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Sandra Marie JESSEE





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Murder-for-hire - She wanted to avoid paying for his cancer treatment and to collect his insurance and other benefits
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 13, 1998
Date of arrest: May 28, 2007
Date of birth: 1951
Victim profile: Jack Jessee, 56 (her third husband)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Orange County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without parole on March 22, 2012
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2

Sandra Jessee Gets Life Sentence For Ordering Hit On Sick Husband

By Amy Taxin -

March 23, 2012

SANTA ANA, Calif. — On the night his cancer-stricken brother was stabbed to death, David Jessee knew his sister-in-law was somehow behind it.

A few years earlier, Jessee said, his brother Jack told him over a glass of wine before bowling that if anything ever happened to him, she would be to blame.

More than a decade later, a gray-haired Sandra Jessee was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for having Jack Jessee, her third husband, killed in their Orange County home in 1998.

Prosecutors said she wanted to avoid paying for his cancer treatment and to collect his insurance and other benefits. Jessee, now 61, and her son Thomas Aehlert hired a hit man to commit the killing then received more than $650,000 from the sale of the couple's Placentia home along with 401(k) death benefits and insurance, prosecutors said.

"She's just one of the most twisted defendants I've come across who would engage her own biological son in the murder of a man she's been married to for 15 years at probably the most vulnerable time in his life," Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray said. "To see her finally get justice is very gratifying."

Defense attorney Derek Bercher said his client would appeal her conviction last year for murder for financial gain and conspiracy.

Authorities said Jessee recruited her son and his friend Brett Schrauben to kill Jack Jessee for $50,000. Both men testified against her after taking plea deals.

During Friday's sentencing, Jack Jessee's daughters and brother pleaded with Orange County Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler to impose a life sentence, which was required by her conviction.

"At first I wanted the death penalty, but I think it would be much better for her to sit and rot in jail," Chere Williams, one of the victim's daughters, told the court.

The case dates back to 1998, when Jack Jessee, then 56, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Described as tender and trusting by family, Jessee underwent surgery and was recovering when he returned to the hospital for an emergency surgery due to an infection, Murray said.

When a nurse tried to show Sandra Jessee how to help her husband with a colostomy bag that he would need to use temporarily, she refused to listen, Murray said.

"She was sickened by that," Murray said.

By then, the prosecutor said, Sandra Jessee had already enlisted help from her son and his friend to kill her ailing husband so she could move to Arizona, where Aehlert lived. Schrauben in turn recruited his friend Thomas Garrick, to help him carry out the job, prosecutors said.

On Aug. 13, 1998, Sandra Jesse told her husband she was going out to buy chicken nuggets and ice and stop at the bank. After more than an hour passed, Jack Jessee grew worried about her and called his daughter, Cheryl Deanda, who lived nearby, and asked for her help.

Deanda said she drove to the couple's house, but Sandra wasn't back yet. So she took a spin around a nearby shopping center to see if she could find her.

When she returned to her father's home 15 minutes later, she found him stabbed to death on the living room floor.

"They say I'm lucky to be alive," Deanda said. "They think the guy was still there when I came back."

Jessee's wife was a suspect from the beginning. But Placentia police didn't have enough evidence to charge her and the case went cold.

In 2005, Orange County sheriff's investigators began reviewing the evidence, particularly a strip of paper retrieved from Jessee's purse during a police interview after the murder. The name on the paper was Schrauben, which investigators matched to a tip received a few years earlier, Murray said.

In 2007, Sandra Jessee and Aehlert were arrested in Arizona and brought to stand trial in Orange County. They were both put on trial, and a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of their conviction in 2009.

Last year, Aehlert struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He testified during his mother's retrial last year, along with Schrauben, who pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter in a deal with the district attorney's office in 2008.

A jury deliberated only four hours in December before convicting Sandra Jessee. The conviction carries a required life sentence, but Judge Stotler on Friday told the woman wearing thick glasses and a jail jumpsuit that he would not have granted her probation even if the law had allowed it.

The sentence was welcomed by Jack Jessee's family, who lamented how he has missed seeing his grandchildren grow up and attend college, and his daughter get married.

A hearing is scheduled for May 4 to discuss restitution for the victim's family.

Aehlert is set to be sentenced in September. Schrauben, who has been released from jail, is scheduled to be sentenced in July.

Garrick has pleaded not guilty and has yet to stand trial.

The case has not ended for Jack Jessee's family, but on Friday his relatives said they were relieved at the prospect of no longer having to see Sandra Jessee in court.

"This is like a 14-year ordeal that has come almost to completion," David Jessee told reporters. "This was my sister-in-law who put this whole thing together and she is going to spend the rest of her life where she belongs, thinking about this."


Sandra Jessee Murder Trial: Defiant Defendant Faces Her Prosecutor For An Ugly Collision

By R. Scott Moxley -

Thu., Dec. 1 2011

Because she can't rely on beauty or wits, Sandra Jessee--the pot-smoking granny accused of shopping at Wal-Mart for an alibi while hit men she hired from Target executed her husband--knows her fate depends on whether a jury finds her credible.

After two of the other three alleged conspirators took the witness stand, confessed roles in the Rambo-knife murder and named her the evil mastermind behind the crime, Jessee decided to abandon her constitutional right to remain silent.

This week, she told the jury of six men and six women that she too "died" the day of the ambush killing of her husband in their Placentia home.

"I didn't believe it," a weepy, frowning Jessee testified was her first reaction to learning of the August 1998 murder. "I wanted to know what the hell happened. . . . I died the night he died. I, I, I couldn't go back [to the crime scene]. It wasn't my home anymore. . . . I cried . . . I didn't know where to go or what to do."

