SANTA ANA (CBS) — A 61-year-old woman who hired a hit man to kill her cancer-stricken third husband at their Placentia home to cash in on his life insurance policy and retirement funds was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jurors in Sandra Jessee’s retrial deliberated about four hours before convicting her in December of first-degree murder and conspiracy, and finding true a special-circumstance allegation that the killing was carried out for financial gain.
Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray characterized Jessee as a ruthless gold digger, while the defendant’s attorney said she was a devoted wife who cared for 56-year-old Jack Jessee until the day an intruder stabbed him to death in the couple’s home.
Her first trial ended on July 21, 2009, with jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of convicting her and her son, Thomas Dayton Aehlert of Gold Canyon, Ariz. Aehlert subsequently pleaded guilty to a second-degree murder charge in a plea deal that had him testify against his mother.
In the midst of Jesse’s retrial, the man who authorities allege actually stabbed her husband to death on Aug. 13, 1998, was arrested and charged with murder. Thomas Joseph Garrick is awaiting trial.
Aehlert’s friend, Brett Schrauben, pleaded guilty in November 2008 to voluntary manslaughter in a plea deal with prosecutors that also had him testify against Jessee.
Murray told jurors that the conspiracy to kill the victim began with his wife, who worried that her husband’s colon cancer treatments would eat away at their nest egg. He had a 401(k) retirement account worth $262,582 and a life insurance policy worth $411,858, the prosecutor said.
Murray said Jessee was also motivated to get rid of her spouse because he objected to moving to Arizona with her. He wanted to remain in Southern California to be closer to his daughters from a previous marriage.
Jessee asked her son to find someone to kill his stepfather for $50,000, and Schrauben said he would meet with her, but only if she paid him a non-refundable $5,000, Murray said.
The plan was for Jessee to go out shopping, leaving her husband alone in the house, Murray said. She also left a door from the garage to the home unlocked so the killer could get in, he said.
But Schrauben got cold feet and called Aehlert and told him that his mother forgot to unlock the door, Murray said. When Aehlert called him later to say the killing had to happen that day or else his mother would do it herself, Schrauben returned to the home that evening, again with Garrick, who was initially supposed to be the getaway driver, Murray said.
Again, Jessee left her husband alone in the house alone to ostensibly go shopping, but this time Garrick and Schrauben changed places, Murray said. They were supposed to make it look like a burglary gone awry by taking a gold coin collection, the prosecutor said.
In December of that year, Jessee made a $90,000 profit by selling the Placentia home and moved to the Phoenix area, just 200 yards from her son’s home, Murray said.
The case went cold until 2005, when an Orange County sheriff’s detective, helping Placentia police in the investigation, found a scrap of paper in Jessee’s purse with Schrauben’s last name scribbled on it, Murray said.
Investigators set up a wiretap of the phones used by Jessee, Aehlert and Schrauben and also had surveillance teams follow them.
Schrauben was arrested on Sept. 20, 2005, and pleaded guilty three years later. Aehlert was arrested in 2007 and pleaded guilty last November.
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