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Testimony in slaying of Tonawanda woman speaks of turbulent relationship

The relationship between John M. Avent and Roberta A. Rybinski was turbulent and, at times, violent.

The two were together for more than a year, even though at least some of Rybinski’s family members urged her to stay away from him. At one point, she had an order of protection to keep Avent away.

Rybinski called police in March 2015 to report that he broke into her apartment on Englewood Avenue, and Avent was arrested and charged with violating the order.

Despite their troubled history, Rybinski kept seeing Avent after that, and when she moved into a new apartment on Newell Avenue at the beginning of 2016, he was there, too.

Police were sent to the apartment March 8, 2016, when her family hadn’t been able to contact Rybinski for four days. The responding officer found Rybinski’s body inside the locked apartment, covered with a sheet on the couch. She had two stab wounds in her neck and defensive wounds on her arms. She was 51.

[Related: Convicted felon charged in stabbing death of Tonawanda woman]

Avent, then 49, was arrested two months later in Olean, as he was walking back to Rybinski’s car. According to prosecutors, Avent would later claim Rybinski gave him the car because she was “going to California.”

Avent is now on trial for murder in Rybinski’s death. In the opening statements and first day of testimony Friday, jurors heard a series of disturbing details about the couple’s relationship.

In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Gary W. Hackbush told the jurors when and how prosecutors believe Rybinski was killed, and how they plan to link Avent to the evidence at the homicide scene.

He told how Avent admitted, when confronted with evidence, that he had gone into Rybinski’s apartment and taken her television set two days after it is believed she was killed. At the shop where Avent pawned the TV, Hackbush said, he told the dealer the scratches on his face were from “a bar fight.”

Defense attorney Andrew LoTempio responded to the prosecution statement by asking the jurors to keep an open mind and to realize that domestic violence, as terrible as it is, also is not always one-sided.

“I think what we’re going to see here are two people in a tumultuous relationship,” LoTempio said.

Jacqueline Wert, Rybinski’s sister, was first on the stand. She testified that Rybinski was bipolar, and her mental illness left her unable to work. She lived on Social Security disability payments and settlements from two car accidents, with her finances handled by a court-appointed payee.

Wert said she usually heard from her sister four or five times a day by phone or text. The only times they didn’t talk, she testified, were “when I wanted her to get away from John.”

Wert's son, Kevin Wert, also testified that he considered the relationship between his aunt and Avent to be “unhealthy and very toxic.” A student at the University at Texas, he stayed with Rybinski when he returned home to visit, because they had always been close, he testified.

Under cross examination, Kevin Wert said Rybinski and Avent seemed to argue all the time, sometimes after they had been drinking or smoking pot. He said one argument became so intense that police were called - either by someone in the home or neighbors - a battle that included Avent’s demand that Wert not stay with Rybinski.

Nevertheless, the couple stayed together and the fighting didn’t stop.

It was still going on the day before Rybinski's family lost touch with her. Two witnesses told of seeing Avent and Rybinski in Maggie’s Bar and Grill on Military Road on March 3, 2016. A customer and the bar manager both told of the “tension” between the two, which eventually got so heated that Rybinski slapped Avent.

After Avent was slapped, the customer testified, “He said ‘I’m going to kill you.’” Before the situation got worse, she said, her boyfriend and the bartender intervened and Avent left the bar.

Rybinski, still distraught, stayed behind. The customer said they chatted and she gave Rybinski her phone number in case she needed help later, because of Avent. She also testified that after they each had a drink, the three went out to the boyfriend’s truck where they smoked some pot and Rybinski accidentally left her cell phone on the back seat.

The customer and her boyfriend left a short time later.

They were in South Buffalo, she said, when she found a voicemail message on her phone, “and it scared me.” As the message was played for the court, Avent can be heard saying he found the woman’s phone number in “his wife’s” pocket, and that she had written “I love you” on it.

“You don’t love her,” the voice growls. “I’m the one she punched in the face - I’m here - we both are” and he says that if she has anything else to say to him she should call.

Meanwhile, back at the bar, a frantic Rybinski had returned, looking for her lost phone.

The bar manager testified, “She was extremely upset. Highly, highly upset.”

Rybinski finally realized she must have left the phone in the truck and the manager said she would try to reach the truck’s owner. She testified that Rybinski left but continued to call throughout the evening to see if her phone had been returned.

By the time the manager reached the truck owner, she testified, it was late and he said he would drop the phone off the next day, March 4.

The manager called Rybinski on her land line to tell her, but Rybinski didn’t answer.

“I never heard from her again,” the manager said. “I thought it was kind of odd.”

A week later, a few days after Rybinski’s body was found, police came to the bar and the manager gave them the phone.

Judge Kenneth F. Case said testimony will resume Monday morning.

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