What looks to be the final week of the guilt phase of the Joseph Michael Nissensohn triple-murder trial began with a winding down of defense testimony of an expert witness and a former El Dorado County Sheriff.
The trial continued Oct. 15 with defense attorney Peter Kmeto calling Kenneth Moses to the stand. Moses, the director of a crime lab in San Francisco, reviewed reports regarding the deaths of Kathy Graves in South Lake Tahoe in 1989 and of Tammy Jarschke and Tonya Jones in Seaside, near Monterey, in 1981.
He testified that, after reading transcripts and reports, that the Monterey crime scene was “vast” and there were limits to what detectives could do. A criminalist, trained in how to scientifically preserve evidence, was not called, he said, something that he considered a mistake. Instead, law enforcement had only used evidence technicians, who do not have the same training or education as a criminalist. Criminalists, he said, are scientists with degrees, while evidence techs are not.
Instead of a forensic pathologist, the deputy coroner was called out. “At a scene like this, in my experience, a pathologist almost always goes to the scene,” he said. He noted that there is usually a mutual aid agreement with neighboring agencies in the state to provide personnel as needed, including with the state Department of Justice. The DOJ was not called to the crime scene, but its experts were brought in for later parts of the investigation, Moses said.
Moses told prosecutor Dale Gomes that both a pathologist and forensic anthropologist would have been helpful with the investigation of Graves’ death site, where mostly bones and very little tissue was found. Gomes asked whether Moses was aware that investigators consulted the curator of the Forensic Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian Museum, to which Moses said he was unaware of that.
As to whether the lack of experts at the time compromised the crime scene, Moses said, “Not necessarily.”
Next to take the stand was Brian Johnson, the detective that a previous witness, a jailhouse informant, had worked under. After a short hearing with the jury not present, reviewing what he would testify to, the jury was brought back in.
Johnson told defense attorney Hayes Gable III that the informant signed up in November of 2007 to work with the Douglas County, Nev. narcotics team. The informant, who was paid and always wore a wire, attempted to buy drugs in sting operations.
When asked about an ecstasy dealer the pair drove around to find and the informant had testified about, Johnson said he didn’t think the dealer existed.
The informant was “deactivated” in February of 2008, telling Johnson he was going to go into the state National Guard. He did not join, to Johnson’s knowledge, and still called with tips and asking for money. He also called Johnson when he was in trouble, hoping that dropping Johnson’s name would get him out of trouble. In 2010, the informant claimed to be Johnson’s stepson to get out of trouble, Johnson said.
After getting in trouble and being chased through the snow, the informant called Johnson on the informant’s own dropped cell phone and told the detective that he would reveal the undercover team’s secrets, including names and what types of cars they drove. Johnson “blackballed” the informant, marking his name in an informant database as an informant to not be used by law enforcement. When asked if the informant was truthful, Johnson said, “No, he’s not. In my opinion, he’s not.” He did note, however, that before that incident and during his paid term as an informant, he was a good informant.
Former El Dorado County Sheriff Fred Kollar was recalled to the stand. Kollar took Nissensohn’s ex-wife, Cheryl Rose, on a ride around South Lake Tahoe in 1990 to see if she could pinpoint locations. She picked out residences, including Graves’ father’s home, but not the area where Graves’ body was found. Rose claimed it was because she had been smoking marijuana when Graves was killed. She claimed, in different interviews, it was one, two or six joints she smoked. This interview, Kollar said, was the first time she went to “extreme lengths to describe” how high she was and thus why she couldn’t remember. She also believed Graves was buried, but her body was found above ground, picked apart by animals.
The next day, Nov. 25, 1990, an FBI agent interviewed Rose. On Nov. 27, Rose returned to Florida. Kollar and FBI Agent O’Toole followed her, as she was inconsistent and they believed she was being deceptive. With the help of Brian Jarvis, they caught her off guard in an interview on Nov. 28. When O’Toole told Rose they thought she was withholding information, Rose began crying, fell to the floor and got in a fetal position. O’Toole began reading Rose her Miranda Rights. Kollar noted there were no tears on Rose’s cheeks, nor any puffiness of the eyes. She didn’t acknowledge her rights and no more questions were asked. Rose did say, however, “This always worked with Joe,” referring to Nissensohn.
Kollar also told Gomes he thought Rose was “more involved than she let on.”
Nissensohn is accused of killing Tammy Jarschke and Tanya Jones in Seaside, near Monterey, in 1981, and Kathy Graves in South Lake Tahoe in 1989. He has already served 15 years after being convicted on the second-degree murder of Tsaggaris in 1991. If found guilty, Nissensohn would be classified a serial killer and could face the death penalty.