But Jessee's son, Thomas Aehlert, and his best friend, Brett Schrauben, have extensively testified about the conspiracy and the motive: access to the victim's life insurance and retirement funds. Schrauben, who was also Jessee's drug dealer, said he got paid $50,000 in installments for the job, but subcontracted the killing for $20,000 to his other best friend, Thomas Joseph Garrick. According to Schrauben and Aehlert, Jessee signaled by telephone when she would leave her husband, seriously weakened by two major surgeries, alone in their house.

Defense attorney Derek Bercher got Aehlert and Schrauben to admit they are scumbags and then spent hours trying to elicit character-demonstrating testimony from his client. From his perspective, jurors should know that the defendant was a generous, loving grandmother whose daily goal was to happily serve her husband's every need. Bercher has barely stopped short of making her a saint.

"Whatever he wanted or needed, he was going to get it . . . anything and everything," Jessee testified. "I was always in love with him."

She also claimed her wild, post-crime spending sprees, including countless hours smoking pot and playing video poker at casinos, weren't signs of joy but rather therapy to make herself feel closer to her dead spouse.

"If I saw it and I wanted it, I bought it in cash," she testified. "It was the only thing I had left--cash."

Cash also may help to convict her. Prosecutor Michael F. Murray believes he has solid evidence that Jessee withdrew chunks of cash from the bank before each of four installment payments for the killing--payments both Aehlert and Schrauben now acknowledge.

When Murray got his shot to question Jessee, he pounced.

"Who killed Jack Jessee?" he demanded to know without a hint of sympathy.

"I can't tell you," she said. "I don't know."

Any idea how the killer would know you'd be gone shopping on the night of the murder?

"No, I don't," she fired back.

Murray asked her why after the murder she and her son, the victim's stepson, kept notes near telephones that read, "Be careful. Somebody might be listening" and "Don't use cell phones."

Her answer to that question suggested odd phenomena. To Bercher's questions, Jessee rapidly recalled details of 15-year-old $40 transactions and other such minutia. But Murray discovered she often had amnesia during his questioning. She had no idea what the notes meant, she said.

After several hours of tough grilling, Jessee had dropped the sweet granny talk. Indeed, at one point, she snarled at Murray, who'd caught her in an apparent lie about her suspicious timeline on the night of the murder. There may not be a more intense prosecutor in Southern California and the pressure obviously rattled her. She angrily began answering questions that hadn't been asked. Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler agreed with Murray that the defendant was avoiding the prosecutor's inquiries. He ordered her to give responsive answers.

If I had to bet, the prosecutor, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the case, sealed a conviction on the morning of Nov. 30, the second day he had Jessee on the witness stand. Murray asked her if she recalled testifying for Bercher that she'd do "anything and everything" for her husband. She did.

But by this point, Jessee feared Murray's courtroom rhythm. He masks looming confrontations with a series of softball questions. The topic of her commitment to her husband made her pause. Over and over, Murray tried to get her to answer a simple question: What was her reaction when she learned that Jack's final colon surgery would require him to use a colostomy bag?

For almost five minutes, she pretended not to understand the question. The prosecutor asked a different question: Didn't you cover your ears, run to the corner of the hospital room and say that you weren't going to help your husband?

Jessee tersely said, "No."

As the clock ticked to 9:45 a.m., Murray picked up a file with jurors watching intensely. He approached Jessee and told her to read a written record. After a few seconds, she said, "I don't remember that, no."

A nurse had recorded in detail Sandra's reaction to learning that she would have to help her 56-year-old husband regularly empty his colostomy bag.

Murray loaded a question with this detail from the hospital report: Didn't you angrily refuse to help Jack?

Jessee's eyes squinted and she cocked her head to the left in a defiant stance.

"I remember being there [and] nothing else," she said.

Murray kept asking similar questions.

"I don't remember that happening," she said. "That whole time is vague."

Murray wouldn't give up, citing the nurse's description of her hostility. Jessee looked like she was going to explode. She held the prosecutor's stare.

"It didn't happen," he asked, "or you don't recall?"

Jessse stonewalled, providing another non-responsive answer: "I was there, yes."

Eventually, Murray got her to say the nurse had invented her observations.

The impact of the answer was immediate. Nobody, except perhaps Bercher, believes a nurse fabricated her notes. A few court observers audibly gasped; others shook their heads in disbelief.

Jessee had shattered the only thing she desperately needed: credibility. As the clock ticked to 9:51 a.m. in a silent, stunned courtroom, jurors closely watched for her reaction to what had just happened. But she turned her head sharply away and looked intensely at a far wall. I think even she knew what she had done. When she left the witness stand, she walked by the jury with her eyes fixed down to the carpet.

If convicted, the 60-year-old Jessee faces a maximum prison term of life in prison without the possibility for parole.

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin on Monday.


Sandra Jessee: Accused Murderous, Pot Smoking Granny Takes Witness Stand

By R. Scott Moxley -

Mon., November 28, 2011

Accused of hiring hit men to murder her husband while she shopped at Walmart and Burger King for a fake alibi, Sandra Jessee declined to take the witness stand in her first trial and saw herself and co-defendant, Thomas Aehlert, come within one vote of spending the rest of their lives in a California prison.

Since that 2009 Orange County hung jury trial, Aehlert confessed the evil conspiracy against his fun-loving stepfather, Jack Jessee of Placentia, and in the second, ongoing trial testified against his own mother.

This afternoon, Sandra Jessee decided to take the witness stand.

It wasn't entirely a surprise. The government's case is strong. The move was definitely a risky gamble but her freedom is at stake.

