CONEJOS — The freezer in a small, abandoned store allegedly became a sealed coffin for the remains of James H. Sprouse, 77, some time between June 3 and 12, 2016.
His step-grandson, Michael John Robinson, now 35, will appear at 9 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 for motions, again at 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 11 and Friday, Jan. 25 for more motions, with trial set to begin at 8 a.m. Jan. 28.
He is charged with first-degree murder, a class one felony; tampering with physical evidence in an attempt to conceal the remains, a class six felony; and aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree, a class five felony, for leaving Colorado in Sprouse’s vehicle.
Robinson was bound over for trial in November 2017.
In June 2016, Sprouse’s vehicle was located in California. The license plates had been removed and paperwork found inside included Robinson’s birth certificate.
Robinson, called a transient by authorities there, was found in the restroom at a nearby park.
He had come under law enforcement radar in San Diego, Calif. when he was contacted while sleeping on a park bench.
It was determined the transient was Robinson and a California detective agreed to interview him. He was held as a person of interest.
During questioning, Robinson claimed to have been attacked in San Diego and the resultant head injury had affected his memory.
Conejos County Judge Kimberly Cortez bound Robinson over for trial.
Conejos County Sheriff’s Sergeant Margarita Ortega said she went on a welfare check regarding Sprouse, but couldn’t get into the house, so she obtained a warrant to make sure no one was there.
Robinson became a person of interest, she said, and it was learned that Sprouse told people he was afraid of Robinson about two weeks before anyone last heard from him.
An examination of Sprouse’s bank records caught Ortega’s attention as his debit card was being used in places outside the San Luis Valley, as if whoever had it was headed for California.
Family members said they never knew Sprouse to travel anywhere so they didn't believe he was using the card.
Valuable items found in the residence generally ruled out robbery as a motive.
Investigation was complicated by the fact that electricity had been cut off at the building in June 2016 and in April 2017, another search warrant was executed to look for human remains or signs of a crime.
With no electricity available and using only natural light, Ortega said she walked through the building but didn’t see any blood and there was no odor of decomposition.
Agents with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrived April 19 to assist with investigation at the residence.
CBI Agent Dennis Honeycutt, a crime scene specialist, detailed discovery of the freezer in a side room.
The appliance was completely covered with layers of plastic wrap and that wrap was secured with layers of duct tape.
Two dumbbells and some other items were on top and the opening had been sealed with spray paint.
Two mattresses were folded up nearby. Honeycutt said when they were spread out, they “contained a great deal of blood.”
The plastic wrap had to be cut off the freezer and the seal created by the paint was pried off.
Honeycutt said a human body was inside, but there was little odor of decay. The remains also were wrapped in plastic.
No signs of a struggle
There were no signs of a struggle, though a bloody pillow was found in the living room and some blood splatters on the nearby sofa.
A derivative of the blood splatter detector luminol, was sprayed and showed blood traces several places in the residence.
The freezer was shut and sealed again until the court ordered it transported to the El Paso County Coroner’s Office.
Injuries to one side of Sprouse’s head indicated he had been struck in the right temple and death was due to blunt force trauma.
There was no evidence of heart attack, stroke or any other natural cause of death.
Honeycutt said it couldn’t be determined if the body had been frozen and then thawed over time and the exact time and date of death also could not be determined.
Skin from the body’s hands was used to positively identify the remains as belonging to Sprouse, whose prints were on record due to an earlier arrest.
There were no evident injuries to the hands of arms, so Crouch said Sprouse apparently did not fight back.
Ashley Fetyko, 12th Judicial District chief trial deputy, told the judge that the people wanted Robinson bound over and said the preliminary hearing was to establish probable cause that a crime had been committed
Public Defender Kalie Latendres pointed out the length of time no one knew where Sprouse was.
Cortez called the preliminary hearing a “screening tool” and found probable cause that Robinson could be tried for first-degree murder, given the manner of death, the type of injury and the manner of concealing the corpse.