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.

OC deputies set a trap that produced surveillance photos of Schrauben (left) and Aehlert
Courtesy OCSD
OC deputies set a trap that produced surveillance photos of Schrauben (left) and Aehlert
Prosecutor Michael F. Murray
Prosecutor Michael F. Murray

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.

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