CONEJOS — Physical evidence was presented to the jury this past Monday in the first-degree murder trial of Michael John Robinson, 35, in Conejos District Court.
His fate is being decided by a jury panel of eight women and six men, who saw the freezer that allegedly became a sealed coffin for James Sprouse, 77, and two mattresses covered in blood he is believed to have shed some time between June 3 and 12, 2016.
Crime scene experts from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) also exhibited photographs of the freezer when it was found in Sprouse’s home in April, 2017 and what it contained when it was opened.
Two twin-sized blood-soaked mattresses were on display in the morning, along with photos of where they were found in the small apartment Sprouse shared with Robinson, his step grandson.
In addition to the murder charge, Robinson is accused of tampering with physical evidence and aggravated motor vehicle theft.
He was arrested in California and the vehicle belonging to Sprouse was discovered in San Diego during June 2016.
He was questioned by District Attorney’s Investigator Bruce Moore in Indio, Calif. During the interview, Robinson claimed drug use had clouded his specific memory of things -- that and a head injury allegedly suffered in San Diego.
Robinson said he suffered an abusive childhood and described a descent into drugs, which led him to live with Sprouse, his step grandfather.
Moore said he told Robinson his grandfather was dead and the young man showed no emotion when asked if he felt bad about it.
Robinson had become a person of interest when it was learned that Sprouse told people he was afraid of the younger man about two weeks before someone last heard from him.
An examination of Sprouse’s bank records led investigators to California, since 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 without telling someone he was going and Robinson wasn’t allowed to drive the vehicle.
Several welfare checks and two search warrants were enacted on Sprouse’s home by Conejos County Sheriff’s Sergeant Margarita Ortega, Undersheriff Chris Crown and several other lawmen and firefighters.
No evidence of a violent crime was found until Ortega asked the sheriff to ask for help from the CBI and a crime scene team found his remains sealed in a chest freezer in a small room alongside what once was a small country store.
Sprouse’s family and friends taking the stand began with Adam Ziel, husband of Sprouse's daughter, Ann.
A resident of Chula Vista, Calif., he said he sometimes answered the phone when Sprouse called and, in late May 2016, Sprouse allegedly said he was afraid of Robinson and wanted him to leave.
Ann Ziel-Sprouse testified James Sprouse moved to Romeo, Colo. from California in the early 2000's and ran Romeo's Little Market until closing it in 2006 and repairing washers and dryers, work he had performed in California.
She testified she and her father were close and she considered him her best friend.
Ziel-Sprouse said her father went to visit her several times over the years and had a stroke the last time, but went back home. Robinson moved in with him.
In May 2016, Ann often didn't take his calls because he would begin yelling at her, then when he didn't call again or answer the phone, Ziel-Sprouse feared for his welfare and called the Conejos County Sheriff's Office, speaking with Sgt. Ortega. After that, she said she talked only with her aunt and Ortega.
Handed a photo of her father, she began crying openly, sobbing, "I loved my dad."
Ziel-Sprouse said she was upset law enforcement hadn't found her father. She began making phone calls, suggesting to Ortega that she might look in the freezer, the attic of the building and anywhere else his body might fit.
When Ziel-Sprouse called again, she talked with Ortega because she felt a thorough search hadn't been done. She didn't want to file a missing person report because she wasn't sure he was actually missing — he might be dead.
Neighbor Sherlene Killian testified that she was good neighbors with Sprouse after she moved to Romeo in 2010. When Robinson moved in, she said the friendship remained the same.
She said she heard Sprouse and Robinson arguing, often loudly. Toward the end of May, she went to take some materials to Sprouse and had a conversation with Robinson. Sprouse was lying prone on mattresses on the floor next to the living room sofa, his usual sleeping place. He was covered and had a beanie on his head.
Veteran Romeo Firefighter Eddie Valdez said his department was called out in June 2016 to help law enforcement get into the little market building and did so by pulling up the lock on a screen door and taking the front door off its hinges but leaving the padlock and hasp intact.
Using a tactical flashlight, he looked in each room, finding an open wine bottle and an amount of change lying on the bed in the apartment›s lone bedroom.
Ortega, currently with 23 years of law enforcement work to her credit and serving with the La Jara Police Department, took the stand Friday morning and discussed her efforts to search the small apartment, as well as some land Sprouse owned in Costilla County.
