Concerned neighbor found body
JOHNSTOWN – When neighbor and friend Donna Nellis entered the Ephratah home of Gwenda Lisman on July 1, she knew something wasn’t right.
She saw dirty dishes on the sink and stove and a dirty ashtray on the kitchen table, but she knew Lisman never let dirty dishes sit around and never allowed smoking in her house.
What started as a concern for Nellis quickly turned into a nightmare as she headed to the master bedroom to find her friend’s lifeless body lying face-down on the floor.
Nellis described the tragic discovery of Lisman’s body during her testimony Tuesday in the murder trial of Lisman’s son, James F. Dibble.
Dibble, who turned 30 today, was charged with second-degree murder and other counts in the killing of Lisman, 58, at her 227 Mud Road house.
Authorities said Dibble shot his mother in the head with a .22-caliber single-shot rifle Lisman had borrowed from a neighbor to deal with a rodent problem in her garden.
Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira said Tuesday during her opening statement that Lisman was shot twice, once in the back of the head at close range and again when she was face down on the floor. Casings and projectiles were recovered at the scene, she said.
Nellis testified she became concerned after having a conversation with Lisman early June 30. Nellis recalled her friend stating she felt like “a prisoner in her own home” and had concerns about missing items from her jewelry collection.
Nellis returned later that night to find Lisman’s green Mercedes no longer was in the driveway despite Lisman saying earlier in the day she wasn’t going to be going anywhere. Nellis said she called the home, leaving a message.
Around 9 p.m. June 30, Nellis left her residence to get ice cream and the car still wasn’t in Lisman’s driveway, but when she returned home, the Mercedes was back in the driveway, Nellis testified.
When she arrived home, she said she called the Lisman household. Dibble answered and stated his mother had gone to Fort Plain with her friend Millie to see the damage from flooding there. Nellis said she called again later and Dibble once again answered, but this time, he stated Lisman was gone for the night because she went to the Turning Stone Casino with the same friend.
Nellis testified the second story made her concerned because Lisman was “trying to get her finances together” and had little money for gambling at the casino. Nellis also stated Millie was supposed to be away on vacation during that time.
The next day, Nellis said, she left early in the morning to take care of family business in Cooperstown and tried throughout the day tried to reach Lisman by phone.
When she returned later that day, she said, she and her daughter went to Lisman’s house and knocked on the door. The car wasn’t there and no one answered the door, so she let herself in with a spare key she was previously given.
She said she immediately noticed the ashtray and dishes out of place.
She said she then walked toward Lisman’s bedroom and could see her leg lying near the doorway. Nellis’ daughter called 911.
Nellis was one of eight witnesses to testify Tuesday in the trial before a jury and Fulton County Court Judge Polly A. Hoye.
Also testifying was Millie Alicia, the person Nellis said Dibble told her his mother was with June 30.
Alicia said that on June 26, Lisman came to her home in Gloversville to get a key to take care of her plants while she headed to Florida for about two weeks to be with her family. However, she said she became ill and never was able to make the trip to Florida, but she didn’t make plans with nor see Lisman on June 30.
Sira previously said Dibble killed his mother for financial and material gain.
Sira called a number of neighbors along Mud Road who testified they witnessed arguing between the mother and son days before her death.
Aimee Joe Warn, who lives across from Lisman’s home, said Lisman had been stressed about her son living with her and was trying to “help him get clean.”
Warn said that on June 29, she was awakened around 8 a.m. to the sounds of screaming from the Lisman home. She could hear Lisman yelling about jewelry that had been taken and asking Dibble what he had done with it, Warn testified.
Warn said a short time later, items were being thrown out the front door of the residence and Dibble came out. Warn said Lisman left the house with a steak knife and chased her son around the residence asking about the jewelry. Dibble fled, denying the theft and calling his mother “crazy,” Warn testified.
A couple of hours later, Lisman and Dibble left together with Lisman driving and Dibble riding in the back seat, Warn said. She said Lisman later returned, but Dibble was no longer with her.
Another neighbor, Donald Sweeney, stated he provided Lisman with the rifle to deal with a woodchuck problem.
He said he placed 10 bullets in a plastic baggie and gave the gun to Dibble about two weeks before the death of Lisman to give to his mother.
Neighbors Monica Hisert and Tina George were called to the stand and recalled hearing arguing coming from the Lisman residence.
Residents along Mud Road also stated Lisman previously said she was done helping her son and would take him to the Department of Social Services to seek emergency housing and assistance because she was kicking him out of her home.
Defense Attorney Robert Abdella said during his opening remarks the investigators “rushed to judgment” in the case and didn’t follow all the available leads, but rather the ones that fit their puzzle.
He said authorities failed to check for other DNA on the weapon and victim.
He said within 11 hours and without the benefit of forensics or eyewitnesses, the police “made up their minds” by arresting and charging his client.
“There is a grave danger when you rush to judge,” Abdella said.
Abdella asked all the witnesses along Mud Road whether they heard or saw Dibble yelling or becoming aggressive with his mother. All of them stated Lisman was the one yelling.
He also asked many of the residents if they ever saw Dibble driving Lisman’s green Mercedes. Many said they saw Dibble using the car a few times.
The criminal-possession charges in the case stem from Dibble being in possession of stolen property consisting of jewelry belonging to Lisman and NASCAR collectibles belonging to Jeffrey Snell, according to the district attorney’s office. Dibble is accused of pawning the items for his own benefit. According to the indictment, each of the items exceeded $1,000 in value.
Snell, Lisman’s boyfriend of 17 years, testified he never gave permission to Dibble to access to his belongings.
Snell said he moved out of the Mud Road address around February 2013, leaving his items in the basement and attic. Snell said Dibble was a factor in his decision to leave.
Snell said Lisman would receive about five phone calls a day from Dibble seeking money or a vehicle from her.
Abdella asked Snell whether he ever witnessed Dibble become physically violent with his mother or Snell, and he replied no.
The trial resumed this morning.
Levi Pascher can be reached at email@example.com.