SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) – On the night his cancer-stricken brother was stabbed to death, David Jessee knew his sister-in-law was somehow behind it.
A few years earlier, Jessee said, his brother Jack told him over a glass of wine before bowling that if anything ever happened to him, she would be to blame.
More than a decade later, a gray-haired Sandra Jessee was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for having Jack Jessee, her third husband, killed in their Orange County home in 1998.
Prosecutors said she wanted to avoid paying for his cancer treatment and to collect his insurance and other benefits. Jessee, now 61, and her son Thomas Aehlert hired a hit man to commit the killing then received more than $650,000 from the sale of the couple’s Placentia home along with 401(k) death benefits and insurance, prosecutors said.
“She’s just one of the most twisted defendants I’ve come across who would engage her own biological son in the murder of a man she’s been married to for 15 years at probably the most vulnerable time in his life,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray said. “To see her finally get justice is very gratifying.”
Defense attorney Derek Bercher said his client would appeal her conviction last year for murder for financial gain and conspiracy.
Authorities said Jessee recruited her son and his friend Brett Schrauben to kill Jack Jessee for $50,000. Both men testified against her after taking plea deals.
During Friday’s sentencing, Jack Jessee’s daughters and brother pleaded with Orange County Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler to impose a life sentence, which was required by her conviction.
“At first I wanted the death penalty, but I think it would be much better for her to sit and rot in jail,” Chere Williams, one of the victim’s daughters, told the court.
The case dates back to 1998, when Jack Jessee, then 56, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Described as tender and trusting by family, Jessee underwent surgery and was recovering when he returned to the hospital for an emergency surgery due to an infection, Murray said.
When a nurse tried to show Sandra Jessee how to help her husband with a colostomy bag that he would need to use temporarily, she refused to listen, Murray said.
“She was sickened by that,” Murray said.
By then, the prosecutor said, Sandra Jessee had already enlisted help from her son and his friend to kill her ailing husband so she could move to Arizona, where Aehlert lived. Schrauben in turn recruited his friend Thomas Garrick, to help him carry out the job, prosecutors said.
On Aug. 13, 1998, Sandra Jesse told her husband she was going out to buy chicken nuggets and ice and stop at the bank. After more than an hour passed, Jack Jessee grew worried about her and called his daughter, Cheryl Deanda, who lived nearby, and asked for her help.
Deanda said she drove to the couple’s house, but Sandra wasn’t back yet. So she took a spin around a nearby shopping center to see if she could find her.
When she returned to her father’s home 15 minutes later, she found him stabbed to death on the living room floor.
“They say I’m lucky to be alive,” Deanda said. “They think the guy was still there when I came back.”
Jessee’s wife was a suspect from the beginning. But Placentia police didn’t have enough evidence to charge her and the case went cold.
In 2005, Orange County sheriff’s investigators began reviewing the evidence, particularly a strip of paper retrieved from Jessee’s purse during a police interview after the murder. The name on the paper was Schrauben, which investigators matched to a tip received a few years earlier, Murray said.
In 2007, Sandra Jessee and Aehlert were arrested in Arizona and brought to stand trial in Orange County. They were both put on trial, and a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of their conviction in 2009.
Last year, Aehlert struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He testified during his mother’s retrial last year, along with Schrauben, who pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter in a deal with the district attorney’s office in 2008.
A jury deliberated only four hours in December before convicting Sandra Jessee. The conviction carries a required life sentence, but Judge Stotler on Friday told the woman wearing thick glasses and a jail jumpsuit that he would not have granted her probation even if the law had allowed it.
The sentence was welcomed by Jack Jessee’s family, who lamented how he has missed seeing his grandchildren grow up and attend college, and his daughter get married.
A hearing is scheduled for May 4 to discuss restitution for the victim’s family.
Aehlert is set to be sentenced in September. Schrauben, who has been released from jail, is scheduled to be sentenced in July.
Garrick has pleaded not guilty and has yet to stand trial.
The case has not ended for Jack Jessee’s family, but on Friday his relatives said they were relieved at the prospect of no longer having to see Sandra Jessee in court.
“This is like a 14-year ordeal that has come almost to completion,” David Jessee told reporters. “This was my sister-in-law who put this whole thing together and she is going to spend the rest of her life where she belongs, thinking about this.”
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