The first welfare check was made June 16, 2016, following a call from Killian.
Ortega went alone and said she continued driving past the small store to ensure no one was there.
She filed a missing person report and contacted the press and other law enforcement with a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for Robinson as a person of interest in Sprouse's disappearance.
The welfare checks were specifically seeking Sprouse's welfare, whereabouts and well-being, while the warrants sought evidence of a crime. "We were looking for anything indicating a criminal act," Ortega said, admitting she didn't see the sealed freezer or a bloody mattress next to it on any of her visits to the apartment because she wasn't looking for them
Freezer found and opened
CBI Agent Joseph Cahill, a 23-year veteran of law enforcement, testified Monday afternoon that he had been called by Agent Pat Crouch to help determine if a crime had been committed at the little store.
After looking around the building and determining there was no way to go except breaking in, the team broke into a south door that was secured by a padlock.
Witnesses Friday established that the apartment was dark and cluttered, secured by covered windows, a boarded up door and another door with a padlock and hasp.
Cahill testified he observed a workbench and freezer in one of the rooms. The freezer had towels around its base, was wrapped in plastic and had air fresheners at each corner.
Most of the light was coming from the open door and Cahill said he saw the freezer.
Cause of death
Following Cahill, Dr. Leon Kelly, chief medical examiner and coroner of El Paso County, Colo., provided credentials and presiding 12th Judicial District Judge Martin Gonzales accepted him as an expert witness.
Kelly said he performed an autopsy April 21, 2017 on Sprouse’s remains and filed a written report, which was placed into evidence.
He said the body arrived sealed in a chest freezer, which he opened to find human remains partially wrapped in plastic wrap with a trash bag over the head. The body was placed into the freezer face first, head down in a sort of fetal position, a ball, Kelly said.
Removing it and examining it, the pathologist found multiple depressed fractures and lacerations on the right side of the head, above the ear and back of the head, across the base of the skull, immediately life-threatening injuries.
The blunt impact that caused the fractures didn’t provide much of a clue as to what object was used, Kelly said.
He said Sprouse would have shed most of the blood while his heart was still beating, since there is only some passive blood flow after the heart stops. In addition, an examination of the hands and arms of the body showed no defensive wounds, he said.
Further examination did not show any other cause of death.
Under questioning by the Public Defender, Kelly said he found some decomposition, despite the fact that the body had been sealed in the freezer.
A strong odor was present and Kelly said this was caused by bacteria that remained after death and without oxygen. “Many bacteria don’t like oxygen,” he told the jury.
The freezer was still sealed until it was opened at the scene and an odor wasn’t evident to persons walking in the room around it.
He said the freezer arrived sealed with evidence tape and he couldn’t tell if the body had been frozen or thawed, though it wasn’t outside the freezer for very long in the beginning.
CBI Agent Dennis Honeycutt, a crime scene specialist, detailed discovery of the freezer. The appliance was completely covered with layers of plastic wrap and that wrap was secured with layers of duct and packaging tape. Two dumbbells and some other items were on top and the opening had been sealed with paint.
He described what was found with the remains and provided photos of a blood soaked jacket, like one regularly worn by Sprouse.
There were no signs of a struggle, though a bloody pillow was found in the living room area and there were some blood splatters on and under the nearby sofa. Blue Star, a derivative of the blood splatter detector luminol, was sprayed and showed blood traces several places in the residence.
Blood spatters were found on and under the front of the sofa and in several locations around the small apartment.
Honeycutt said burglary was ruled out as more items valuable on the resale market were found in the residence.
Photographs were shown of Sprouse’s wallet, which had been tucked into the living room sofa and contained more than $70 in cash.
Questioned by the defense, he said there was no way he could be sure more valuable items had been in the apartment before it was locked up and left abandoned.
He said investigation suggested the killing wasn’t at the hands of a random burglar due to the time the perpetrator took to finish and leave.
Due to the efforts taken to conceal the crime and clean up the scene, he felt it was someone known to or near the victim, especially with room deodorizers, dryer sheets and the effort taken to seal up the freezer.
Since evidence established there was a lock on the front door that a witness said she hadn’t seen there before, Honeycutt said he never knew a burglar to place a lock on a door after the crime was done.
The padlock has never swabbed for prints or DNA, he told the defense.
Jury members will hear more crime scene testimony this morning at 9 a.m.