Poverty and homelessness can make for hard talks.
In the tarp hut where Kimberly Venose and her daughter Rebecca Olenchock lived in the woods along I-95 in lower Bucks County, those conversations were mounting last fall.
Venose, 44 and unemployed, had just been mailed a surprise divorce decree from Carbon County, Pa., spelling an end to her support payments. That placed financial pressure on Olenchock, already working long hours in hope of leaving the primitive digs she and her mother had shared for two years.
At times the talk turned desperate. The women even discussed Olenchock's getting pregnant as an avenue to more benefits.
How that desperation ultimately turned lethal is the question looming this week in a Bucks County courtroom.
On Oct. 17, Olenchock admittedly clubbed her sleeping mother in the head with a baseball bat, then set Venose and the hut on fire with kerosene. She fled that day for Tennessee to meet an ex-con with whom she had struck up an online romance.
Venose made it out of the burning hut, but the trauma of the beating and the burns covering much of her body threw her into cardiac arrest, an autopsy determined.
Prosecutors want Olenchock, 25, convicted of murder and arson, saying she planned the crime as a means to escape to a new life.
But defense attorney Joseph Haag, who does not dispute Olenchock's deadly assault, said Tuesday that it stemmed from the stressful conditions in which she lived, not from a premeditated plan.
Closing arguments are set for Wednesday morning before Judge Albert J. Cepparulo, who is hearing the case without a jury. A verdict is expected afterward.
Haag presented evidence Tuesday that relatives near Wilkes-Barre had found an affordable apartment for the pair, but that Venose had failed to follow up and secure it. A friend testified that Venose complained that her daughter had been working too little and bringing home less money.
But volunteers for the homeless who visited the pair frequently denied seeing any hostility.
"I never heard them yell or swear at each other or put each other down," testified Marlene Ritter of Bristol. "They were like two sisters who would finish each other's sentences."
Sandra Mullican of Lower Makefield, who helped protect the women's money by storing it in a safe at her church, called Venose "a protective mom" and Olenchock "a young woman working hard to make her way."
But Mark Kendall, a serial thief from Kingsport, Tenn. - who was just out of prison when he met Olenchock on a chat line in August - gave hints of a planned crime.
Two weeks before Olenchock left to meet him, Kendall testified, she had texted him that her mother had died of cardiac arrest in a hospital.
When she arrived Oct. 17 and met him for the first time, Kendall said, Olenchock was "joyful, I guess. Just excited to be there."
The excitement ended two days later, when police from Bucks County arrived and confronted Olenchock about the slaying of her mother.
"So your mother was killed, she didn't die in a hospital?" Kendall recalled asking her.
"She said lines to the effect that there was more to it."