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.”
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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.”