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Lead homicide detective testifies how suspect in Aquebogue murder trial ‘didn’t seem surprised’

Testimony in the murder trial of a woman accused of killing an Aquebogue man in his home in 2020 continued as jurors heard from the lead detective assigned to the case Tuesday.

Kenneth Buckheit, a Suffolk County Police Department homicide detective, was pressed about his investigation and how he came to hone in on the defendant, Donatila O’Mahony, as a suspect in the case by prosecutors for more than three hours.

Det. Buckheit recalled first meeting Ms. O’Mahony on the evening of March 9, 2020, one day after Lee Pedersen was found dead in his home on Pine Avenue in Aquebogue.

She was one of several women detectives spoke with in the days after Mr. Pedersen’s death, including a mutual friend Roxana Guzman and a woman identified as Jaclyn Ewing, who at the time was staying in a tent on his property and testified early on in the trial, which began Sept. 28.

Detectives knocked on the door of Ms. O’Mahony’s Central Islip home around 11 p.m. and shared the news that Mr. Pedersen was dead with her while sitting around her dining room table.

Det. Buckheit said he took note of her reaction — or lack thereof. “[There was] not much of a reaction. No crying,” he testified Tuesday. “It was very different [than] what I expected. She didn’t seem surprised.”

Upon hearing the news, Det. Buckheit said both Ms. Guzman and Ms. Ewing were visibly upset, and at points “sobbing,” “trembling,” “shaking,” and asking what happened.

Despite speaking with Ms. O’Mahony for more than two hours that evening, the detective claimed that she never inquired about how he died.  

While the other women consented to police downloading the contents of their cell phones, Ms. O’Mahony refused, Det. Buckheit said.

The next day, she reportedly contacted detectives and volunteered text conversations and photos from her phone in person and via screenshots, but again dissented to allowing detectives to download the phone.

That was one of several follow-up calls detectives would receive from Ms. O’Mahony. 

Prior Coverage

Asked about the nature of those intermittent conversations, Det. Buckheit said topics discussed ranged from plans for Mr. Pedersen’s funeral, which were uncertain due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, contents of his will and at one point, an inquiry into whether detectives had recovered the ashes of Ms. O’Mahony’s first husband in the victim’s home.

Records show Ms. O’Mahony, 42, was married to attorney William O’Mahony, who died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 49. Det. Buckheit testified Tuesday that the defendant told him she asked Mr. Pedersen to store them while she was moving and that she didn’t want her young daughter to see them.

“At that point in the investigation, the will wasn’t even an issue for us,” the detective added.

Instead, police were working to determine crucial details about Mr. Pedersen’s death: who, why and when. They knew he was found dead from a gunshot wound on March 8, 2020, one day after his 69th birthday. Detectives also noted that there were no signs of a break-in, which signified that his killer was known to him.

Video surveillance gleaned from multiple residential and commercial locations helped detectives narrow their focus in on a dark-colored sedan. Though Det. Buckheit acknowledged that it was largely “guesswork” since the footage did not reveal a make or model for the vehicle, he noticed one detail: a missing front hubcap.

The sedan was seen trailing Mr. Pedersen’s Chevrolet pick-up truck southbound around 2:20 a.m. on Friday, March 6 along Meetinghouse Creek Road toward the beach. Moments later at 2:23 a.m., the pick-up truck is seen driving north, again trailed by the sedan.

Then, at 2:27 a.m., the sedan is seen leaving the area northbound on Meetinghouse Creek Road and was tracked on cameras heading westbound along Hubbard Avenue and Main Street before authorities lost sight of it. Mr. Pedersen’s pick-up truck was in his driveway when police arrived at his home and discovered his body.

Following a hunch, Det. Buckheit canvassed the area near Ms. O’Mahony’s home for cameras and eventually discovered footage of the sedan turning onto her block at 3:17 a.m. on Friday, March 6.

He then secured a search warrant for Ms. O’Mahony’s own Ring doorbell footage, which revealed a brief clip of her appearing to dismantle the system earlier Thursday evening around 6:20 p.m. — just six minutes before the same dark-colored sedan was captured turning onto her street by a camera along Carleton Avenue.

In a statement to police, Ms. O’Mahony claimed that she was supposed to visit Mr. Pedersen in Aquebogue that day, but sent him a text message shortly before 8 p.m. to say she was going to stay home with her daughter that evening.

Prosecutors have alleged that Ms. O’Mahony intentionally left her phone home with a friend while she borrowed his car to commit the crime, citing that as the reason her cell phone did not ping any towers in the Riverhead area.

Det. Buckheit testified Tuesday that Mr. Pedersen’s phone was never recovered, though records show that numbers were dialed on his phone, which pinged a tower near the water tower on Pulaski Street in Riverhead around 2:34 a.m., the same time the sedan was seen on camera heading west along Main Street out of town.

Ms. O’Mahony is charged with second-degree murder, second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument and second-degree attempted grand larceny. In addition to the murder, she is accused of filing a forged copy of Mr. Pedersen’s will in order to assume control of his estate.

She is facing a lifetime prison sentence if convicted on the top charge and the trial will continue Wednesday with additional testimony from Det. Buckheit.