A 76-year-old Omaha woman was in her pajamas, talking about getting doughnuts with her 84-year-old husband, Raymond “Bob” Vasholz.
The couple heard a crash that morning in the basement of the Florence home they had lived in for 40 years. They went to check it out when they spotted an intruder — a neighbor who had scooped snow from the Vasholzes’ sidewalk.
The neighbor was Terrance Hale, 30, prosecutors said Tuesday in opening statements in Hale’s first-degree murder trial.
Prosecutors said the elderly couple tried to fend off a bizarre, brazen and dizzying attack by Hale — to no avail. Bob Vasholz died in the Feb. 7 fire that prosecutors allege was set by Hale.
Hale’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sladek, countered that Hale didn’t set any fire — and that prosecutors can’t prove that he did.
Sladek said Hale never left the scene, even after authorities arrived, and always said he was trying to help the couple after seeing the fire.
Prosecutors Jim Masteller and Beth Beninato gave a different account. Beninato said Hale screamed at Betty Vasholz to give him money. Vasholz told him she didn’t have any cash but could write him a check.
The intruder didn’t relent.
“Give me money,” Hale said, according to prosecutors. “I need money.”
The couple didn’t have any — and Hale began attacking them, Beninato said. She said he punched Betty Vasholz repeatedly.
He proceeded to set a fire, lighting paper with the Vasholzes’ stove.
As the intruder pushed the couple into the dining room, he ripped off Betty Vasholz’s pajama top. He tried to block the exits with furniture, then began beating on Bob Vasholz.
Betty Vasholz grabbed a brass lamp and smacked the intruder across the back.
The man walked past her, turned around and pressed a burning couch cushion against her back and chest.
Betty Vasholz escaped. Her husband did not.
Omaha firefighter Lee Folger testified that he found Bob Vasholz shortly after entering a back bedroom.
Vasholz was on his back, sideways across a bed at the base of a window. His arms were above his head. Authorities believe Vasholz died trying to pry open a window that had been painted shut.
Elizabeth Vasholz, meanwhile, was in a state of shock on the front porch. Firefighters gave her oxygen and checked her burns before taking her to the hospital.
“She had soot on her face — around her mouth and nose,” paramedic Will Guidebeck said. “She was in pain. Her arms were draped over a recycle bin. She had severe burns on her arms, on her face. Her hair was singed.
“She just kind of had a blank look on her face.”
Before firefighters arrived, neighbors said, Betty Vasholz was reeling from burns — and hollering at Hale. The Omaha woman is expected to take the stand later this week.
“He did it — he did it, he’s the one,” Betty Vasholz said at the time, pointing at Hale.
As the trial began, a friend of Hale’s emailed a statement to The World-Herald that he said was written by the defendant.
The statement said Hale left his house near 33rd and Ernst Streets and “noticed smoke coming out of a resident (sic), which I recognized as the home of two elderly people whose lawn I had preciously (sic) cut.”
After seeing the smoke, he “knocked at the front door and yelled to alert anyone inside.”
Hearing no response, “I ran to the back of the residence, knocked out a window and entered the house.”
Hale said he “noticed an elderly lady who was trying to get out of the house.”
“I placed my coat around the woman as she had on no top and helped her out the side door,” the statement said. “I then tried to locate the gentlemen (sic) but could not because the smoke and fire had become too much.”
Hale said he went over to see if “the women (sic) was alright.”
“But upon seeing me she began to yell and tell people that I was the one who set the house on fire.”
The statement concluded: “I only entered the residence to help. I never physically attacked anyone or set any fire. Fact is I was practically overcome by smoke myself.”