Under questioning by take-no-prisoner defense attorney Derek Bercher, Jessee nervously assured jurors that she loved her husband, cared for him in sickness, did everything she could to nurse him back to health and anxiously anticipated spending their "Cadillac time," or retirement years, together.

"Whatever he wanted or needed, he was going to get it," she told jurors.

Several members of the victim's family slowly nodded their heads in disgust by the line. They believe Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) evidence shows that the August 1998 murder took months, if not longer, to plan and its motive was purely financial. Indeed, three of the accused killers partied with the unwitting victim--drank his booze, smoked his pot, swam in his pool and ate his food--just weeks before the murder, according to prosecutor Michael F. Murray.

But the majority of the defendant's testimony concerned her alleged deep commitment to her husband and the fabulous times they enjoyed together as a couple.

"It was love at first sight," she testified about their 1980 introduction. "I knew he was the one . . . I was always in love with him . . . [Jack's marriage proposal meant] God answered my prayers."

In the weeks before the murder, her husband had critical colon surgery and she described a scene of self-sacrificing affection in his hospital room.

"I'm not a religious person, but I prayed," she said, weeping. "I didn't want to lose him. I slept right there on the floor next to his bed."

The inference is obvious: why would a woman take care of a spouse she planned to murder?

Bercher, who this morning complained about my coverage of the case and asked Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler to remind the jury not to read news reports, spent about 2.5 hours tossing his client softball questions.

At various times, a sad-faced Jessee described herself as a wonderful if penny pinching granny, who enjoyed bowling but not as much as a daily dose of pot or periodic trips to casinos for video poker.

She also took subtle shots at her dead husband, casting him as loving but lazy and superficial.

Jessee also directly confronted lingering, damaging facts introduced in both trials by the government.

OCSD homicide investigators Brian Sutton and Tom Dove found phone evidence that Jessee repeatedly called confessed hit man Brett Schrauben at his Coto de Caza residence prior to the murder. Schrauben has testified that Jessee's calls were to press him to execute the killing. But today, Jessee offered a more innocent excuse for her calls: She merely wanted to buy marijuana from Schrauben, her son's Target co-worker. In his testimony, Aehlert also said his mother's calls to Schrauben were part of the plot to kill the man who'd treated him like a son.

(Such nasty, insider details invokes images of pulp fiction, right, Mr. Bercher?)

Testimony resumes tomorrow in the county's central Santa Ana courthouse and at some point prosecutor Murray will get his first chance to cross examine Jessee, who he believes has gotten away with murder for 13 years.

The case is noteworthy not just because a mother-son duo allegedly plotted to kill the husband-stepfather, but also because OC law enforcement--the Placentia Police Department and OCSD along with Murray--refused to stop investigating.


Sandra Jessee's Murder Trial: A Rhetorical Knife Fight

The battle between the two lead attorneys has yet to draw sanctions from the judge

By R. Scott Moxley -

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On the eighth day in the retrial of Sandra Jessee—the pot-smoking grandmother accused of hiring Orange County Target store employees, including her own "mama's boy" son, as hit men to eliminate her husband—exasperated prosecutor Michael F. Murray stiffened and threw his pen on the table as wide-eyed jurors watched.

Derek Bercher, Jessee's wily public defender, had just asked sheriff's investigator Brian Sutton a blatantly improper question: Sutton had met with Thomas Joseph Garrick, the man law-enforcement detectives believe is the actual "Rambo-knife" wielding killer, and didn't arrest him, did he? Sutton confirmed that fact. But Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler had unequivocally ruled in pretrial motions that Garrick's free status was banned, prejudicial information for the Jessee jury.

Murray objected; Stotler sustained his objection and sent the jury out of the courtroom.

"Give me a chance to cool down," the prosecutor said after the jury had left.

Far from a meaningless technical violation, Murray believed Bercher's move was an intentional, underhanded effort to undermine the government's case. Armed with the knowledge that Garrick is a free man who has never been held accountable for the Aug. 13, 1998, crime, jurors might reasonably question what in the hell the prosecutor was doing, or conclude his evidence was faulty, Murray told Stotler.

"I'm going to ask for sanctions," the prosecutor, a West Point graduate who came within one vote of convicting Jessee in the first trial three years ago, continued after a few moments of silence that only seemed to fuel his anger. "That was outrageous—to get whether or not [Garrick] had been arrested in front of this jury . . . Mr. Bercher engaged in misconduct."

During these courtroom battles, Bercher usually matches or tops Murray's Type A personality. But in this instance, he'd already won: He'd gotten the damaging information to the jury, and nothing the prosecutor could now do would, as Murray explained to Stotler, "un-ring the bell." Plus, Bercher scored a bonus against one of the fiercest prosecutors in Southern California, in that he'd gotten under Murray's skin, an accomplishment that will surely bring hearty cocktail toasts at future defense bar parties.

"I understand Mr. Murray's anger," he said solemnly, managing to hold off a satisfied smirk until the judge wasn't looking.

I'd lost track of the number of times Bercher had previously violated a court order in the case, and each time, a furious Murray had to accept Stotler's determination that the public defender's errors had been "inadvertent" or "accidental." This judge's generous findings belied the fact that each of Bercher's supposedly accidental transgressions benefited the defense and that he'd made similar moves in the first Jessee trial run by a different judge.

"He operates with impunity," Murray complained to Stotler. If the prosecution had committed Bercher's errors, the defense would be granted a mistrial, he added. The judge agreed with the last assertion, and the prosecutor invited him to inflict some "pain" on Bercher as a way to discourage future misconduct.

Of the county's veteran major trial judges, Stotler is one of the most cautious, with a sweet, grandfatherly demeanor. Even when the jury isn't present, he's incredibly hesitant to single out Bercher for criticism, choosing instead to make generic statements that ask both lawyers to behave. Stotler also employs a form of "time out" when the lawyers' skirmishes become too intense. He tells rambling, mind-numbing personal stories that tend to defuse tempers if from nothing else than confusion.

