Richard Swanson would have turned 50 on April 12. Instead, he was killed on Aug. 14, 1980, at the age of 16.
“He was barely 16, a nice kid, a good kid … until Andrew Sanford stole that from him,” Trish Kelliher of the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office said during her closing statement Thursday of the Sanford murder trial. “And for what? Seven-hundred and some bucks.” She called Sanford a thief, impostor and killer.
Kelliher said that Sanford could “hide behind false names” but “couldn’t hide behind what time has not destroyed,” she said. “A piece of truth … still on the murder weapon.”
She noted that 192 inches of duct tape was wrapped around his face — more than around his hands and midsection combined. His mouth and nose were blocked, and as a pathologist testified during the trial, it would take between three and four minutes to die from suffocation. This was not an effort to subdue, Kelliher said, as there would be more tape around the hands and midsection. “That’s where you have muscle.”
With the help of other DA employees, Kelliher took a styrofoam mannequin head and wrapped it in just less than 192 inches, or about 16 feet, of duct tape. “This isn’t to keep someone quiet. This is to kill them,” she said. Sanford “had 192 inches worth of reflection … to weigh and consider and decide.” That, she said, showed deliberation to kill, needed to prove malice aforethought and thus first-degree murder.
DNA on the sticky side of the tape proved it was Sanford, Kelliher said, as well as a sort of confession to his roommate, Jenna Weller, when he asked her whether God forgives murderers. He added that he and his friends had done something years ago and “someone, a kid” might have died. Even if it wasn’t Sanford doing the killing — if he aided and abetted someone else during the robbery of the South Y Shell gas station in South Lake Tahoe, where Swanson was the clerk, Sanford is still guilty of first-degree murder. It was a robbery in that money was taken by force; it was a burglary in that the perpetrator entered two buildings to take the money.
Sanford had no money, Kelliher said. He wanted money. He had no job. He was living with the Ficklin family because he had nowhere else to go. He asked Tim Blankenship to go “jockeyboxing” — stealing items from cars. He accosted Peggy Burnham for money. He committed thefts in subsequent years, showing intent to steal. He didn’t go to a bank to try to get a loan.
In addition, Sanford had knowledge of the gas station — he hung out with Don Ficklin while Ficklin was working there. He muttered “Maybe the Shell station” to Peggy Burnham after she would not give him money. He disappeared after the murder. He hid behind false names when he was arrested for subsequent burglaries. And, Kelliher said, his DNA was on the murder weapon. “That’s what took (Swanson’s) breath; that’s what took his life.”
Two pieces of the duct tape around Swanson’s hands could not have Sanford excluded as a contributor of DNA. The pieces were, according to Ricci Cooksey, who pieced the duct tape back together, 53.3 and 67 inches into the roll. That meant that the first piece would be three layers deep from where the duct tape used started. The roll of duct tape was 5 1/4 inches in diameter; for the first piece to have been exposed and for Sanford to have just handled the duct tape at a time other than the murder, the duct tape would have had to be 17 inches in diameter.
But, Kelliher posited, if Sanford had handled the duct tape at some other time and the DNA was simply transferred to another part of the tape, where were all the other people who would have handled the tape? Don Ficklin, for instance, who worked there? She noted Ficklin’s DNA was specifically excluded as being a potential contributor to the DNA found on the tape; his DNA was simply not there. As mixtures transfer together, any other DNA would transfer with Sanford, but on the pieces his DNA was found on, only his and Swanson’s DNA could not be excluded. “Logically, there is no way the transfer could happen,” Kelliher said. “Bottom line, Andrew Sanford has to be the starting point, the source.” There was also no evidence that Sanford had handled the tape at another time.
“Richard Swanson’s life was worth more than $700,” Kelliher said. “Andrew Sanford decided he needed that $700 more than Richard Swanson needed to live.”
Defense attorney Erik Schlueter, however, believed the initial investigation to be a complete mess. “Some things you just cannot fix,” he said. He compared the investigation to a “lemon” car. “Who did it? What happened from then to today’s date was a ‘lemon,’” he said.
The case also hinged on a “small, microscopic piece of DNA,” which was a “hummingbird egg” that the prosecution was using to try “to make pancakes.” He would later say that the DNA on the tape was probably Sanford’s, but it was likely transferred from another piece of evidence Sanford handled while working in the garage.
He admitted Sanford “was no angel then,” and was probably a thief, but was not a murderer. But when it came time for the witnesses to explain their mistakes, the answers were, “Don’t know, don’t remember, don’t care,” Schlueter said.
Peggy Burnham had a “mystical memory,” suddenly remembering things years later. When Sanford was muttering about the Shell station when he accosted her, Schlueter said, there was something the prosecution did not want to remember: Sanford’s good friend Don Ficklin worked there, and he had given loans to Sanford previously. It was not Sanford foretelling a robbery of the gas station; it was him realizing he could get a loan.
Sanford also wasn’t giving false names when he was arrested to run away from a murder. He was running away from the car theft. When he pleaded to that, he did not use a false name. The car theft was also two weeks before the murder, Schlueter pointed out, according to the warrant for the theft. No one saw much of Sanford between the two events, Schlueter pointed out, so how does the prosecution even know Sanford was in town at the time of the murder?
DNA, Schlueter said, is better for excluding, not including, suspects. This is aside from the possible crime scene contamination and possible contamination in labs. There could have been transference of the DNA during the processing. In 1980, he said, “Where was DNA on the radar? Nowhere.” No precautions were taken. Richard Hartman, who had little formal training, took the inside of the gas station where there was the most evidence, while Officer Richard “Doc” Munk, who had more formal training, took the outside booth. Photographs that should have been taken were not. Evidence that should have been collected was not.
“Mr. Hartman, bless his soul, did the best job he could, but didn’t have experience for this case,” Schlueter said. There was nothing done to determine where wounds Swanson sustained were from. Objects that could have caused the wounds were not collected. Evidence was mishandled. “He has probably done the worst job for investigating this case.” Though he could not be blamed 34 years later, as he did not know better, he caused problems for the investigation, Schlueter said.
There was also the unreliability of Jenna Weller. Schlueter said it was not reasonable for Sanford to have told her a “deep, dark secret” that had been kept for 30 years. He believes Weller came up with the story after Sanford’s arrest because, as she admitted in court, she does not like Sanford. Even though, he pointed out, she left her children with him the day she moved out.
“There is suspicion, I’ll give you that. But not beyond reasonable doubt,” Schlueter concluded.
In the prosecution’s rebuttal, Kelliher said there was no evidence that Sanford had touched any tools in the garage, and thus no evidence of transference. Meanwhile, Don Ficklin was in the garage far more, yet his DNA was excluded as being a contributor. Hartman, Angelo Riente and John Massey were also excluded, and handled the evidence far more than Sanford would have.
As for the running away due to the warrant for the stolen truck, Kelliher pointed out that Sanford went to Timothy Blankenship while driving the stolen truck. People, she said, saw Sanford after he stole the truck, but not after the murder.
As for Weller, she did not come rushing forward with the story. It took a week of DA Investigator Paul Moschini calling her to get her to respond. Even then, she initially hid Sanford’s use of meth.
The jury was then released to deliberate, to continue on Tuesday.