After taking a week off to accommodate jurors, the Joseph Michael Nissensohn murder case returned with the prosecution winding down.
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The trial resumed Sept. 3 with what amounted to a courtroom play — reading a transcript from a February 2010 preliminary hearing. Deputy district attorney Trish Kelliher played the part of Cheryl Rose, wife of Nissensohn, while Peter Kmeto played the part of defense lawyer Mark Millard. Deputy DA Dale Gomes read lines as himself while Nissensohn watched from the defense table.
Through the transcript, Rose described how she and Nissensohn had been in Tacoma, Wash., and were heavily into drugs. They had an open relationship, but Rose and her son, Joe, stayed with Nissensohn. Rose was afraid that if she was not with Nissensohn, he might hurt her son — something she said Nissensohn threatened often.
The trio made their way to South Lake Tahoe. They left Tacoma due to the death of a woman — Sally Jo Tsaggaris — who Rose claimed Nissensohn killed. “He kept saying I was there and I was an accessory,” she said. “That’s all I remember. The constant threat.”
While in Tahoe, they picked up “neighborhood kid” Kathy Graves. Graves, Rose said, liked to smoke marijuana with them and was flirtatious with Nissensohn. She said there was possibly sexual conduct between the two.
The three were in the couple’s van when Nissensohn took them to a “wooded, out of the way-type place.” Nissensohn and Graves got out and walked off together and seemed friendly. Nissensohn was carrying a blanket. They walked out of Rose’s line of sight, but Nissensohn returned between five and 10 minutes later — alone. He was hurrying and “not a happy camper.” Rose said he could get emotional when he didn’t get what he wanted — in this case, sex. He would later tell her, “What happened with Kathy was messy.”
Rose was worried and wondered how Graves would get home. When the couple returned home, Nisssensohn took off for the casino and didn’t return for some time.
“I’d seen him kill someone, I knew what he was capable of,” she said, referencing Tsaggaris. “He tried to kill me.”
Rose and Nissensohn were officially married on Aug. 22, 1989, with Rose hoping it was her way out. She couldn’t testify against Nissensohn, so the threat of her telling was moot. They left for the southern states, ending in Florida. They picked up more people, did drugs and were involved in prostitution. Nissensohn beat Rose.
They picked up “Brandie” — real name Teresa Pillow — who brought in more drugs. Eventually, Rose was able to send her son to his father. The drug use picked up. Rose became nervous about Brandie, who was having sex regularly with Nissensohn, but was not jealous. She had once loved the idea of being with Nissensohn — until the incident with Sally.
Rose wound up in a shelter away from Nissensohn and began seeing a new boyfriend. But when he began beating her, the police began investigating. One showed her a photo of Sally — who she then realized was dead.
Nissensohn was later convicted of the second-degree murder of Tsaggaris and the attempted murder of Rose. She said, under questioning from Millard, that there were a number of chances to tell the police what had happened, but she was afraid of Nissensohn and what he would do to her son.
With the transcript completed, Gomes called Sherry Parsley, Graves’ aunt. She testified that her brother, Barry, was not a good father to Kathy Graves and “not a very good person at all.”
Kathy Graves would call Parsley two or three times a day, often having dinner with them and staying over. Graves did not have a good relationship with her father, Parsley said. Though Parsley and her husband offered to adopt Kathy Graves, Barry Graves said no.
In the summer of 1989, when Kathy was about 15, Parsley heard from her niece for the last time. A week went by, the Parsleys heard nothing. Another week; nothing. They went to the Graves’ home, in a trailer park, and confronted Barry Graves, forcing him to call the police and report Kathy Graves as missing. She and her husband, Ivan, searched for Kathy, to no avail. She knew in her gut, she said, that something bad happened.
Under questioning from defense attorney Hayes Gable III, she told the jury that Barry Graves would lock Kathy Graves out of the trailer — that’s when she would come over. Kathy’s mother, Carla, was not in the picture, having been a teenage mother who lost custody to Barry Graves.
The next morning, the trial continued with Ivan’s testimony — confirming what his wife said. “He wasn’t good enough to be called lowlife,” he said of Barry Graves. “He did rotten things to his daughter,” he said. “Treated her like she was a slave.” Parsley had gone fishing with Barry Graves before realizing what kind of person he was, noting he was a “total drunk” and “neglected Kathy totally.”
He was under the impression Kathy Graves ran away from Barry Graves because of how she was treated. When confronted, Barry Graves was not concerned, “not a bit.”
Next, Gomes called James Pullen to the stand. In the summer of 1990, Pullen was a detective with the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. He testified to responding to the crime scene on Aug. 22, near the Mt. Tallac trail head at Camp Concord. A human skull had been the first piece discovered by hikers; more bone fragments were found scattered nearby. Pullen also created a video of him walking from the parking lot to the crime scene, which was then shown to the jury.
They used cadaver-searching dogs, including Pullen’s own dachshund, to find pieces, he told Kmeto, co-defense attorney.
Alison Galloway, professor of anthropology and campus provost of UC Santa Cruz, testified about the bones and how long they had been there since death. Using a relatively new, complex technique involving weather and temperature of the region, she determined Graves’ remains had been there between one and two years, though her gut instinct from analyzing the bones made her think it was between six months and two years. She confirmed the bones were of a teenager of European descent, consistent with Graves’ description.
She told Kmeto that using the accumulated temperature days method was not usually used, but is “becoming accepted,” and is beyond being a theory but not common practice.
All damage done to the bones, she told the jury, was postmortem, done by scavengers such as coyotes. This was also how the bones became scattered. The accumulated temperature days method, she said, did not account for scavengers.
Contact Cole Mayer at 530-344-5068 or [email protected] Follow @CMayerMtDemo.