Fulton County

DA: Video, DNA tie accused killer to slain St. Johnsville resident Michaela MacVilla

Michaela MacVilla (inset), St. Johnsville (background)
Michaela MacVilla (inset), St. Johnsville (background)

JOHNSTOWN — Surveillance cameras recording Daniel Nellis’ home at 758 County Highway 108 show he was with Michaela MacVilla the night she went missing on Sept. 25, and that she left with Nellis in his silver Pontiac the next morning, a prosecutor said at Nellis’ murder trial on Wednesday.

Further, Nellis’ DNA was found on MacVilla’s clothes, underwear and swabs of her body, Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown told a Fulton County Jury Wednesday.

The trial of Daniel A. Nellis Sr., 46, of Oppenheim, accused of murdering 21-year-old Michaela MacVilla in September, began Wednesday with opening statements from Brown and defense attorney Brian Toal and testimony from three witnesses. 

Toal told the jury the case against his client is circumstantial, and that police ignored other possible suspects and focused on his client as “low hanging fruit.” On cross-examination of MacVilla’s mother, Samantha Jump, Toal asked her about MacVilla’s relationship to her boyfriend Devin Sargeant. Jump said her daughter had been trying to break up with him. Toal asked about why that had been difficult.

Jump said her daughter had told her that Sargeant had made threatening statements to her in the past, saying that if she left him, “She wouldn’t leave the relationship alive.” 

Jump testified that she had barred Sargeant and his family from attending MacVilla’s funeral because at the time she suspected he might be involved in her disappearance. 

Nellis was indicted in November on one count of second-degree murder, accused of shooting MacVilla, 21, in the head with a .38-caliber handgun. He’s also charged with three counts of felony weapons possession that are not related to the alleged murder weapon, which prosecutors say they have not located.

Brown told the jury he has evidence from multiple surveillance cameras that show MacVilla, after leaving her shift at midnight Sept. 25 at a Stewart’s Shop, began to walk home, but then got into a silver car. Brown said cameras recording the outside of Nellis’ residence show MacVilla arriving with Nellis at 12:43 a.m., then leaving with him at 11:57 a.m. later that morning. Nellis later returned to the residence alone, Brown said. 

Brown said the time and dates on the DVR from which the recordings were downloaded were incorrect, but state police Computer Crimes Investigator John Montesano was able to convert the times.

Brown said MacVilla’s cellphone was found on Sept. 27, and it shows the last number she called belonged to a cellphone owned by Kelly Sollak, Nellis’ sister. He said Sollak’s phone called 911 three times on the morning of Sept. 25, and those calls were made by Daniel Nellis.

Brown said Nellis was interviewed by police on Sept. 28 and was found to have scratches on his arms. 

“He said he knew [investigators] were there about the missing girl because his sister had called him and told him they were at her house. They asked him if he knew Michaela, and he said he didn’t know her, but then he said he knew her from Stewart’s, and he had seen her three weeks earlier in St. Johnsville,” Brown said.

“He was asked if he could explain why Michaela tried to call him just after midnight on Sept. 25, 2018, and he had no idea why she would call him or how she would have his number.” 

Brown said data analized by state police show MacVilla’s cellphone and Sollak’s phone used by Nellis moved in the same direction the night of her disappearance, toward his home, but then MacVilla’s phone stopped in the vicinity of Mill Road, where it would later be found. 

Brown said an upstairs apartment at 53 Dolge Ave., owned by Robert Bowe, now dead, was being taken care of by Nellis, and a search of it discovered 33 hand guns, 102 long guns, ammunition and parts of explosives. These weapons are the origins of the gun charges against Nellis. 

Brown said Dr. Michael Sikirica conducted an autopsy of  MacVilla’s body and Nellis’ DNA was found “all over” her pants, sweatshirt, from swabs with the sexual evidence collection kit and on a pair of glasses found near Michaela’s body. 

Toal said if everything in “the story” presented by Brown’s opening statement was true he’d be wasting his time defending Nellis. He said Nellis did not like the police, “and the police did not like him.” He said his client has not “been an angel,” but that he did not murder MacVilla. 

The other two witnesses interviewed were Kevin Jump, who said that the time stamps on surveillance cameras at their property were off “sometimes by hours.” 

Brown presented footage stills showing MacVilla entering a silver car, and her mother identified her, and described clothes she wore, including a gold cross. 

Toal asked Samantha Jump about MacVilla’s relationship with Devin Sergeant, how they had lived together over the summer, but were not living together at the time of her disappearance. Samantha Jump confirmed that her daughter had become pregnant by Sergeant, but there had been a  miscarriage. She confirmed that Sergeant lived within a mile of their home, and it was not uncommon for MacVilla to walk home from work, or to walk to his house. 

Jennifer Searles, MacVilla’s manager at Stewart’s, testified that she had worked at the St. Johnsville’s Stewart’s for three weeks and had seen Nellis there several times while MacVilla was working.

The trial will resume Thursday morning at 9 a.m. with more witness testimony. 


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