Trial opens in old Tahoe murder case
The trial of a Carmichael, Calif., man for the August 1980 murder of a 16-year-old South Lake Tahoe service station attendant concluded its first week Thursday in El Dorado County Superior Court in Placerville.
The trial of Andrew Sanford for the murder of Richard Swanson was scheduled to resume on Tuesday. Several weeks have been allotted for the old homicide case, which went to trial following Sanford’s arrest two years ago based in part on DNA evidence left behind on duct tape used to bind Swanson.
As the trial opened, prosecutor Trish Kelliher described Swanson as “a thief, he is a taker … and on Aug. 14, 1980, he stole money from a Shell station and, more importantly, stole Richard Swanson’s life.”
Kelliher said Sanford’s guilt would be proved over the course of trial, focusing on DNA evidence on the duct tape which also was used to asphyxiate Swanson, covering his mouth and nose. Prior to this, she contended, Sanford had been kicked out of the house in which he was living after he stole a car.
After the murder, Sanford disappeared, only to be arrested three months later, in November 1980, using an alias. Two years later, he was arrested twice, using a different alias.
Because of better DNA technology and thanks to his later arrests, in 2010 the state Department of Justice got a hit on DNA from the duct tape amid a mix of DNA, and Sanford was a minor contributor, Kelliher said.
The prosecutor also said Sanford had asked a roommate, Jenna Weller, if God forgave murderers, and all the factors contributed to the decision to reopen the case.
“This case is 33, almost 34 years old,” defense attorney Erik Schlueter told the jury. “There were problems in the beginning that snowballed and kept going and going. There was a rush to judgment.”
He also called the case “politically motivated” in that Swanson’s parents pressured South Lake Tahoe City officials to reopen the case. Swanson’s parents and his younger brother were on hand for this week’s court proceedings.
Schlueter also said Sanford would be at the service station frequently because he and Don Ficklin — with whom Sanford lived and who worked with Swanson — would go four-wheeling and bring in Ficklin’s truck to repair it at the service station. In doing so, he may have gotten DNA evidence on the duct tape, he said.
Schlueter also said that there were a “lot of problems with remembering what the heck happened” 33 years ago.
Though there was evidence of gloves used at the scene, the defense attorney said there were no fingerprints that led back to Sanford. He added the crime scene investigator who collected evidence was hired by the South Lake Tahoe Police Department as a maintenance man and only had a single class in fingerprints. Many people were on scene, evidence was moved and overall the initial investigation was shoddy, he said.
Co-counsel Robert Blasier also gave the jury a rundown of the DNA — how it could have been transferred and how one of the criminologists handling the evidence admitted he accidentally contaminated part of it.
The first witness to take the stand was the victim’s father, Ronald Swanson, who said his son started working at the gas station only two or three weeks before his murder. He had started the graveyard shift just a few days before.
“He was an awfully good kid. Ambitious, a good student, good friends,” Swanson said of his son. “Just a darn good kid.”
Swanson helped set up the Secret Witness program in Tahoe, with a reward for information on his son’s killer. The family had a separate fund of $50,000 for a reward. The Swansons also attended a City Council meeting in 2006 and asked authorities to step up their investigation in their son’s cold case.
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