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
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.