Part of Jacob Daniel Drotning’s fate could hinge on how much weight jurors give to testimony Wednesday by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood turned jailhouse informant.
The informant testified that Drotning bragged about dousing his wife, Catherine “Katie” Cook, with gasoline and setting her afire.
The 32-year-old informant,whose name prosecutors asked the media not report to protect his safety, was recently released from prison.
In his testimony, he described how he once shared a cell with Drotning at the Oconee County Detention Center while he himself was facing charges of first degree burglary, possession of a controlled substance, escape and distribution of methamphetamine.
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The witness testified that Drotning said he consumed a lot of vodka before trying to kill his wife.
Drotning, 40, is charged with attempted murder, second degree arson, criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, and malicious injury to property in the May 16, 2014, incident at their rented home at at 8044 Utica Street in Seneca. Cook, now 33, suffered third degree burns over at least 50 percent of her body.
Cook spent months in the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., and has had 49 operations, with the prospect of more reconstructive surgery awaiting her.
According to investigators who testified at Tuesday’s opening of the trial, Drotning claimed the burning happened when he used gasoline to try to start a charcoal grill at about 10:30 p.m. on the evening in question.
On Tuesday, investigators testified that the grill, on the home’s patio, was cold and showed no evidence of having been used that evening while other evidence at the scene indicated the fire had occurred inside the house.
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division forensic examiner Michael Moskal testified Wednesday that tested burn evidence indicated the presence of gasoline on items inside the house as well as clear signs of burning.
Cook, her back a mass of scar tissue, admitted Tuesday she did not remember Drotning setting fire to her, but first responders to a 911 call testified that at the time of the incident she indicated Drotning was responsible and that he had acted with intent.
Other testimony Tuesday indicated the incident had come when Drotning’s recent unemployment and heavy drinking had added to an already troubled marriage.
Drotning’s attorney, Lee Cole, honed in Wednesday on the credibility of the jailhouse informant, who had been facing charges that could have drawn a life sentence, but who pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 40 months.
The first degree burglary charge was later dropped, said the informant, and he essentially already had a plea arrangement when he contacted Oconee County Sheriff’s Office investigator Scott Arnold, the lead investigator on the case.
In his initial questioning by Assistant Solicitor Lindsey Simmons, the informant stated he had received nothing in return for his testimony.
Cole, however, questioned the informant about the swastika tattoos visible on his hand. He was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, the informant replied.
“Are you a snitch?” Cole asked.
“No,” said the informant. “When somebody does something so horrific, you have to come forward. Where I come from, you don’t do that to a white lady just because you’re drunk.”
“So it would be okay if she were, say, Latino?” Cole said.
“No, it’s not right to do that to anybody,” said the informant. “I do stand for white people, but I don’t believe in hurting anybody just because you’re drunk.”
The prosecution resumes its case Thursday at 9:30 a.m.