SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — The murder trial of Joseph Michael Nissensohn continued Thursday with a focus on one witness and whether he was the true killer of two of the women Nissensohn is accused of killing in 1981.
The prosecution rested its case — with a few provisos — once the court was called to order. For the defense’s first witness, attorney Hayes Gable III called Lynne Burley to the stand.
Burley, a supervising criminalist at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s crime lab, noted that DNA found on the jeans of slain Monterey teen Tammy Jarschke was not connected to persons of interest in the case. There was insufficient DNA to draw conclusions from a screwdriver that was tested.
Under questioning from prosecutor Dale Gomes, she said that none of the evidence would be able to determine who the killer was. “It’s there, I detected it,” she said of the DNA. “I can’t say when, I can’t say how.” She also noted that DNA could be transferred from dirty clothes to new clothes in a washing machine.
After her short testimony, Gable called Ira Gilmore to the stand, with attorney Peter Kmeto taking over questioning. Gilmore said he lived most of his life on the Monterey Peninsula, mostly with his mother. Of interest was his second wife, Tammy Thornton.
Had he told Thornton that he killed Jarschke and Tanya Jones and how he burned his clothes to get rid of evidence? “Absolutely not,” Gilmore said. “I deny it, definitely.” He said he didn’t even know where Chews Ridge, where the bodies were found, was located. He had, however, once towed his brother out of the area.
He had also had his life threatened by Thornton’s brother, Donald, and Jesse Prieto — who Tammy Thornton claimed helped Gilmore kill and rape the girls.
Had he threatened Tammy Thornton? “I have no problems, I don’t need to scare by threats,” Gilmore said. He would just kick her out instead of threatening her.
Thornton, however, was a “girl with a lot of serious problems,” he told Gomes. She had wanted to learn to read tarot cards from him and learn how to use CB radio. She was “kind of an airhead” and a “goth.” Though he admitted the tarot cards were “a carnie trick” for entertainment only, she tried to monetize the readings. She also liked to make anonymous calls to the police department.
He said that the first time he heard he had allegedly murdered two girls was a few years ago when an investigator showed up at his door — years after he had any contact with his now-ex wife. “I have nothing to hide,” he said, noting he helped Detective Marty Opseth and willingly provided a DNA sample. He assumed it was Thornton who told them he killed the girls. During questioning, Gilmore was jovial and found the idea of him killing the girls ridiculous. He noted that Thornton had done similar things to other exes and joked that, with other exes who were crazy, he had bad luck in women. But, he couldn’t kick Thornton out to the street, “I feel sorry for people,” so they broke up and made up multiple times before he ultimately kicked her out.
Did he always come out to help her? “Always.” When they broke up, Thornton would incessantly call Gilmore to the point where he had to unplug his phone.
Gilmore noted that when confronted by Prieto and Donald Thornton, he almost lost his temper. He later noted he doesn’t get violent, he gets loud.
He found the prospect that he choked his ex-wife to death and brought her back multiple times as funny. “I’d love to see how I’d do that,” he said. He was not part of satanic murders, as Tammy Thornton claimed, but he said that she said that of everyone.
A break was taken and the next witness — Tammy Thornton — was brought to the lobby outside the courtroom, where she was in hysterics, scared and pleading to not testify.
Thornton testified she knew Gilmore for three years, starting in 1987. They lived together in his mom’s garage, converted into a bedroom. He physically abused her, “would not let me be alone,” would force her to take pictures and wear other people’s clothes, often threatening death. He choked her and brought her back to life through CPR — she would pass out only to come back with her chest hurting, him straddled over her and blowing air into her. “I felt myself dying. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream.” It blinded her for a day, she later said. He also raped her multiple times.
One day, when they were sitting on the floor, he suddenly changed topics of what they were talking about, she said. He told her that he had killed two girls on Chews Ridge, had raped and murdered them with Prieto, and tied them to a tree. He asked if she knew what it was like to kill a person, that it was simple to lure them in, throw a burlap sack over their head, throw them to the floorboards of a car, kill them, burn the clothes the killer was wearing and put on new ones. He said it was easy.
She told multiple police departments in the area, but none followed up. When the defense’s investigators had interviewed her years later, she verified information they told her by going to the library and looking up information online, getting more information about the case before answering questions.
“I believe he did it. I know what he did to me,” she told Gomes of Gilmore. “Ira admitted he did it with Jesse Prieto.” She said she was convinced he did it. “I’m not trying to convince anybody, I’m telling the truth.”
Her uncle, Chuck Rider, also had his suspicions. “I know my uncle knows about it.” Rider told Gilmore to “shut up,” she told the court. But, she said, Prieto never confronted Gilmore. Her family talked about Prieto, known to be a pervert and “dangerous,” and of the murders.
Gomes went on the offensive, accusing Thornton of exaggerating her story over time, going from one rape to multiple rapes. In a previous interview with Gomes, she admitted to hating the death penalty — which is a possible outcome in this trial. “I don’t believe in the death penalty,” she said in the recorded interview, played for the jury. “I don’t believe in putting an animal to sleep.” Gomes accused her of helping the defense more after she found out Nissensohn could face death.
“I would never do such a thing. I know Ira did it,” she fired back. “I have my beliefs and I know what I know.”
Gomes said she refused to talk to him and Opseth at first, and that she identified as being part of the defense team , to which Kmeto objected to multiple times, and noted that a letter she claimed showed how disturbed Gilmore was had been signed “Peace, love, life, always.” She said there were satanic symbols on it.
She said he had picked up “two Swedish girls” from the bus station, somehow got their luggage and forced her to wear their clothes. She believed them to be Jarschke and Jones, she said in an earlier interview.
Gomes quickly went through questions, trying to poke holes in Thornton’s story. Did she know of testimony that said Nissensohn, who she was sure was innocent, was an associate of Prieto’s? That he was at a Denny’s with him and the two slain girls in Monterey? That they were seen a few hours later in Nissensohn’s car? That the car was found stuck in Chews Ridge, 200 yards from the bodies? That Nissensohn admitted to being with them? That he said he went to work that day, but did not? That he hitchhiked away? That a waitress overheard him say, “Let’s teach those two runaways a lesson”?
Kmeto objected at that point, but after a short meeting at the bench, Gomes finished. Did she know there was testimony that Nissensohn bragged about defeating a polygraph when asked if he was involved?
No, she said. She had not heard of any of that testimony — most of it contrary to what she had just testified. She said she came here “not to save (Nissensohn )… I don’t know this man.” She only wanted to see Gilmore brought to justice.
After an out-of-jury argument, the prosecution’s objection to the next witness was upheld and the court was released early.
The case will resume Sept. 24 in Department 3 at 8:30 a.m.