Jury takes Modesto homeless death case

A murder case involving a homeless woman whose drug- addicted body was found under debris behind a McHenry Av- enue motel nearly four years ago was in the hands of a Stanislaus County Superior Court jury Wednesday afternoon.

A prosecutor said Michelle Perkins, 45, was the victim of an abusive fiancé who threatened to kill his longtime girlfriend after she used her engagement ring as collateral to borrow money from a friend.

In her closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Eliza- beth Owen said Perkins was trying to kick a heroin addiction but made the fatal mistake of returning to Jeffrey Rush Price shortly before her death. Owen said every murder deserves a first-class investigation.

"It was not written off," she said. "Michelle Perkins mattered."

During a weeklong trial, jurors heard from a woman who said Price threatened to kill Perkins unless she got the ring back, as well as homeless people who said Perkins and Price had a volatile relationship. One recalled an incident in a park where Price allegedly tried to strangle Perkins.

Perkins' body was spotted by an acquaintance shortly after Christmas in 2003, propped up under the branches of a tree behind the Economy Inn Motel in Modesto. She had been strangled.

The authorities believe Perkins was dead when Price was arrested for a parole violation Dec. 21, 2003. Price, who also had been homeless, had the engagement ring and was wearing Perkins' leather jacket.

A detective collected maggots from Perkins' body to determine the approximate time of her death, but the defendant's attorney doubted authorities' timeline because the bugs did not infest Perkins' body until late Dec. 21, 2003, when Price was in custody.

Defense attorney Lewis Wentz also noted that no physical evidence or eyewitnesses tie Price to Perkins' murder.

"Michelle Perkins was killed after Jeff Price was arrested, and the flies prove it," Wentz said. "The flies don't lie."

The prosecutor said foggy, cool weather slowed the bugs' progress.

A first-degree murder conviction would send Price to prison for 25 years to life. Under California's three strikes law, a conviction on a lesser charge could result in a lengthy sentence as well, because Price has two strikes.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.