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Student charged with murder

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks handed 18-year-old James Lee Sanders documents in court Wednesday which formally charge him with killing a fellow Oak Harbor High School school student Nov. 6.

Sanders is facing a second degree murder allegation for acting “with intent to cause the death of” 15-year-old Elaine Sepulveda, charging documents state. He was also charged, as an alternative, with second-degree felony murder, killing Sepulveda while assaulting her.

If Sanders is convicted of second degree murder, he would normally face a standard sentencing range of 123 to 220 months. Yet Banks is already claiming there were aggravating factors that should lead to an exceptional sentence beyond the range.

Banks argues that the murder was aggravated by three circumstances. Namely, Sanders believed Sepulveda was pregnant; he showed an egregious lack of remorse; and he took exceptional steps to conceal the crime.

Investigators believe that Sanders’ motive for killing Sepulveda was that she said she was pregnant with his child.

Sepulveda disappeared after she left her home early in the morning of Nov. 6, apparently to meet Sanders near a church on Regatta Drive. Her family, the police, the FBI, the Navy and many community volunteers were all involved in large-scale searches for the girl until her body was found buried behind a house in Oak Harbor Jan. 14.

According to a police report, Sanders told his grandfather, the owner of the house, that he accidentally killed Sepulveda the day she disappeared. Sanders claimed he tried to stop her from killing herself over the pregnancy and pushed her, causing her to hit her head and die, documents show. He allegedly panicked and buried her in a large compost and debris pile behind his grandparents’ house on SE Sixth Avenue.

It is clear from the charges, however, that investigators and prosecutors aren’t buying Sanders’ story, but feel his actions were deliberate.

The prosecution and defense have already began arguing. The court hearing Wednesday was to determine whether Sepulveda’s body could be released to the family.

Banks said County Coroner Robert Bishop had completed his investigation and no longer needed the body.

On the other side, Sanders’ attorney, Craig Platt of Coupeville, said that he had hired an independent forensic pathologist for the case. He said he didn’t know whether the pathologist needed to examine the remains since the prosecution had provided him with only minimal discovery, which is the evidence against his client. He pointed out that he didn’t have the report on the autopsy or any of the 167 digital images taken.

Banks said he didn’t have any more evidence than the defense had beyond the sealed search warrant applications, which Banks said he would send to the defense immediately. Banks said Bishop will not release the results of the autopsy until he gets toxicology results, which will probably take two weeks. Detectives continue to work on the case and are finalizing their reports.

Banks said the defense’s expert pathologist was welcome to discuss the finding with Bishop.

In the end, Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock ruled that the remains were to be released to the family no later than Thursday at 5 p.m.

Afterward, Banks was upset that the defense’s expert didn’t end up examining the body or consulting with Bishop. He said someone from the defense’s office called to say they didn’t need the remains just after the hearing. “I am baffled why we needed to have that hearing and re-traumatize the family,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

Although Banks wouldn’t talk about the autopsy results yet, he did comment on the claim he previously made that Sepulveda may have been buried while she was unconscious, but still alive. “Based on information I now have,” he wrote in an e-mail, “I believe it is most likely she was placed in the ground after she was dead.”

Yet one thing everyone involved in the case, on both sides, can agree on is that it’s a tragedy for the teenaged girl and the entire community.

“The entire situation is a great ordeal for all concerned,” Platt said.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Steve Almon said he has a great deal of respect for Sanders’ mother and grandfather, who were instrumental in helping police get to the truth.

“There’s wasn’t any hesitation on their parts to do the right thing,” he said. “They love their son and grandson.”

“We were glad that we were able to find closure for the Jimenez family,” he added, “but people should remember that it’s also a tragedy for the Sanders family.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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