Senter's mental health brought u during trial
By KATHY ROPP
A man accused of shooting his estranged wife in the chest at their home in 2006 had spent time in mental institutions because of his curious behavior.
The victim Dena Lester said Senter had trouble keeping jobs, which caused them to move frequently and put a financial strain on them. She said his behavior grew worse in the days before the shooting when Senter thought the FBI was investigating him.
Defense attorney Ralph Wilson asked Lester if Senter had taped paper over a smoke alarm in their home, thinking that the FBI was using it to monitor him.
Lester agreed that there was paper over the smoke detector, but said she didn’t know why he put it there.
Lester said she wanted out of their marriage after she learned that her husband had a gun. Criminal domestic violence charges had already been brought against Senter at that time. Although a gun was involved in that incident, he did not point it at his wife, an assistant principal at Forestbrook Middle School.
Lester said she left their home because of the CDV incident, but returned later with the agreement that he would not have a gun in the house.
She said her husband had undergone counseling and she hoped they could reconcile.
“I took my vows very seriously,” she said. “I still think too many people give up too easily on their marriages and I was trying not to do that.”
In this case, Senter is charged with criminal domestic violence high and aggravated nature and assault and battery with intent to kill. He openly admits that he shot Lester, but through his attorney Ralph Wilson, he is claiming that he suffered from mental illness at the time.
Senter was evaluated after the shooting by the S.C. Department of Mental Health whose personnel determined that he was competent to stand trial.
However, because that evaluation came in February of 2007, Circuit Judge Michael Nettles posed a series of questions in the courtroom Tuesday morning to make sure that Nettles still understood the trial proceedings and its players.
After Senter answered questions such as what is the role of your attorney, who will sentence you if you’re found guilty and what’s the solicitor’s job, Nettles was convinced that Senter was still competent.
Attorneys spent much of Tuesday morning selecting a predominantly female jury, but before they were sworn in, Wilson asked Nettles to dismiss the jury, saying Senter wanted to waive his right to a jury trial and let the judge decide the case.
He argued that there was no question of fact for the jury to decide, that the only issues concerned the law.
However, Nettles found that there is no provision in the law for that course of action, particular if the prosecutor objected, and Brad Richardson did.
He told the jury in his opening statement that Senter knows the “jig is up,” because his wife didn’t die the way he planned.
He said the 55-year-old Senter carefully planned and schemed to kill her. He pointed out that the couple had been going through a painful divorce for about seven months when the shooting occurred on Nov. 13, 2006.
Wilson said Senter doesn’t deny that he shot his wife; he denies that he knew or understood his conduct.
He said Senter had been in and out of mental hospitals and had “bundles” of medicine for his illness.
Lester said she went to the home they once shared at 120 Barclay Drive, Myrtle Beach in the Villages at Arrowhead to pick up property settlement papers that she had left for her husband to sign. She testified she had been to the house on other occasions without any problems.
She asked Senter to meet her at the library, but he asked her to go there so she could trim his neck hairs at the same time.
She went there on her way to work and trimmed his hairs; however, he stalled when she wanted him to get the papers so she could leave and get to work on time.
She testified that he went into their bedroom, came back, raised a gun and fired one shot at her chest.
She fell to the floor in “complete and utter shock,” she said.
“I could not believe what happened…My mind was racing. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of this house,’ ” she said.
Lester said she ran out of the front door to a neighbor’s home where she knocked and rang the doorbell, but no one came.
Fearing she was going to collapse, she tried to lie down in the yard where someone passing by would see her, but her husband came up behind her, dragged her away, saying, “Oh no, you’re not going to be out here where somebody will find you.”
At that point she reached into her pocket and hit the panic button on her car keys. He took the keys and when he went to stop the alarm, she got up again and tried to knock and ring the bell at the neighbor’s house.
Her next strategy was to lie down and pretend to be dead or unconscious.
When she saw he was gone, she jumped up and ran toward the noise of a tractor that she heard coming from a golf course behind the houses.
She ran in front of the tractor and told the driver that her husband had shot her.
“I felt like I was going to die and I wanted someone to know who had done it,” she said.
Weak from internal bleeding, she could run no more. She fell to the ground and Senter returned, telling the tractor driver to hang up his phone.
The driver fled, but didn’t hang up.
Help was on the way, but Lester said, it felt like forever before police arrived.
In the meantime, her husband leaned over her scoffing at her Christianity, she said.
She quoted him as saying, “Is this what your God would want?”
Then she says he said, “I’m going to shot you and I’m going to shot myself and we’re going to die together.”
Police arrived and arrested Senter.
A medical helicopter landed on the golf course and took Lester to the Medical University of South Carolina where she was treated for a collapsed lung and broken ribs. They decided that day to leave the bullet in her liver; however, it began to move and protrude soon so she had a second surgery to have it removed.
She still has pain and gets winded easily due to diminished lung capacity.
In response to questioning by Wilson, Lester said Senter had been taking medicine since the early days of their marriage, but the only one she was sure he had taken was Zoloft.
She confirmed that she had emailed his mother shortly before their separation saying that Senter was sick and she wanted out of the marriage.
She said he once brought a polygraph and a polygraph operator to their home to get her to take a test so he could be sure that she was not conspiring with the FBI against him.
She said she took the test to placate her husband, who was a coach at Newberry College when they met. He later worked in medical sales and in coaching in Tennessee before going back into sales.
The couple was married for 13 years. It has her first marriage and his second.
She said he applied for disability based on mental illness, but was denied.
The jury heard from three witnesses Wednesday, which included testimony from a mental health physician, a marriage counselor and Senter’s own mother.
“In Mr. Senter’s case,” it was my opinion he had a mental illness,” said Dr. Rikki Halavonich, a forensic psychiatrist with the Medical University of South Carolina.
“He didn’t appreciate legal and moral right and wrong,” she said.
Halavonich testified Wednesday that she spent seven hours evaluating Senter months after police say he shot Lester.
The defense produced several letters Senter wrote, in which he claimed the FBI was trying to ruin his reputation.
Senter wrote that his house had been bugged and his phone wires tapped. He claimed Lester was part of the conspiracy, which the defense says explains why he shot her.
Halavonich testified that Senter suffered from several delusions and bouts of paranoia.
“Are the delusions real to [him] even though they may be false to others?” asked defense attorney Ralph Wilson.
“Yes,” Halavonich testified.
Cathy Battle, a professional marriage counselor, said Senter was exhibiting paranoid behavior, so she referred him to Lighthouse.
During cross-examination, however, Battle acknowledged she couldn’t say for sure if Senter was acting with paranoia the day he shot Lester.
“You were not present on Barclay Drive on Nov. 16, 2006?” asked Brad Richardson, prosecuting attorney.
“No,” Battle replied.
“You have no idea what was in his mind that day?” Richardson asked.
“No,” Battle answered.
Also testifying Wednesday was Senter’s mother, Ruth Senter Bergman.
Bergman said she repeatedly urged Lester to have Senter committed because he was exhibiting increasingly delusional behavior.
Senter’s mother testified her son’s behavior continued to deteriorate. A week before the shooting, he came to her home acting menacingly.
“He was just wild. He ran out to the car to get something,” Bergman said. “I was afraid he was going to harm us. I gave him money because I just wanted him to leave.”
The trial is continuing today at the Horry County Government & Justice Center.
Carolina Forest Chronicle editor Michael Smith contributed to this story.