SIOUX CITY — Prison inmates started paying particular attention to Dustin Honken after it became known there was a pending case in Iowa against him.
That was part of the testimony Wednesday of two federal inmates as Honken's defense team, led by Alfredo Parrish, opened its case in federal court.
The inmates, David Loparo and Neel Huffman, both of whom were in prison with Honken in Florence, Colo., said other inmates stole Honken's legal papers and newspaper clippings and pressured Honken for information about the 1993 killings, hoping to be able to provide information to the government and thereby reduce their jail time.
"Certain inmates are always looking for an opportunity to get out of prison," said Loparo, now imprisoned in Atlanta.
"They look for an opportunity and when an opportunity arises they help prosecutors, who can help get you out of prison."
Honken, 35, formerly of Britt, is on trial in federal court for the 1993 deaths of five people.
Two of the victims, Greg Nicholson, 34, and Terry DeGeus, 32, planned to testify against Honken when they disappeared.
Nicholson's girlfriend, Lori Duncan, 31, and her two daughters, Kandace, 10, and Amber, 6, disappeared when Nicholson did.
The bodies of all five were found southwest of Mason City during 2000. If convicted, Honken could be sentenced to death.
Prosecutors called 55 witnesses during 13 days of testimony before resting their case Tuesday. Of the witnesses, 13 were either in prison or had served time with Honken.
On Wednesday, Honken's attorneys called 11 witnesses, including the two inmates who talked about meeting Honken while in prison and about events during late 1999 and 2000.
Huffman, of Baileyville, Ill., was a cellmate of Honken twice while the two were imprisoned at Florence. He testified that gossip about murder allegations against Honken and newspaper articles about the case circulated in the prison.
He said a couple of inmates appeared to take interest in Honken's case and were asking questions about the 1993 murders in North Iowa.
At one point, Honken's personal items and legal papers were stolen from his cell.
"Anybody doing time is always looking for a way to get less time," Huffman said. "One of the things they can do is pry information or steal it from them and give it to the government."
Huffman denied seeing or hearing about a confrontation involving inmate Joseph McGee and Honken during which Honken allegedly incriminated himself.
During testimony last week, McGee told the jury he accused Honken of killing two little girls.
McGee said Honken responded that the children "were rats, raised by rats and would have grown up to be rats."
Loparo described the alleged confrontation as "a fantasy — that never happened."
Loparo said he would not testify for Honken if he believed Honken had killed children.
During cross-examination, Loparo denied practicing martial arts with a group that included McGee and Honken and denied planning an escape with other inmates.
"That was someone's fantasy," he said, responding to a question from prosecutor C.J. Williams.
Loparo appeared surprised when Williams asked if Honken ever talked about killing "rats," or if prisoners talked frequently about informants who cooperated with the government.
"No one likes rats," Loparo said.
Huffman, who talked more openly about not liking "rats," said inmate Steve Vest, who also testified for the prosecution, became interested in Honken after news of a possible trial made its way to prison.
"There was a dramatic change," Huffman said. "Vest was normally real quiet, until a matter of two or three days, then he wanted to be best buddies with Mr. Honken and myself. All of a sudden it was question after question."
Vest eventually became Honken's cellmate.
Huffman said he later learned Vest was working with SIS, an agency that cooperates with inmates who want to provide criminal information.
Mike Billick of Plymouth was the first defense witness called to the stand.
Billick testified that he did not know Honken, but was an acquaintance of Terry DeGeus. He said DeGeus told him he wanted to assume Greg Nicholson's role as a drug supplier.
Billick said DeGeus once brought a pistol into his home.
He said DeGeus cooperated when he was asked to get the pistol out of his house.
During cross-examination, Billick agreed with prosecutor Williams that he had not told law enforcement officers that DeGeus brought a gun into his home.
"Mr. DeGeus never told you he intended to do harm to Mr. Nicholson?" asked Williams.
"No," replied Billick
The trial is scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. today.
Parrish told the Associated Press he expected to rest the defense case today without Honken testifying.
Judge Mark Bennett said the jury might receive final instructions if the defense rested early in the day.