Stotler admitted mounting frustration with the public defender, but—for the umpteenth time—he declined to give Murray what he wanted. He announced he would postpone consideration of sanctions against Bercher until after the trial because he didn't want to "chill" his aggressive defense of Jessee.

The savage killing of Jack Jessee, a popular Fujitsu employee in Anaheim, went officially unsolved for nine years. In 2007, Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) homicide investigators Sutton and Tom Dove won a confession from Brett Schrauben. He claimed that his Target co-worker (and best friend) Tom Aehlert and Aehlert's mother, Sandra Jessee, hired him as a hit man for $50,000. They signaled him when Sandra would leave to go shopping so that she had an alibi, according to Schrauben. At the duo's 2009 trial, Schrauben claimed that despite his reputation as a "bad boy," he'd chickened out and subcontracted the murder to another Target co-worker, Thomas Joseph Garrick, for $20,000.

Thanks in part to Schrauben—who walks like a starving penguin that has spotted fresh food—Murray convinced 11 of 12 jurors that Aehlert and Jessee are murderers, too. Before this second trial, Aehlert decided that he, too, would abandon the conspiracy in exchange for a lesser conviction, second-degree murder, and the chance to win parole from prison after serving at least 15 years. (Schrauben's deal, arranged through legendary Orange County defense lawyer John Barnett, was much sweeter: He served just 515 days in the Orange County Jail and, except for having to testify for Murray, resumed his life in Arizona.)

In the ongoing trial, both Schrauben and Aehlert—who obtained a criminal justice degree and dreamed of being a cop—have testified that Jessee ordered the killing and used her murdered husband's money to pay for the hit. Aehlert used his tainted income to buy a home near Phoenix; Schrauben bought a new pickup truck and a Jet Ski.

Bercher has repeatedly accused the men of "throwing Mrs. Jessee under the bus" by fabricating a story that satisfies Murray's "ridiculous" theory in the case in exchange for sweetheart deals. Under the defense attorney's grilling, both men reluctantly acknowledged they are prolific, self-serving liars. Both also admit that Jack Jessee was a kind man who'd done nothing wrong to either of them.

So far the only potential villain who has escaped Murray's wrath is Garrick. According to Aehlert's testimony, Garrick supplied him details about the killing, including the assertion that he left a dying Jack Jessee on his living room floor, started to flee but decided to return to drive even more knife wounds into the victim. Schrauben told the jury that Garrick used his portion of the murder payments to fix his teeth, which had turned black from an addiction to smoking methamphetamines.

Garrick, a Laguna Hills resident, has told OCSD investigators he is innocent, according to a recorded interview reviewed by the Weekly.

Ironically, one of the biggest supporters of Garrick's innocence is Bercher. He claims Aehlert and Schrauben told a self-serving tale that casts his client as mastermind and Garrick as assassin. And he's right, at least in part. The two men seem to have minimized their involvement.

But the defense lawyer's theory gets more nefarious. He wants the six men and six women on the jury to believe there's another evil guy in the case: Murray. According to Bercher, his courtroom nemesis provided a script for Aehlert and Schrauben in the hope of nailing his innocent client.

Said Bercher, "[Sandra Jessee] wasn't involved in this conspiracy at all."


Cancer Wasn't Killing Jack Jessee Fast Enough, So Did His Wife and Stepson Hire a Hit Man?

By R. Scott Moxley -

Thursday, Jul 30 2009

Blood Money

Cancer wasn’t killing Jack Jessee fast enough. Did that drive his wife to hire a hit man?

Moments after a big July 21 loss, Michael F. Murray—one of Orange County’s top homicide prosecutors—stood in a sixth-floor courthouse hallway surrounded by jurors, some of whom wiped tears from their eyes. They informed Murray he’d done a “fantastic job” proving that a 56-year-old Placentia man’s wife and stepson orchestrated his brutal ambush murder for a $777,000 inheritance. “You’ve worked so hard, and we’re so sorry,” a female juror who works at Cal State Fullerton told the prosecutor. “We all know they are guilty.”

But in the government’s case against Sandra Jessee and her son, Thomas Aehlert, only 11 jurors shared that sentiment. One member of the panel, an unemployed woman who lives alone and recently watched Henry Fonda’s courtroom classic Twelve Angry Men, voted not guilty on the first of three days of deliberations and refused to budge.

“I was trying to figure out how to look at everything,” this juror told me. “Did they do it? It’s hard for me to say. I can’t say they absolutely did it.”

The lone juror’s stance prompted shouting during deliberations, required Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders to declare a mistrial, put a relieved smile on Jessee’s makeup-free face; caused Aehlert to weep; and hit Jack Jessee’s brother, sisters and two daughters with another painful setback in their 11-year quest for justice.

The deadlock didn’t change Murray’s opinion of his case. Known for his relentless drive and willingness to take tough cases, the veteran prosecutor didn’t care if the vote had been 11 to 1 against him. He’d spent half a decade trying to officially solve the killing, and he’s convinced the defendants hired a hit man to mask their involvement.

“We’ll do this again and again and again, if necessary,” said Murray, assuring Jack Jessee’s family there will be a new trial. “I’m going to do this until I get it right.”

So why is Derek J. Bercher, Sandra Jessee’s lawyer, convinced the prosecutor wants to send two innocent people to prison?


