Zearing man accused of fatally stabbing his wife again found incompetent to stand trial

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

A Zearing man accused of killing his wife was again found incompetent to stand trial earlier this month.  

Criminal proceedings against Gary Lee Pillman, 71, have been suspended indefinitely, according to court records. Pillman was charged with first-degree murder following the November 2019 stabbing death of his wife, 62-year-old Betty Jean Pillman.

Pillman served as superintendent of Colo-Nesco Community Schools from 1993 to 2011.

In a Sept. 7 order, Judge John Flynn concluded Pillman was unable to assist in his own defense and committed him to the Iowa Medical Classification Center for treatment. Within 30 days of his admission, facility staff is expected to update the court on Pillman's condition and assess whether he can be restored to competency "in a reasonable amount of time."

Pillman was first found incompetent to stand trial in March 2020, when he was first ordered to receive treatment at the Iowa Medical Classification Center.

Related: Central Iowa man accused of stabbing wife to death found incompetent to stand trial

After reviewing expert testimony, Judge Flynn wrote Sept. 7 that Pillman "more likely than not" had some form of dementia prior to his wife's death. According to court documents, Pillman was diagnosed with mild dementia in October 2018, and developed symptoms suggesting Alzheimer's disease the following year.

Pillman was evaluated early last year at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital by Dr. Arnold Andersen, who concluded he was "probably, but not certainly, not competent to stand trial." Later that year, Andersen referred Pillman to his colleague Dr. John Bayless, who noted that Pillman's test performances "indicated moderate intellectual losses with mild to moderate memory impairments and disorientation." Bayless concluded that Pillman could not be expected to follow the process of a trial.

But the expert hired by the prosecution, Dr. Rosanna Jones-Thurman, did find Pillman competent to stand trial. Following an evaluation in late 2020, Jones-Thurman said Pillman "does appear to be embellishing his symptoms" and "does appear to be invested in playing the role of a dementia victim."

In his order agreeing with Andersen and Bayless's findings, Flynn noted both physicians "work for the state of Iowa and are paid by the same."

"They are disinterested experts, which cannot be said about Dr. Jones-Thurman, who was hired by the state to perform her evaluation," Flynn wrote.

The court also noted that Jones-Thurman spent "considerably less time" with Pillman than the other two doctors.

From 2019: 1 killed after domestic dispute in Story County

According to a criminal complaint, Story County Sheriff's deputies were called to the 600 block of Center Street in Zearing at around 5 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2019, after Pillman went to a neighbor's house and told him that he had stabbed his wife and attempted suicide. The woman's body was found in the couple's yard.

During a news conference that night, Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said the Pillmans were well-known in the small town.

"Any community, but a community this size, they’re very close, people know everybody," Fitzgerald said. "To have something like this happen is really a very hurtful event. It’s a tragic situation; there are no winners here; everybody is full of sadness."

Betty Jean Pillman was born near Rolfe, Iowa, on March 3, 1953, according to her obituary. She taught K-12 art classes in central and northeast Iowa.

Help for people in crisis

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.