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Sanford murder trial: Victim’s father testifies 1st day

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MURDER DEFENDANT Andrew Sanford sits at the defense table with Robert Blasier on the left and Erik Schlueter on the right. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins

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From page A1 | March 21, 2014 |

“He is a thief, he is a taker…and on Aug. 14, 1980, he stole money from a Shell station and, more importantly, stole Richard Swanson’s life.”

Thus ended prosecutor Trish Kelliher’s opening statement Monday morning in the trial of Andrew Sanford.

A 33-year-old homicide case from South Lake Tahoe, Kelliher said the case is about “one of the oldest evils in the world: money. Andrew Sanford wanted money and he took money that didn’t belong to him.” In doing so at the South Y Shell station, he took the life of 16-year-old gas station attendant Swanson.

This would be proved over the course of trial, she said, focusing on DNA evidence left behind on duct tape used to bind Swanson. Duct tape was also used to asphyxiate Swanson, covering his mouth and nose. Prior to this, she contends, Sanford had been kicked out of the house he was living in — coworkers of Swanson’s — after he stole a car.

After the alleged murder, Sanford disappeared, only to be arrested three months later, in November 1980, using an alias. Two years later, he was arrested twice using a different alias.

Because of better DNA technology and thanks to his later arrests, in 2010, the state Department of Justice got a hit on DNA from the duct tape amid a mix of DNA — a minor contributor was Sanford, Kelliher said.

Sanford had also, Kelliher said, asked his roommate, Jenna Weller, if God forgave murderers. All this combined reopened the case.

“This case is 33, almost 34 years old,” defense attorney Erik Schlueter told the jury. “There were problems in the beginning that snowballed and kept going and going. There was a rush to judgment.”

He also called the case “politically motivated” in that Swanson’s parents pressured the South Lake Tahoe City Council to reopen the case with the SLT Police Department.

Sanford, he said, would be at the gas station frequently because he and Don Ficklin — with whom Sanford lived and who worked with Swanson — would go four-wheeling and break Ficklin’s truck. Sanford would use the mechanic’s bays at the station to fix the truck. In doing so, he may have gotten DNA evidence on the duct tape.

Schlueter also said that there were a “lot of problems with remembering what the heck happened” 33 years ago.

Though there was evidence of gloves used at the scene, there were no fingerprints that led back to Sanford. The crime scene investigator who collected evidence was hired by SLTPD as a maintenance man and only had a single class in fingerprints. Many people were on scene, evidence was moved and overall the initial investigation was shoddy, he said.

“This case was cursed,” he said.

Co-counsel Robert Blasier also gave the jury a rundown of the DNA — how it could have been transferred and how one of the criminologists handling the evidence admitted he accidentally contaminated part of it.

The first witness to take the stand was Ronald Swanson, father of Richard. He noted his son started working at the gas station only two or three weeks before his murder. He had started the graveyard shift just a few days before.

“He was an awfully good kid. Ambitious, a good student, good friends,” Ronald Swanson said of his son, a twinkle in his eye. “Just a darn good kid.” He told Kelliher that his son never gave him trouble.

Ronald Swanson was at work at Coldwell Banker when he was told his son was dead. He went home to tell his wife, Sharon, who he left with their then-9-year-old son, Bob. He had very little information at the time, so he went to the gas station. He walked up to the crime scene tape, where he was approached by an officer and told to go to Wilson’s Mortuary.

There, he identified his son’s body.

Ronald Swanson confirmed that he knew Officer Steve Mahnken prior to the incident, as he had trained Mahnken years earlier when both worked for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

Ronald Swanson also confirmed, after being recalled to the stand after lunch, that his family had a dog — a brown and tan German shepherd — at the time.

Under questioning from Schlueter, Ronald Swanson said that, after he arrived at the crime scene, he stopped at the crime scene tape, as, being former law enforcement, he knew not to go past. He did not go back to the station after, nor did he go through the contents of his son’s truck — something Schlueter told the jury he had done in his opening statement.

Ronald Swanson helped set up the Secret Witness program in Tahoe, with $5,000 for information on his son’s killer. The family had a separate fund of $50,000 for a reward. He also contacted and attended a City Council meeting in 2006 regarding his son’s cold case. The chief of police then became involved in the case.

The next witness was Timothy Deal, who, at the time, was a 21-year-old employee of the South Y Shell. He lived with one of the station’s owners, Howard Stoebbel. He would, aside from his gas station attendant duties, help with “financial stuff.” He would count receipts and transfer the money from the till into a safe, leaving about $100 for the next shift.

On the day of Richard Swanson’s murder, Deal stopped by the gas station around 2 a.m. He was returning from his girlfriend’s house. He didn’t remember seeing anyone there, other than Swanson — who was still alive. Deal found out just a few hours later his co-worker was dead when Stoebbel’s wife, Jackie, woke him and told him.

The final witness of the day was Dr. Patrick Riley, a pathologist who performed the autopsy of Swanson. Swanson suffered multiple lacerations and bruising on his head. The mucous membranes of his mouth and the linings of his eyelids showed pinpoint hemorrhaging, a sign of lack of oxygen. The lungs were congested and also had pinpoint hemorrhaging, as did the lining of the vocal cords and muscles around the larynx. The muscles above both ears showed the same. The brain was swollen, another indicator. The neck muscles showed visible acute trauma, within a half-hour of death.

The cause of death, Riley concluded, was asphyxiation by suffocation. Swanson was likely alive when the duct tape was put around his face. He probably died within just a few minutes.

Schlueter asked if there was fingerprint powder on Swanson’s face. Riley said it was either that or just blood beneath the skin. When asked whether jumper cables nearby could have caused the neck trauma, being wrapped around Swanson’s neck, Riley said it was “certainly possible.”

There were no defensive wounds.

The first day of the trial ended with Riley stepping down.

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