SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — The triple-murder death penalty trial of Joseph Michael Nissensohn continued Tuesday with a focus on one of Nissensohn’s ex-wives — who the defense claims killed the girl Nissensohn was previously convicted of killing.
First to testify was Fernando Armenta. An inmate serving 13 years for burglary, Armenta, flown in from Arizona, admitted to defense attorney Peter Kmeto that he had a history of burglaries to feed his heroin addiction, but had been clean since beginning his sentence. His addiction started when serving in Vietnam, he said.
Kmeto then asked Armenta if he knew Nissensohn’s ex-wife, Cheryl Rose. Armenta met her in the last part of 1987 while he was bar hopping in Tempe, Ariz. That night, he left the bar with her. He would strike up a 14-month relationship with the typist/secretary for the local sheriff’s office. Two or three weeks into the relationship, he said, Armenta learned she used drugs — “speed,” he said, or methamphetamine. She brought it up; he believed she illegally accessed his prison records and saw he had a history of drug use.
He told Kmeto that he introduced her to cocaine, which he used to try to stop using heroin, but he never introduced her to heroin and never gave her a “speedball” — a mix of meth and heroin. He tried to inject drugs into her once or twice, he said, but her veins were too hard to find and he didn’t try again.
Rose never acted as a prostitute, to his knowledge, but did disappear once or twice for an hour or so to get drugs. He didn’t go into the drug houses and didn’t want to know what was going on in there. He did know she was into bondage sex, but after trying it once he didn’t do it again. One time, he said, Rose brought in another man — Armenta left their apartment. She had asked Armenta to do things of a “violent nature,” as Kmeto called it, and when he turned her down she brought in the other man.
Armenta believed that Rose carried a knife, but never actually saw one, he told Kmeto. Earlier testimony alleged that Rose had used a knife to kill Sally Jo Tsaggaris — a crime which Nissensohn was convicted and served 15 years for.
When Armenta was arrested for a violation of probation, he didn’t see Rose for a few months. She visited him at the halfway house after he got out of jail, where she was now unemployed. “I kind of lost track of her,” Armenta said. He moved into a house next to his sister, not seeing Rose until 1990 or ’91.
“Joe and Rose showed up in a van,” he said. He was unsure of his own timeline — Joe and Rose appeared in a van one time and an 18-wheeler twice — but thought the van was first. There was no child the first time they came — though he knew of a child Rose had — and he was unaware they were married.
“Did you have an axe to grind with Cheryl Rose?” Kmeto asked.
“No, why would I?” Armenta answered.
The next time the pair showed up in an 18-wheeler. Armenta was staying with his sister as his utilities had been turned off. The two wanted to stay for the night outside the house. Armenta agreed. He only saw Rose during the encounter.
The second time, a woman he only knew as Brandi, a “petite blonde,” was with them. When Nissensohn was arrested while in Arizona, Brandi called Armenta, who helped moved their big rig. He found out that Nissensohn and Rose had left to get drugs and not returned. Rose had given Armenta’s phone number to her just in case that happened.
Prosecutor Dale Gomes asked if he had seen Rose ever hurt anyone, but he had not. Did she ask him to help her kidnap and kill girls? “Hell no,” Armenta said before stepping down from the stand.
Next to testify was David Felix, another former lover of Rose. He had been involved with Rose between 1999 and 2000. When asked if it were a stormy or tranquil relationship, he replied, “I’d say stormy.” He said “She never actually physically hit me,” but she screamed at him and threatened to throw things at him. She also frequently lied and took possession of his trailer by signing her name onto the title.
Gomes again posed the same questions to Felix, with the same answers: Felix had not seen Rose hurt anyone and she had not asked him to kidnap and kill girls. Despite Nissensohn’s apparent displeasure in not asking certain questions, Felix was excused from the courtroom.
With the jury out, Linda Sullivan, one of Nissensohn’s defense attorneys during the trial of the murder of Sally Jo Tsagarris, and one of her investigators, Michael Skortini, testified. Neither had much independent recollection of how the old case was handled. Sullivan had not been the lead investigator, and using court documents, Gomes told the court that the lead attorney did not have independent recollection, either. He asked the testimony of all three not be included for the jury’s consideration. Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury did not have a ruling at the time.
Being that Nissensohn’s attorney had testified, despite out of the presence of the jury, who was excused from the courthouse between the testimonies, Gomes requested files that would normally have fallen under attorney-client privilege. After a break, Kingsbury told Kmeto and fellow defense attorney Hayes Gable III they would either have to withdraw that portion of their defense or provide the prosecution with the document.
“If the court is ordering it to be turned over, so be it,” Gable replied, giving a copy to Gomes and putting an end to the day’s hearing.
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 Sally Jo Tsaggaris in 1991. If found guilty, Nissensohn would be classified a serial killer and could face the death penalty.