Fulton County

DA: Video, DNA, cell phones and a Fitbit point to Daniel Nellis guilt in Michaela MacVilla death

Daniel Nellis accused in her death
Michaela MacVilla (inset), St. Johnsville (background)
Michaela MacVilla (inset), St. Johnsville (background)

Oppenheim — Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown walked the jury Wednesday through the evidence that he argued pointed directly to Daniel Nellis as the killer of Michaela MacVilla.

In his closing arguments at Nellis’ second-degree murder trial, Brown showed surveillance video from when she left her job at the St. Johnsville Stewart’s just after midnight Sept. 25, to Nellis’ own front steps miles away in Fulton County to surveillance video from a home on rural Kringsbush Road in Oppenheim near where her body was eventually found.

He offered cellphone data, DNA evidence and scratch marks found on Nellis’ body days later. DNA evidence in the form of fingernail scrapings found under MacVilla’s fingernails matched Nellis, Brown argued. Cellphone data placed him at all the relevant spots and times, Brown argued.

Thursday Verdict: Daniel Nellis convicted in murder of Michaela MacVilla

But there was also MacVilla’s Fitbit, a fitness device she wore on her wrist that recorded her heart rate. She had it on leading up to her disappearance — and it was still on her wrist when her body was discovered a week after she was last seen. Data recorded on that Fitbit pointed to when she was killed, Brown said.

That time of death, Brown told the jury, fit right in the five minute window of a car seen on that rural Kringsbush Road surveillance system heading toward the location where the body would eventually be discovered and then heading away.

That car, Brown argued, matched one owned and operated by Nellis.

Nellis, 45, was indicted in November on one count of second-degree murder, accused of shooting MacVilla, 21, in the head with a handgun. She was last seen alive early on Sept. 25.  

Attorneys offered their closing arguments Wednesday morning and the jury started deliberations mid-afternoon. Deliberations are expected to resume Thursday.

MacVilla was reported missing after she left a Stewart’s Shop on West Main Street in St. Johnsville at about 12:10 a.m. on Sept. 25. She was found dead Oct. 2 in heavy brush on a property on Kringsbush Road in Oppenheim, state police said. The property’s owner discovered her body.  

Nellis’s attorney, Brian Toal, in his own closing arguments, attempted to paint a picture of an investigation that focused exclusively on Nellis to the exclusion of at least three other possible suspects, including MacVilla’s boyfriend, with whom she was in the process of leaving.

Others had motive, Toal argued. Nellis had none.

Thursday Verdict: Daniel Nellis convicted in murder of Michaela MacVilla

The jury asked for testimony read back as part of its brief deliberations Wednesday. 

Toal also argued the video from Nellis’ residence showed MacVilla coming and going, seemingly of her own free will.

“They were convinced that they had their man regardless of what was going to be found,” Toal argued.

Toal called the cellphone location evidence unreliable. He pointed to what he argued was another DNA profile found on MacVilla and argued the vehicle seen on Kringsbush Road could be ruled out as Nellis’ due to differences between the two.

But Brown countered Toal’s alternate killer theories by saying there was no evidence of those people being involved. The boyfriend was investigated, but his account of his whereabouts, and his cellphone data, showed he wasn’t anywhere near the relevant locations, including where MacVilla’s body was found.

All the data and evidence pointed to Nellis, Brown argued.

Brown said Nellis picked up MacVilla soon after she’d called him. He drove north toward his residence. Along the way, Brown argued, Nellis got MacVilla’s cellphone and threw it from his car. It was eventually found off the road in grass on what would have been the driver’s side of the car. MacVilla was heard on Nellis surveillance system asking about the phone, Brown said.

They arrived at Nellis residence and then left just under 12 hours later, shortly before the Fitbit showed MacVilla died. Evidence showed a struggle before her death. Nellis’ DNA was found on her ankle. Her glasses were broken. Nellis had scratches on his arms and back.

Also, just before 3 p.m. that afternoon, Nellis was seen on his home surveillance camera carrying what appeared to be the unique purse owned and carried by MacVilla as she left work. (Toal argued the object was a blanket.) Investigators didn’t find the purse, but found items in a burn barrel on Nellis’ property consistent with items MacVilla carried.

Brown concluded with video of the car driving from the scene.

“As he drove away, Michaela’s heartbeat stopped,” Brown told the jury.

Thursday Verdict: Daniel Nellis convicted in murder of Michaela MacVilla

Nellis was next seen at the Dolgeville Stewart’s shortly afterward getting himself a coffee.

“Michaela can’t speak for herself,” Brown told the jury,  “but the evidence is speaking for her.”

If convicted of the second-degree murder charge, Nellis faces up to 25 years to life in prison. He also faces up to 25 years on a weapons count related to guns found at a residence prosecutors say Nellis controlled. Nellis denies controlling the weapons.

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