Ballistics experts in murder case against Valley airman disagree
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The attorney for a U.S. Air Force airman accused of killing a Mennonite woman grilled a ballistics expert who concluded that a bullet taken from the skull of the victim matched a rifle the airman owned.
The cross-examination of Lisa Peloza, a firearms examiner with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, came before the prosecution rested its case. The defense then put on its own firearms expert who testified Thursday that he disagreed with Peloza.
Mark Gooch’s attorney, Bruce Griffen, called just one other defense witness in the trial. Closing statements are scheduled Friday in Coconino County Superior Court.
Gooch is accused of driving several hours from the metropolitan Phoenix air base where he was stationed to northwestern New Mexico, and kidnapping and killing Sasha Krause. He faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and other charges.
Krause, 27, was gathering materials for Sunday school at the Mennonite community where she lived when she disappeared on Jan. 18, 2020. Her body was found more than a month later, face down with her hands bound by duct tape, on the outskirts of Flagstaff.
A medical examiner determined she died from blunt force trauma and a gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Griffen sought to undermine Peloza by pointing out that she reproduced a colleague’s ballistics work in a high-profile case in metropolitan Phoenix that came under heavy scrutiny. Other ballistics experts came to different conclusions, and the case involving a string of freeway shootings in 2015 was dismissed.
In Gooch’s case, Peloza testified that she found sufficient characteristics specific to Gooch’s .22-caliber rifle and the bullet in Krause’s skull to say that gun fired that bullet. She said it wasn’t possible to demonstrate with visuals how she came to the conclusion, partly because of the quality of the photos taken from the microscope.
The defense expert, Eric Warren, said he tried to reproduce Peloza’s findings but did not see what she saw. His presentation to the jury included photos of the bullets he test-fired from the rifle, the test-fires done by Peloza and the bullet from Krause’s skull.
Warren said he could not conclusively link the firearm that Gooch owned to the bullet from Krause’s skull.
“At most, I could find one, two things that matched up. But it all appeared random in nature,” he said.
Both experts said they rely on images under a microscope, not on photographs, to analyze and compare items.
The firearms testimony was the most contentious of the trial that is on track to go to the jury Friday. Jurors in Arizona are among those in a few states that can ask questions to witnesses. On ballistics alone, the jury submitted about a dozen questions in writing to Brown Nichols, who read them aloud.
One juror was dismissed Wednesday because of a family emergency, leaving two alternates.
Gooch did not testify.
There’s no indication he and Krause knew each other. But both grew up in the Mennonite faith — Gooch in Wisconsin and Krause in Texas where she was a teacher. No eyewitnesses, DNA or fingerprints link Gooch to Krause’s disappearance and death, making the case against him largely circumstantial.
Authorities used cellphone data, financial records and video surveillance to determine Gooch’s phone traveled to Farmington, New Mexico, the day Krause went missing. Before heading back to the air base, the data showed a detour about a mile from where Krause’s body was found. Video at the base showed Gooch’s car return early the next day.
Prosecutors allege Gooch had a general disdain toward Mennonites, and he tried to cover his tracks by deleting Google location history, getting his car detailed and asking a friend to store a rifle.
Gooch told a sheriff’s detective he took a drive the day Krause disappeared because he had time and was seeking out Mennonite churches for fellowship. His times and the records don’t match up. Gooch denied killing Krause.
He has been jailed in Coconino County since his arrest in April 2020. Reports from the sheriff’s office show he has two disciplinary records, including a physical fight with an inmate that left him with a bloodied nose and black eye. The report doesn’t detail what led up to it.
Growing up, he worked on his family’s farm in Wisconsin, attended a Mennonite school through the eighth grade, got his GED and joined the Air Force against his parents’ wishes, his father, Jim Gooch testified Thursday. Mark Gooch never officially joined the church, his father said.
“To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t of a converted heart,” he said. “And, at that point, I don’t think he felt a need for it,” Jim Gooch said.