Nissensohn sentenced to death for three murders |

Nissensohn sentenced to death for three murders

Tom Lotshaw
Joseph Nissensohn sits at the defense table in early October before trial.
Eric Heinz / Tahoe Daily Tribune | Tahoe Daily Tribune

Joseph Michael Nissensohn was sentenced to death Thursday in South Lake Tahoe for the first-degree murders of three runaway teenage girls in the 1980s.

Nissensohn, 62, was convicted in November for the 1989 murder of Kathy Graves, 15, of South Lake Tahoe, and the 1981 murders of Tammy Jarschke, 13, and Tanya Jones, 14, both of Seaside, Calif.

At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, El Dorado Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury upheld a jury recommendation reached in December that Nissensohn be executed for the vicious killings.

At least two of the murders involved kidnapping or rape or both. And Nissensohn preyed upon the vulnerable runaway girls and “subjected them to unimaginable pain and torture,” Kingsbury said, calling their disappearances and murders “every parents’ worst nightmare.”

Kingsbury ordered Nissensohn to be executed at California State Prison in San Quentin unless his automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court proves successful, calling the death penalty a sentence no judge wants to be in a position to carry out and a sentence that brings her no pleasure. “But it is the law in California and I took an oath to carry out that law,” she said.

The bodies of the three runaway girls were found in remote woods and at old logging sites in Monterey and El Dorado counties after their disappearances. Their remains were found tied to trees or scattered by animals.

Several family members testified in court they are struggling with their losses decades later. They described Nissensohn as a menace to society, an “evil person” and “monster,” and a serial killer with no remorse who “probably will live out the rest of his worthless life in prison at the taxpayers’ expense.”

In written statements read by prosecutors, Penny Jarschke said she is still praying that the needless killing of her daughter Tammy is only a nightmare. The murder also destroyed her own life, Penny Jarschke said.

Jarschke suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She said for years she could not touch duct tape because her daughter was found bound by it with a dirty sock stuffed in her taped-shut mouth and a screwdriver plunged so hard into her body it broke off the handle.

“He took her life and that has completely destroyed mine … He killed her and gave me a life sentence,” Jarschke said about Nissensohn, who was eligible for the California death penalty because of a prior second-degree murder conviction for the 1989 killing of Sally Jo Tsaggaris, 46, in Washington state.

Family members said they doubt Nissensohn will be executed as ordered. Their only comfort is knowing that he cannot victimize more innocent people. “That’s the only peace we can pray for,” one family member told the court.

Sherri and Ivan Parsley, Kathy Graves’ aunt and uncle who cared for her, said Nissensohn is getting off way too easy for all of the harm he has caused. They said they are still waiting for Graves’ remains to hold a memorial service for her.

California has not carried out an execution since July 2006 because of court rulings, bureaucratic requirements and the challenge of obtaining lethal injection drugs. The state now has 741 inmates on death row, more than any other state.

Clarence Ray Allen was the last person executed in California. He was put to death by lethal injection for a 1980 triple murder in Fresno that he ordered from behind bars to silence witnesses in other killings. Allen was serving a life sentence for one murder when convicted in the death penalty case.

“The justice system has ordered Nissensohn to be executed. It’s now on the backs of the gutless bureaucrats to impose the sentence,” Deputy District Attorney Dale Gomes said after Thursday’s court hearing.

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