Though Sandra Jessee doted on children, the pot-smoking granny was also fond of chocolate licorice, Almond Joys, over-the-counter diet pills, sex toys and porno. She once became distraught after losing $50 playing quarter slots in a casino. But Jessee wasn’t the mastermind behind her husband’s murder because, according to Bercher, “she loved her husband.” Besides, Jessee—the daughter of a Chicago policeman—thought she had an airtight alibi. Four time-stamped store receipts proved the 47-year-old had been running errands at the time an intruder carrying a razor-sharp Rambo-style knife entered her single-story home at 419 Choctaw Place on a quiet cul-de-sac in Placentia, about 20 minutes east of Disneyland. Because it was a sweltering summer night, the killer found a startled Jack wearing nothing but shorts.

A fun-loving sports enthusiast and Fritos junkie, Jack was a stocky, ruggedly handsome man with an endearing smile. An optimist, he didn’t like guns or lock his doors. Classic cars interested him. He didn’t have his first cavity until his 50s. He cheered the Raiders when they were in Los Angeles and was a diehard Dodgers fan. The mechanical-engineering manager for Fujitsu Electronics met Sandra at work in the early 1980s. They’d married, with both each already having two kids. Jack enjoyed family pool gatherings, tequila, blackjack in Las Vegas, daytime walks, homemade lunches, Chardonnay with dinner and bowling on Tuesday nights. Family, friends and co-workers cherished Jack, who by all accounts had no enemies.

“He was the nicest guy in the world,” said David Jessee. “And I’m not just saying that because he was my brother.”

Holding the element of surprise and a double-edged lethal weapon, the killer found his target alone, unarmed and physically vulnerable. Two recent major surgeries for colon cancer had left Jack weak, unable to work and, to his immense frustration, temporarily attached to a colostomy bag. Nonetheless, he refused to die without a struggle. The killer had to stab Jack 11 times in the chest, arm, neck, back, shoulder, face and head. His jugular and aorta were pierced. Jack fell—eyes open and face down—on a rug in a growing pool of blood. The killer signaled his getaway driver with a walkie-talkie, placed his knife inside a black shoulder sheath, washed his hands in a bathroom sink and walked away, leaving a blood-drip trail for a short distance.

Later, the killer learned he’d made a terrible mistake. But he must have felt lucky as he fled. A police car with flashing red lights passed. The officer was oblivious to the blood-spattered man wearing shorts, a long-sleeved shirt and Vans sneakers who was getting into the passenger side of a waiting Toyota Tercel. The escape east on Imperial Highway, then south on the 55 and 5 freeways sparked one of Orange County’s longest unsolved, cold-case mysteries: Who killed Jack Jessee on Aug. 13, 1998, and why?


Without seeing the badge on his belt under his suit coat, you might not guess that Daron Wyatt is a cop who has earned accolades working homicide, gang and narcotics cases. Hell, Wyatt’s DMV picture is frightening. He looks like a deranged drug addict one step away from the asylum. But the picture was snapped when he was working undercover and wearing a thick hillbilly beard. The real Wyatt, who spent part of his youth in South Africa with his missionary parents, isn’t a hard-edged fellow. When he was a teenager, he wanted to become a teacher or a psychologist. But Wyatt fell in love with police work after a stint as a security guard at South Coast Plaza. Over the years, he has worked at numerous police agencies and is now with the Anaheim Police Department. The 42-year-old father can’t hide his pride when he talks about his family, including a brother who is an Irvine cop.

On the night of Jack Jessee’s death, Wyatt was working as a detective in Placentia. He was assigned the case, and at 4 a.m., he began a four-hour interview of Sandra Jessee. She explained that she and Jack had watched Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Then, after 8 p.m., she drove to a nearby strip mall to deposit a check; buy Jack a strawberry milkshake, fries and five-piece chicken nuggets at Burger King; and purchase ice for his fever and a new pair of short pants.

“He was sitting in his recliner,” she said. “I told him I’d be back in an hour. The last thing he said to me was he wanted sweet-and-sour sauce for his nuggets.”

But the evidence later proved Jessee’s trip took longer than predicted, leaving her sick husband frantic. Jack called his daughter Cheryl, who lived nearby. At about 9:30 p.m., he saw Cheryl in his driveway and asked her to go to the strip mall to find Sandra. During the 15 minutes she was on her unsuccessful trip, the killer completed his mission. Cheryl found her lifeless father on the living-room floor and called 911. “I rolled him over,” Cheryl recalled for the jury. “He had gashes in his chest. I breathed into him, and every time I did, I could hear air going through the holes.”

At about 9:50—minutes after the paramedics arrived—Sandra drove up and said she’d “only been gone five minutes.”

During the interview (hazily filmed with a secret camera) at the police station, Wyatt asked Sandra if Jack had enemies. She declared herself his best friend. She noted that she didn’t like her neighbors, wondered aloud about “problems at work” and a co-worker named Russ, but otherwise said she couldn’t think of anybody.

“[Jack] had gotten really needy and clingy,” she said. “[Changing the colostomy bag] was disgusting, but I’m his wife. . . . He was a good man. But he was a lot more vain that I was. He was always primping before he went out, kind of like a woman would. . . . We fought. He never hit me. Nothing was ever thrown. . . . He liked to drink a lot before [the surgeries]. . . . I’ve been exhausted from taking care of him. . . . I didn’t enjoy it. . . . It just seemed like one day rolled into another. . . . When you have an invalid, which is what he was . . . I exhausted myself.”

Jessee’s rambling puzzled Wyatt. “Her husband’s just been murdered, and she’s complaining about him,” he says. “I began to feel like she was trying to control the interview by stalling my questions.”

Jessee’s alibi raised red flags, too. Initially, she stated this sequence of events: She’d driven to Lucky’s to deposit a check in an ATM, left for Sav-On and then Wal-Mart in search of cleaning bottles for the colostomy bag, and finally went to Burger King for Jack’s food. “Then, shit,” she added, “I forgot the shorts [and returned to Wal-Mart across the street].”

