David Zentner said he heard a soft cry for help from the next-door studio apartment in which 30-year-old Heather Stearns was murdered in April 2011, but he couldn't believe she was being killed. Then he heard stomping that shook the whole building.
Zentner testified for the prosecution against John Clauer, 66, who is charged with strangling and beating Stearns in his bed and then sleeping with her rotting corpse for more than two weeks.
Prosecutor Jeff Rosell told the eight-woman, four-man jury during his opening statement that Stearns had been beaten so severely that her brain and sternum were damaged.
Zentner and his girlfriend found Stearns's body weeks later after they were overwhelmed by the smell next door.
"I couldn't fathom that she was killed," Zentner said of the night of the murder.
He'd often heard disturbing noises from the other side of the wall they shared. He said he regularly heard Stearns tell Clauer to stay away from her and not to touch her before they would have sex. "'Don't touch me, John'," he said he heard Stearns yell. "'Stop John!'"
When he recounted that at one point, Clauer, who had been mumbling to himself during the hearing, called out, "He's fucking lying. She never called me John."
Judge John Salazar ordered him to be quiet.
Stearns and Clauer slammed the door every time they left the apartment and fought often. Stearns would give Zentner the raised middle finger when she saw him.
"It was a condition," Zentner said, referring to her alcoholism. She drank beer from morning to night. "She likes the cheap shit," Clauer told his neighbor.
He complained and tried to fix the door so it wouldn't slam, but eventually he was told by the building's owners to stay away from them.
The building, on the 1100 block of East Cliff Drive, is a former motel that has views of the Monterey Bay and the Beach Boardwalk in the front and looks directly on East Cliff out the back.
On the night of the murder, after the cry for help, Zentner said he heard loud stomping that shook the whole building. He assumed someone else would call the police since all the other tenants could hear and feel it in the thinly made residences.
He assumed since Clauer was on parole for domestic violence against Stearns that officials would take care of it, if this were actually domestic violence. He thought Clauer might have been just stomping on the ground in anger.
"I was tired of being the policeman of the apartment building," he said in response to questions from Rosell. "I didn't think it was my place to babysit, so to speak."
But weeks later, after being worried about not seeing Stearns and a horrible smell emanating from Clauer's apartment, he asked the landlord to look into it. When the landlord asked Clauer about the smell, he told them it was rotting garbage.
He emptied his trash and Zentner followed afterward and smelled the barrel where it was dumped, but it didn't smell bad. Then, he saw Clauer loudly carry a blue recycling bin into his apartment. That made him worry more.
The landlord gave Zenter and his girlfriend a key to Clauer's apartment, and after searching around and seeing nothing, they looked under the covers of the bed and saw the top of Stearns's head. They asked the landlord to call police.
Defense attorney Zach Schwarzbach asked Zentner if he slept with every woman in the building, to which the witness loudly answered, "Absolutely not."
As if to prod some kind of doubt in the jury, he asked Zentner if he could see Clauer enter and leave his apartment when Zenter was away from home. "Obviously not," Zentner replied.
The case is expected to last four to six weeks with 50 witnesses. Clauer is charged with first-degree murder, for which he could receive 25 years to life in prison. Testimony resumes at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.