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Elaine’s body found

The long search for 15-year-old Elaine Sepulveda came to a sad end Friday when police discovered her body in a grave under a compost heap and arrested an 18-year-old man who had been a suspect since the girl’s disappearance in November.

Police arrested James Sanders at his grandparents’ home on SE Sixth Avenue early Friday morning after he admitted that he had accidentally killed the 15-year-old girl and buried her in a compost heap, according to the police report. Detectives immediately began to search debris-strewn area and found a small body at about 5 a.m., Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said.

The discovery ends a two-month-old mystery of Sepulveda’s disappearance. She slipped out of her home early in the morning of Nov. 6, apparently to meet Sanders, and hadn’t been seen since. The police and Navy organized massive searches of wooded areas while her family and friends blanketed the Puget Sound region with thousands of “missing” fliers.

Sanders, looking scared and frail, appeared in a preliminary hearing in Island County Superior Court late Friday afternoon. His was hidden behind his long hair during most of the hearing. Sepulveda’s family and a circus of mainland media filled the hushed courtroom.

Sanders is being held on suspicion of second-degree murder, which is without premeditation. In arguing that Sanders should be held, Banks said there was “very strong circumstantial evidence that it was an intentional killing” and that he “certainly had motive.” Before she disappeared, Sepulveda told friends that she was pregnant with Sanders’ child, Detective Jerry Baker wrote in his report.

“She was found in a fetal position,” Banks said, “which may mean Miss Sepulveda may not have been dead when he left her.”

Sanders’ attorney, Coupeville attorney Craig Platt, said his client should not be held in jail. He pointed out that no specific cause of death had been determined, as well as no positive identification of the body.

Judge Alan Hancock, nevertheless, set Sanders’ bail at $500,000.

Baker wrote that Sanders’ grandfather, Ted Duris, told him at 1:15 a.m. Friday that his grandson admitted to accidentally killing the girl at St. Steven’s Episcopal Church. According to Duris’ account, Sanders told him he was trying to prevent Sepulveda from killing herself and accidentally knocked her to the ground, inflicting a head injury, the report states.

Sanders told his grandfather that he tried to revive the girl, the reports says, but was unsuccessful, so he buried her in the compost pile.

Friday, the police cordoned off the area of the compost pile with police tape and set up a tent around the grave site. Shaun, a next-door neighbor of the Duris house who didn’t give his last name, said the grave site was under a shared compost pile between the two houses. He described it as a “dark corner where kids like to come over to smoke pot, drink and whatever.”

It’s also a place where his three kids play hide-and-seek.

“It’s pretty eerie,” he said. “You never think in your whole life that something like that would happen, especially not in your own backyard. It’s really sad.”

Bishop said he and detectives painstakingly excavated the body from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday. He said he’s confident that the body, which was in “a very shallow grave,” was that of Sepulveda, though final dental identification won’t be done until today. The medical examiner will perform an autopsy over the weekend, which Bishop said will likely determine the cause of death.

“It’s a well-preserved case,” he said. “There’s a lot of evidence.”

Wallace said the State Patrol Crime Lab is still processing evidence from the Dec. 10 search of Sanders’ home on SE Glencoe Street. FBI crime scene investigators in white body-suits executed the search warrant for the police.

Detectives have focused on Sanders from the beginning because he admitted meeting Sepulveda outside on the night of her disappearance. Police believe the teenage girl left her home at the Navy’s Saratoga Heights housing early in the morning of Nov. 6 and met with Sanders on Regatta Drive.

Sanders’ mother, Diseree Sanders, called police Nov. 7 and gave them a plastic bag containing Sepulveda’s clothes which she found in her son’s room. The T-shirt, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes were sent to the State Crime Lab, where technicians found blood on her sweatshirt, Baker wrote.

The body was found clothed in jeans, socks and a bra, but no shirt or shoes.

Baker also wrote that Sanders denied ever having sex with Sepulveda, but admitted that he had given her information about inducing a miscarriage or abortion.

Officials from two national organizations, The Laura Recovery Center and the Klaas Kid’s Foundation, called off a large search effort that was supposed to start Friday morning and continue over the weekend.

“I can’t say anything,” Ted Duris said Friday. “According to police, they said they’d handle everything.”

Eric Berto contributed to this story. You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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