How long were you gone? Wyatt asked. Jessee said, “I don’t know, hour [or] 45 minutes.”

Wyatt fired off a question: “Who killed your husband?”

“I, I, I . . . a stranger?” replied Jessee. “I don’t think Russ. I don’t think Cheryl.”

She volunteered that Jack loved his recliner and that his mother called him her “precious baby boy.” “After he got sick, we talked about life being too short,” she said. “I’m not the easiest person to live with. We had our arguments and fights. But I’m going to tell you something: Our lovemaking was good, and it wasn’t the most important thing. We had a good sex life.”

Wyatt returned to her alibi. Jessee noted receipts proved her whereabouts. But the receipts, collected by police from her SUV, contradicted her. Though all of the stores she visited were less than two minutes away from home, she’d been gone nearly two hours—including an unaccounted-for 63-minute gap. The detective pressed about discrepancies.

“Gosh, I don’t remember now,” she replied. “I’ve lost all track of time. I don’t know. I don’t know now.”

Other details caught Wyatt’s attention. Jessee had been gone so long on the night of the murder that the chicken nuggets had cooled and two bags of ice she’d purchased at 8:41 p.m. were melting when she arrived home, just before the 10 o’clock news.

Though she promised to cooperate, after her interview, she refused to provide elimination fingerprints for a CSI team; declined to answer Wyatt’s calls; and hired defense lawyer Al Stokke, who promptly told the detective to stop calling. Less than 24 hours after the murder, Sandra’s son, Tom Aehlert, blocked cops from entering the crime scene in search of additional clues. Wyatt had to obtain a late-night search warrant.

“I told Tom, ‘I’m trying to find your stepfather’s killer, and you won’t let me in the house?’” Wyatt recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Hmmm.’”

Despite his suspicions, the detective couldn’t prove who killed Jack. He got promoted, and during subsequent years, the investigation stalled, although one fact was certain, according to the DA’s office: Jack’s death gave Sandra more than $777,000 in 2008 dollars. She moved to Phoenix to live near Aehlert. They shared none of the money with Jack’s two adult children, Cheryl and Chere. Instead, they bought themselves two new homes with pools, new vehicles and a boat. It was a comfortable lifestyle for a retired widow and an $8.50-per-hour hospital-loading-dock employee. They’d moved on with their lives and hoped everyone else had, too.


Based on FBI reports, close to 6,000 killers elude justice each year in the United States. In many of those cases, investigators are hamstrung because there’s no obvious link between perpetrators and victims. There are no statistics on the number of killers who suffer daily anxiety attacks worrying that authorities will hunt them down.

Evidence shows that Jessee and Aehlert took precautions—for example, keeping this note near a phone: “Be careful, could be recording.” They’d also shown contempt for the police. If you need an image of the arrogance, consider this one: Jessee’s brother flipped the bird at Wyatt less than a week after Jack’s murder.

In 2003, four years after the murder and 358 miles from Phoenix, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) homicide team that included investigators Tom Dove and Brian Sutton reviewed the Jessee cold case. The file landed at OCSD after a dissatisfied David Jessee, Jack’s older brother, pushed the case out of the Placentia Police Department. A three-year-old report caught Dove’s interest.

An anonymous caller had phoned Placentia P.D. and said suspicions about Jessee and Aehlert were on-target. The pair had hired a hit man who worked with Aehlert at a large, well-known chain store and had used money from the murder to buy a new truck and jet skis, according to the caller. He also claimed to know that the hit man switched roles at the last minute and drove the get-away car for another man who’d actually stabbed Jack.

Incredibly, the Placentia cop who took the call didn’t record any portion of it or take any steps to launch a trace.

Based on the caller report, Dove and Sutton had two immediate objectives: discover the identity of the 2001 caller, and cull through Target employment records to find Aehlert’s co-workers.


With his 1984 marriage to Sandra, Jack Jessee had become stepfather to 15-year-old Tom Aehlert and his 12-year-old sister, Tracy. Aehlert was, according to various family members, a “momma’s boy,” but he bonded with Jack on sports. Jack loved the Raiders, and Aehlert backed the Pittsburgh Steelers. Eventually, Aehlert married his high-school sweetheart, Marla, and moved out of the house on Choctaw. He aspired to be a cop and obtained an associate’s degree in criminal justice. But his law-enforcement career never got farther than working security for Target.

At the store, Aehlert met the man who would become his best friend: Brett Scott Schrauben, who in the summer of 1998 was a cocky 25-year-old Southern California hit man who walked like a penguin, preferred guns to knives, drank alcohol only to get drunk and didn’t mind visiting Jack Jessee’s house to eat the unsuspecting future homicide victim’s food. Though Schrauben saw himself as a ladies’ man, he cared more for video games and trucks—American made and loaded with after-market extras—than people. He’d botched an attempt to become a pimp, lied about robbing ATMs and never delivered on a boast he could import a kilo of cocaine. But he wanted folks to know he wasn’t a fool. To hire Schrauben required a $5,000 non-refundable retainer and, after the murder, $45,000 in cash. He fancied new purchases: a Chevy truck; a Laughlin, Nevada, vacation; and a Sea-Doo jet ski. His girlfriend wanted breast-enlargement surgery. And his day job as a manager of the garden shop at an Irvine Target didn’t pay well.

Schrauben, born in 1972, and Aehlert, born in 1970, bonded. He called Aehlert his “big brother.” The other person Schrauben allowed in his inner circle was Thomas Joseph “T.J.” Garrick, who, at two-and-a-half years his junior, was described by Schrauben as his “little brother.” The three Target employees played softball, ate dinner and drank together at bars.

