Alleged Nissensohn victim had troubled home life
After taking a week off to accommodate jurors, the Joseph Michael Nissensohn murder case returned with the prosecution winding down.
The trial resumed Tuesday with what amounted to a courtroom play — reading a transcript from a February 2010 preliminary hearing. El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Trish Kelliher played the part of Cheryl Rose, wife of Nissensohn, while Peter Kmeto played the part of defense lawyer Mark Millard. Deputy District Attorney Dale Gomes read lines as himself while Nissensohn watched from the defense table.
The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office charged Nissensohn with the 1989 murder of South Lake Tahoe 15-year-old Kathy Graves in January 2008. The 1981 killings of teenagers Tanya Jones and Tammy Jarshke in Monterey County were added to the criminal complaint in October of that year.
Through the transcript, Rose described how she and Nissensohn had been in Tacoma, Wash., and were heavily into drugs. They had an open relationship, but Rose and her son, Joe, stayed with Nissensohn. In the 2010 hearing, Rose said she was afraid that if she was not with Nissensohn, he might hurt her son — something she said Nissensohn threatened often.
The trio reportedly made their way to South Lake Tahoe. They left Tacoma due to the death of a woman — Sally Jo Tsaggaris — who Rose claimed Nissensohn killed. “He kept saying I was there and I was an accessory,” she said. “That’s all I remember. The constant threat.”
While in Tahoe, they allegedly picked up “neighborhood kid” Kathy Graves. Graves, Rose said in the transcript, liked to smoke marijuana with them and was flirtatious with Nissensohn. She said there was possibly sexual conduct between the two.
The three were in the couple’s van when Nissensohn took them to a “wooded, out-of-the-way-type place,” she said. Graves and Nissensohn, who was reportedly carrying a blanket, got out and walked off together and seemed friendly, she said. They walked out of Rose’s line of sight, but Nissensohn returned alone between five and 10 minutes later, Rose stated. He was hurrying and “not a happy camper.” Rose said he could get emotional when he didn’t get what he wanted — in this case, sex. He would reportedly later tell her, “What happened with Kathy was messy.”
Rose said she was worried and wondered how Graves would get home. When the couple returned home, Nisssensohn took off for the casino and didn’t return for some time, she said.
“I’d seen him kill someone, I knew what he was capable of,” she said, referencing Tsaggaris. “He tried to kill me.”
Rose and Nissensohn were officially married on Aug. 22, 1989, and Rose said she hoped it was her way out. She said she couldn’t testify against Nissensohn, so the threat of her telling was moot. They reportedly left for the southern states, ending in Florida. They picked up more people, did drugs and were involved in prostitution. Nissensohn beat Rose, she said.
They picked up “Brandie” — real name Teresa Pillow — who allegedly brought in more drugs. Eventually, Rose was able to send her son to his father. The drug use picked up. Rose became nervous about Brandie, who was having sex regularly with Nissensohn, but was not jealous. She said she had once loved the idea of being with Nissensohn — until the incident with Sally.
Rose wound up in a shelter away from Nissensohn and began seeing a new boyfriend. But when he began beating her, the police began investigating. One showed her a photo of Sally — who she said she then realized was dead.
Nissensohn was later convicted of the second-degree murder of Tsaggaris and the attempted murder of Rose. She said, under questioning from Millard, that there were a number of chances to tell the police what had happened, but she was afraid of Nissensohn and what he would do to her son.
With the transcript completed, Gomes called Sherry Parsley, Graves’ aunt. She testified that her brother, Barry, was not a good father to Kathy and “not a very good person at all.”
Kathy would call Parsley two or three times a day, often having dinner with them and staying over, the transcript stated. Graves did not have a good relationship with her father, Parsley said. Though Parsley and her husband offered to adopt Kathy, Barry reportedly said no.
In the summer of 1989, when Kathy was about 15, Parsley said she heard from her niece for the last time. A week went by, the Parsleys heard nothing. Another week; nothing. They reportedly went to the Graves’ home, in a trailer park, and confronted Barry, forcing him to call the police and report Kathy as missing. She and her husband, Ivan, searched for Kathy, to no avail. She knew in her gut, she said, that something bad happened.
Under questioning from defense attorney Hayes Gable III, Parsley told the jury that Barry would lock Kathy out of the trailer — that’s when she would come over. Kathy’s mother, Carla, was not in the picture, having been a teenage mother who lost custody to Barry, she said.
The next morning, the trial continued with Ivan’s testimony — confirming what his wife said. “He wasn’t good enough to be called ‘lowlife,’” he said of Barry. “He did rotten things to his daughter,” he said. “Treated her like she was a slave.” Parsley had gone fishing with Barry Graves before realizing what kind of person he was, noting he was a “total drunk” and “neglected Kathy totally,” according to the transcript.
He was under the impression Kathy ran away from Barry because of how she was treated. When confronted, Barry was not concerned, “not a bit.”
Ivan thought he saw Kathy twice after she went missing, “but couldn’t prove it or nothing.” One sighting was in a car, where he was unable to follow. The other was in a parking lot, but when he swung around, the girl was gone.
Health problems had once affected his memory, Parsley told Gable, but he was “doing better now.” He also noted Kathy’s grandmother, Flo, had raised her until her death, at which point Kathy went to live with her father.
Next, Gomes called James Pullen to the stand. In the summer of 1990, Pullen was a detective with the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. He testified to responding to the crime scene on Aug. 22, near the Mt. Tallac trail head at Camp Concord. A human skull had reportedly been the first piece discovered by hikers; more bone fragments were found scattered nearby. Pullen had also created a video of him walking from the parking lot to the crime scene, which was then shown to the jury.
They used cadaver-searching dogs, including Pullen’s own dachshund, to find pieces, he told Kmeto, co-defense attorney.
Alison Galloway, professor of anthropology and campus provost of UC Santa Cruz, testified about the bones and how long they had been there since death. Using a relatively new, complex technique involving weather and temperature of the region, she determined Graves’ remains had been there between one and two years, though her gut instinct from analyzing the bones made her think it was between six months and two years. She confirmed the bones were of a teenager of European descent, consistent with Graves’ description.
She told Kmeto that using the accumulated temperature days method was not usually used, but is “becoming accepted,” and is beyond being a theory but not common practice.
All damage done to the bones, she told the jury, was postmortem, done by scavengers such as coyotes. This was also how the bones became scattered. The accumulated temperature days method, she said, did not account for scavengers.
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