CONEJOS — The freezer in a small, abandoned store became a sealed coffin for the remains of James H. Sprouse, 77, some time between June 3 and 12, 2016.
Just how he came to be there will be the topic of a lengthy homicide trial of his step-grandson, Michael John Robinson, now 35.
Following three hearings and a flurry of motions, jury selection began Tuesday, Jan. 29 with a heavy law enforcement presence in 12th Judicial District Court.
Opening arguments were expected to begin today, Jan. 30, before 12th Judicial District Judge Martin Gonzales.
The alleged perpetrator is his step-grandson, Michael John Robinson, now 35, who had been living with him in a small apartment alongside an abandoned grocery store.
In November 2017 Conejos County Judge Kimberly Cortez 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.
He was also bound over for aggravated motor vehicle theft and tampering with physical evidence in an attempt to conceal the remains.
Robinson had become a person of interest in Sprouse's disappearance when it was learned the elderly man said he was afraid of him about two weeks before he was allegedly killed.
He was listed as a missing person for almost a year.
While he was considered missing, an examination of Sprouse’s bank records showed 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.
His vehicle was located in California within a month after he was listed as missing. The license plates had been removed and paperwork found inside included Robinson’s birth certificate.
Considered a transient by authorities, Robinson was found in the rest room at a nearby park. and questioned by a detective in San Diego, Calif.
During questioning, Robinson claimed to have been attacked in San Diego and the resultant head injury had affected his memory.
He was held for Colorado as a person of interest in Sprouse's disappearance.
Electricity had been cut off at the apartment/store building in June 2016 when Sprouse was no longer seen or heard from and the building had been searched.
Another search warrant was executed in April 2017 to look for human remains or signs of a crime.
Only natural light was available when a sheriff’s deputy walked through the building, didn’t see any blood spatters or anything covered with blood and noted that there was no odor of decomposition.
Agents with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arrived on April 19.
CBI Agent Dennis Honeycutt, a crime scene specialist, said a freezer was found in a side room. It was completely covered with several layers of plastic wrap secured with layers of duct tape. Two dumbbells and some other items were on top and the freezer opening had been sealed with spray paint.
Two mattresses were found nearby. Both were folded up and 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 had to be pried off. A human body was inside, but there was little odor of decay. The remains also were wrapped in plastic.
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 the nearby sofa. Blue Star, a derivative of the blood splatter detector luminol, was sprayed and showed blood traces several places in the residence.
It was decided to shut the freezer and seal it until the court ordered it removed to the El Paso County Coroner’s Office.
When autopsy personnel began removing contents of the freezer, they catalogued the clothing worn by the body, as well as other items found with it.
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. A number of valuable items found in the residence generally ruled out robbery as a motive. Honeycutt said it couldn’t be determined if the body had been frozen and then thawed over time. Skin from the body’s hands was used to positively identify the remains as belonging to Sprouse.