It didn’t take long for the OCSD probe to pinpoint Schrauben, whose name Dove recognized had been scribbled on a note in Sandra’s purse on the night of the murder and then forgotten for four years.

Dove and his team also managed to unmask the anonymous caller as the South County boyfriend of the sister of Schrauben’s then-girlfriend. That man, Mike Cavlovic, confessed he’d made the call and said he’d overheard Schrauben and Garrick discussing the murder at the Sports Page bar.

Says prosecutor Murray, “It’s Tom Dove who connects all the dots.”


But prosecutors need more than dots. Murray needed to drive a wedge between the alleged killers, who—except for U.S. Navy-bound Garrick—had moved to Phoenix. Dove launched out-of-state surveillance, obtained wiretaps and designed a trap. In early 2005, he left a series of voice-mail messages for Schrauben’s OC friends. Those people called Schrauben and alerted him that a homicide cop was looking for him. Dove wanted to see how the hit man reacted.

The first person Schrauben contacted was Aehlert. With deputies listening in, Aehlert told Schrauben to relax, and then asked him if he felt comfortable talking on the phone. Schrauben said no. Over the next five days, surveillance teams watched Aehlert use pay phones and hold lengthy meetings with Schrauben outside of a Target, inside two gun stores, at a fast-food restaurant and during a residential birthday party.

Aehlert and his mother acted oddly, too. In one conversation, Jessee asked Aehlert how the investigators “knew about Brett,” causing her son to change the subject. Later, though they lived a couple of hundred feet from each other, Aehlert was recorded telling Jessee he didn’t want to talk on the phone. Instead, they each drove separate cars to a strip mall, got out, walked to the front of a closed State Farm office and talked.

Detectives arrested Schrauben. On the way to jail, Dove, who’s now with the Riverside DA’s office, told the handcuffed hit man to shut up and listen to a recording of Aehlert and Jessee holding, what police believe, was a staged telephone conversation for their benefit. During the call, the mother/son tandem had, according to Murray, “thrown Brett under the bus” by speculating that maybe Schrauben had killed Jack.

When then-sheriff’s investigator Craig Johnson told Aehlert that Schrauben murdered his stepfather, Aehlert had no audible reaction. He didn’t express relief that the case was solved or outrage that a close pal was a killer. Instead, Johnson noticed Aehlert’s eyes began darting around the room and sweat appeared on his forehead. It didn’t help Aehlert when cops found pictures of him drinking beer with Schrauben and Garrick at a 2004 Lake Elsinore party. Or that Aehlert had cited the admitted killer as a character reference on an employment application.


It took a Herculean, multistate police effort to get Schrauben in jail. But he didn’t crack right away. Finally, after more than 500 days of pretrial incarceration and a guilt-inspiring jailhouse visit by Jack’s daughter Chere, Schrauben confessed to Murray.

The confession: Schrauben claimed Aehlert called him one day in 1998 and said, “My mother wants Jack killed.” In another call, Aehlert said she was willing to pay $50,000. Schrauben met with Jessee in a parking lot. She handed him $5,000 cash and wanted the murder to occur after she signaled by phone that she’d run errands. Afterward, Aehlert would call him to “act like a grieving son” in case “anybody was listening.”

But Schrauben claimed he had second thoughts about doing the killing himself and, though he kept more than half the kill fee, got a replacement.

“T.J. stabbed Jack Jessee,” prosecutor Murray told the jury in his June 22 opening statement outlining the murder-for-hire conspiracy among Jessee, Aehlert, Schrauben and Garrick. Aehlert wanted the crime to look like a burglary gone tragically wrong, which, he believed, would draw police attention away from his mother, according to Murray. He says Garrick—a tall, lanky guy fond of baseball caps and wild parties—was supposed to steal a valuable coin collection from the Jessee bedroom. “But in his haste, he forgot to make it look like a burglary.”

For providing details of the conspiracy and testifying truthfully at trial, the prosecutor gave Schrauben the deal every guilty inmate in jail craves: He allowed the defendant to walk out of custody instead of facing trial and a possible life-in-prison sentence.

The confession led to the 2007 arrests of Jessee and Aehlert.


In Orange County’s public-defender circles, Bercher—a stocky, feisty fellow who speaks with a surfer-dude, nasal tone—is famous for his aggressive defense of accused criminals. He’s a volunteer soccer coach. The University of Texas at Austin and UC Hastings law graduate looks like a cop (his hairstyle is a flat-top), yet cops don’t normally like him. There’s no doubt why. Bercher is fearless in a courtroom. You won’t hear him apologize for deriding cops or prosecutors he thinks are dishonest. Indeed, over the years, more than a few officers have walked off the witness stand to angrily blast Bercher as anti-law enforcement.

During June’s lengthy jury selection for the Jessee/Aehlert trial, Bercher told prospective jurors he was “honored to represent” Jessee. (Mild-mannered Doug Lobato, another public defender, represented Aehlert.) He wasted no time attacking not only the cops, but also prosecutor Mike Murray and his star witness, Schrauben. Serving in law enforcement “doesn’t mean [that person] won’t lie,” Bercher told a packed courtroom. He asked prospective jurors if they would trust a snitch.

Outside the presence of the jury pool, Bercher further signaled his desire to slug it out with Murray. He complained to Sanders, running her first murder trial, that the DA was improperly influencing jurors during the selection process by “attempting to precondition the jury to validate his conduct.” Said Bercher, “I’m deeply concerned about Mrs. Jessee’s right to a fair trial.” Murray was unamused.

Perhaps sensing the coming bitter sparring between attorneys, the judge smiled after one pretrial bout and said in her South African accent, “Trials are not like choreographed ballets—far from it.”

