26-year-old Napa surveyor, attended the funeral of Adriane Insogna, a Napa County civil engineer. Insogna and roommate Leslie Mazzara, a former South Carolina beauty queen, died of multiple stab wounds early in the morning of Nov. 1 after the pair spent the evening passing out trick-or-treat candy in their quiet, middle-class neighborhood.

Both women were single, 26 years old and popular in the Northern California wine country, where violent crimes are rare.

"What people said could never happen here, happened here," Napa Police Chief Richard Melton said.

Weeks after the killings, Copple sat across from Insogna's mother, Arlene Allen, at a banquet hosted by the Napa Sanitation District, where Insogna and Copple's then-fiancee, Lily Prudhomme, worked. Allen described their conversation that night as "social chitchat."

In February, Allen read Scripture from the Song of Solomon at the couple's wedding ceremony in Napa.

So when Allen received a phone call from Napa police Tuesday night informing her of Copple's arrest, no one was more shocked. Allen, like her daughter, counted Prudhomme among her closest friends and was fond of Copple.

"I totally assumed it would be someone I did not know," said Allen, who lives in Calistoga. "My first thoughts were: 'Oh my God, Lily.' "

Melton said he did not think Prudhomme suspected her husband of the crime until he was contacted by police this week. At the time of the killings, police said they believed that the killer had been injured in the attacks and asked residents to be on the lookout for someone with recent cuts or who exhibited unusual behavior.

In the end, police said, it was Copple's penchant for the Turkish Gold brand of Camel cigarettes found at the murder scene that finally led them to his door.

Copple, looking fit and trim at about 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, appeared Thursday before Napa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kroyer.

After consulting through a bulletproof glass wall with attorney Mervin Lernhart, the shackled suspect, head slightly bowed and stealing occasional glances at the packed courtroom, waived his right to arraignment and agreed to a bail hearing on five charges against him, including two counts of murder, next month.

If convicted, Copple could face the death penalty.

The 11-month hunt for the killer involved 1,300 interviews and the taking of 218 DNA samples -- an investigation that stretched across eight states. But in the end, the suspect was found in the heart of the Napa community.

Police and prosecutors said they were sure that Copple was the killer, although his DNA samples had not yet been matched with samples taken from the crime scene.

"We feel confident that there will be a match," Melton said.

Police said Copple did not come into focus as a suspect until recently. He was not among those asked to provide DNA samples until his arrest Tuesday.

It was only after Sept. 22, when police released information about the Camel cigarette butts and the determination that the killer was a white man, that progress was made in the case. A local newspaper, the Napa Sentinel, described the cigarette announcement as a "Hail Mary pass" by police thwarted on all other fronts.

According to Melton, the strategic ploy worked. Copple smoked the same brand of Camels.

"I think it led him to believe that he was pretty close to being identified as a suspect in the case," Melton said at a Thursday morning news conference in the Napa City Council chambers.

After several days in which police attempted unsuccessfully to contact Copple, the suspect appeared at the police station Tuesday with an unidentified relative.

"He made admissions that led us to believe that he committed this crime," Melton said. "I guess you could say that he confessed."

Responding to news reports that there had been a suicide note, Melton said only that police "gathered a number of writings that we are not going into."

The most dramatic moment at Thursday's news conference came at the end, when Allen appeared to face network television cameras and answer questions from dozens of reporters.

Wearing a pink jacket and white trousers, the mother calmly described Copple as a "friendly acquaintance, polite but kind of remote. I never felt any kind of a negative, dangerous or sinister vibe from him at all."

She remembered reading the biblical passage at the Copple-Prudhomme wedding in February and how she thought at the time that it was appropriate for her feeling of loss for her daughter.

Lily Prudhomme, she said, chose the passage: "Love is stronger than death and passion fierce as the grave."

As to why Eric Copple would have stabbed and slashed the two young women last Halloween, no one Thursday offered any clear explanation.

"I'm not going to speculate about motive at this time," Melton said.

"My burning question is 'Why?' " Allen said. "What is it that makes someone feel that whatever conflict there is, that the solution is to take a life? That is my big question."

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