By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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?
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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.