Jurors laughed, but what they’d witnessed was far from humorous.


It’s not uncommon for Orange County defense lawyers to attack the credibility of police witnesses, but it’s rare when they’ll assert that the prosecutor is dirty. At trial, Bercher and Lobato, Aehlert’s lawyer, accused Murray of “making a deal with the devil,” Schrauben. Dozens of times, they told the jury that Murray had written “a script” for the hit man to falsely implicate their clients. They called Schrauben a “pathological liar.” They tried but failed to present evidence that Schrauben slept with his adult, married sister when her husband was out of town. They pointed out that police have never arrested Garrick, the knife wielder in Schrauben’s account, and that, in a 2005 preliminary hearing, a judge rejected Jessee as a co-defendant, only to see her re-charged. Bercher held little back, accusing the DA’s office of “manufacturing a motive [against Jessee and Aehlert]” because Murray was intent on assigning a “diabolical motive” to their conduct. He even tried to provoke the prosecutor and Wyatt, asking the men if they called each other in the morning to coordinate clothing.

In two OCSD interviews, Garrick denied killing Jack Jessee, but Murray says his interest in Garrick is “very much open and active.” He explains his deal with Schrauben this way: “He’s a villain. You can’t sugarcoat the guy. But it’s not a perfect world.”

And Bercher’s taunts? “I’m not going to stoop to his level,” he says.

The bottom line for the prosecutor is whether evidence backed the hit man’s story. In his view, bank, phone, hotel and airline records found after the confession, plus an eyewitness, corroborate key portions of the assertion that after Jessee made a pre-murder $5,000 payment, Schrauben took turn-around Southwest Airlines flights to Phoenix, where Aehlert handed him three cash installments totaling $45,000.

Bercher suggested an alternative theory: Cash flowing from Jessee’s bank account when Schrauben claims he received his installments actually paid for loads of marijuana, casino losses and under-the-table gifts to family members in an attempt to hide income from the IRS.

There was also this eyebrow-raising tidbit: After moving to Arizona, Jessee named Schrauben as one of the trustees to her estate.

“Jack Jesse was a real person,” Murray told jurors. “He had a life, and it was taken away for one of the vilest reasons imaginable: greed—pure unadulterated greed.”

Murray’s argument convinced all but one juror.

If he wins convictions at a future trial, two ironies will loom above all others in a case loaded with them. Police say Jack Jessee’s final words were a plea for his wife to rescue him. And, according to the autopsy, Sandra Jessee was on the verge of inheriting her husband’s money anyway. Dr. Anthony Juguilon, a pathologist, estimated that Jack had as few as two months to live if he hadn’t been murdered.

But Bercher won’t concede: “Sandra didn’t do it, and Mr. Murray knows it.”


1998 killing suspects held

Wife is arrested a second time in the murder of her cancer-stricken husband. Her son also is in custody in O.C. jail.

By Erika I. Ritchie - The Orange County Register

May 29, 2007

PLACENTIA - A woman accused of orchestrating the slaying of her cancer-stricken husband has been re-arrested a little more than a year after a judge tossed out murder charges based on lack of evidence.

Sandra Jessee, 56, was arrested Friday in Phoenix in the 1998 stabbing death of Jack Jessee. Sandra's son by a previous marriage, Thomas Aehlert, 37, also was arrested in Arizona as an accomplice.

Both were extradited to California and are in Orange County jail awaiting court appearances today. Each is being held on suspicion of murder and conspiracy charges.

The Orange County Sheriff Department, the Orange County District Attorney's Office and Placentia Police Department plan a press conference this week to discuss the case, but were not willing to release details Monday.

On Aug. 13, 1998, Jack Jessee, 56, was home alone. The Fujitsu Electronics engineer was recovering from a second surgery to combat colon cancer. About 9:45 p.m., his daughter, Cheryl De Anda, found him lying in the living room of his home. He had been stabbed in the chest four times.

Placentia homicide detectives turned the case over to the Orange County Sheriff's Department cold case squad in 2002 so more resources could be devoted to it.

Sandra Jessee was first arrested in February 2006 and charged with planning a murder-for-hire-scheme to kill her husband. She was released from jail about four months later after an Orange County Superior Court Judge dismissed charges following a four-day preliminary hearing, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

On the day Jack Jessee was killed, Sandra Jessee told police she had gone out shopping and dining. She returned shortly after 10 p.m. and found fire engines and police outside their house.

Brett Schrauben, 31, of Gilbert, Ariz., known as a family friend, was also arrested and charged with murder. He spent a year and a half in Orange County Jail. He was released in February 2007 after a prosecutor said there wasn't enough evidence against him.

Jack's brother David, 67, says he has suspected Sandra from the start - he just didn't think it would take so long to charge her with the crime.

"It's a great weekend," David Jessee said in a phone interview Monday from his Arizona home. "My whole family has been waiting for this for almost 10 years. Two weeks ago was my brother's birthday. He was the nicest man I ever knew."

Investigators have not revealed what they believe motivated the attack, but Jack Jessee had accumulated $500,000 in mutual funds, had a substantial retirement and a home.

Beverly Crane, 61, of Lakewood, Jack Jessee's sister, said she had an emotional breakdown after Sandra Jessee was released a year ago.

"It was devastating after all those years," she said. "When there weren't any arrests for so many years, you get to the point that you think the case will never be solved."

She wondered how her brother, whom she characterizes as "the sweetest man in the world," could have gotten mixed up with Sandra.

"He got married to his first wife at 19," she said. "They were married 25 years and then had problems, Sandy glommed onto that. I don't think they had a great marriage - she acted strange a lot."



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