Daughter takes the stand in Southworth trial, says she thought mother wanted divorce

Almira southworth testifies she woke to find her mother missing

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJanuary 18, 2012 

When Almira Southworth woke up on the morning of June 9, 2010, her mother was not home, but her mother's car was parked outside the family residence at 1486 Meadowthorpe Avenue, Almira told a Fayette Circuit Court jury on Tuesday.

Almira, 14, said she had slept in her parents' bed the night before, falling asleep about 8 or 9.

Almira was the second witness Tuesday in the trial of Donald Southworth, 49, who is accused of murder in the death of his wife, Umi Southworth.

The teen said she tried repeatedly to reach her mother by cellphone but got no answer, so she called her father, Donald, and told him she didn't know where her mother was.

Donald Southworth arrived home between 11 a.m. and noon, after four employees of the Fazoli's headquarters, where Umi Southworth worked, had showed up at the Southworth home to check on their co-worker, the girl said.

"I said, Something's really weird," she said she told her father. "We found some stuff," she said she told Donald Southworth, referring to shoes and keys belonging to Umi Southworth that Almira and Umi's co-workers had found outside the fourplex where the Southworths lived.

Umi Southworth, 44, was found badly beaten in a brushy area behind her home that day. Police didn't realize for hours after she was discovered that she was alive. Southworth was pronounced dead the next day after being removed from life support.

On the stand, Almira recounted what happened after she woke up. She talked about driving around the neighborhood with her father to search for her mother after the Fazoli's employees left. Almira said she thought she and her father went to a McDonald's after that, then to the police department to file a missing person report, and then to pick up her half-sister in Northern Kentucky. Almira said she spent the next two or three nights with a family friend.

Almira, a folk singer who plays guitar and a variety of other instruments, said her parents first encouraged her to play guitar for audiences to get over her shyness, and later her music career became a family business.

"They weren't like total show mom, show dad," she said of her parents. Donald Southworth wore a shirt to her performances with "Roadie" written on it, set up and took down her equipment, and helped her in writing songs, she said. Umi Southworth handled the promotional aspect of her career, she said.

Attorneys asked the teen about her mother's relationship with John DeGrazio, a Christian-pop songwriter and music producer. Almira said her mother texted him a lot, but she said she didn't think they were "messing around."

"She was texting 24/7, and you don't really do that with friends," the girl said, adding that she could understand why her father was upset about it.

Almira said that she thought her parents were getting a divorce and that she thought it was her mother's idea. She talked about moving to Nashville with her mother, with the understanding she would be visiting her father in Lexington from time to time. She said she expected to see him in Nashville sometimes, too.

Patti Williams, whose husband, Buck Williams, heads Progressive Global Music in Nashville, testified that Almira is now part of her family, living with her and her husband and going to school in Nashville.

Patti Williams said Umi Southworth had told her she was planning to leave her husband, and she helped Umi move into a new place in Nashville.

Williams and several music industry professionals testified that Umi Southworth was quiet and subservient whenever Donald Southworth was around.

"I've never encountered anything like this before in my life," Williams said of the couple's relationship.

Jennifer Fowler, who works for Buck Williams, said that at a breakfast meeting at Williams' company, Donald Southworth volunteered his wife's services to help clean up even though Umi Southworth was on crutches following a traffic accident.

Beau Gunn, who runs radio stations in Wilmington, N.C., and a music production company, testified that Donald Southworth wanted to control everything in Almira's career, down to what she wore onstage and what songs she sang.

Gunn said Donald Southworth also called Umi Southworth a "whore" in front of Almira and said Donald Southworth knew Umi was cheating on him because he had hired a detective.

DeGrazio told jurors he first saw Almira in a music competition in 2006. He said Umi Southworth contacted him in 2009 through an email. He said Umi later called him in hysterics, and he decided to be a sounding board for her.

DeGrazio said that "never for a second" were he and Umi Southworth alone.

DeGrazio said that in an email in December 2009, Donald Southworth told him that Umi Southworth knew that Donald looked at her email. DeGrazio said he last heard from Umi Southworth through an email sent at 1:42 a.m. June 9, 2010.

Testimony shifted from Almira's musical career and her parents' relationship when Dr. Neal Haskell, a forensics science and biology professor and entomology consultant who has assisted on big criminal cases such as the Casey Anthony murder trial in Florida, took the stand.

Haskell told jurors about the life cycle of blowflies. Two species of the insect and the maggots it produces were found around, on and in Umi Southworth's body, according to Haskell. He said the maggot egg specimens sent to him from the Kentucky medical examiner's office had to have been laid after sunrise on June 9, 2010, indicating that Umi Southworth was attacked several hours before that.

There also was testimony Tuesday about Donald Southworth's relationship with Yogi Hesti Johnson, with whom he has a daughter, Aleah. "Hesti," as she is called, said she had lived with the Southworths, cleaning, cooking and baby-sitting for them. She said eventually she was referred to as Donald Southworth's wife, and that Donald Southworth encouraged her to hold Umi Southworth's hand when the family was out in public.

She testified that Donald Southworth inserted a used condom into her body in 2005.

Some former and current residents of the fourplex where the Southworths lived said Donald Southworth was nosy, asking questions such as where their bedrooms were and what their work schedules were.

One neighbor, Euhnee Choi, said the Southworths' washing machine in the fourplex basement was always running while she was doing laundry the night of June 8-9, 2010.

Amy Sheikh, a friend of Umi Southworth's, testified that in 2003, when Umi was working at Central Bank, Umi gave Sheikh a lock box key. Sheikh said she kept the key a secret. There was no testimony about what, if anything, was in the lock box.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service