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Sanders pleads not guilty

The Oak Harbor High School student accused of killing 15-year-old Elaine “Mandi” Sepulveda is scheduled to go to trial on two murder counts March 22, although Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks concedes that a continuance as some point is likely.

James Sanders, 18, pleaded not guilty Friday to murder in the second degree, an intentional murder charge, and second-degree felony murder. He is accused of murdering Sepulveda Nov. 6, the day the high school sophomore disappeared, prompting a massive two-month and one-week search of the Oak Harbor area by police, Navy personnel, family members and volunteers.

It all came to an end Jan. 14 when Sepulveda’s small body was found in a shallow grave behind the SE Sixth Avenue home of Sanders’ grandparents. On the eve of another search by two national organization, Sanders told his grandfather that he had accidentally killed the girl and buried her in the compost heap, court documents state.

It has been two weeks since Sepulveda’s body was unearthed, but Island County Coroner Robert Bishop has still not released his autopsy report because he hasn’t received toxicology results from the state lab, according to a brief media release from Banks. Sepulveda’s cause of death has also not been released, beyond a preliminary finding of “homicide.”

Yet Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill did unseal two search warrant files from the Sanders case Friday morning. The affidavits in support of the warrants reveal many troubling details about Sanders’ and Sepulveda’s murky relationship and the high school world in which they lived.

In court Friday, Sanders formally denied three “aggravating circumstances” alleged by prosecutors, which the prosecutions hope may lay the groundwork for an exceptional sentence if the young man is convicted of the crime. Specifically, the prosecution contends that the murder was “aggravated” or made worse by the alleged fact that Sanders thought Sepulveda was pregnant with his child; that he showed an egregious lack of remorse; and that he took exceptional steps to conceal the crime.

In a boy’s voice, Sanders denied each allegation.

Craig Platt, Sanders’ attorney, unsuccessfully argued against scheduling his client’s trial, in an apparent attempt to get more time to prepare. He told Bill Hawkins, judge pro tem, that he had only received discovery information from the prosecution less than an hour before the hearing.

Also, Platt argued he would prefer to schedule the trial when one of the regular judges, Alan Hancock or Churchill, return; that his client may be released on bail, which would change the speedy trial rule; and that the allegation of aggravating factors complicates matters. The court may have to hold a bifurcated trial so that the jury can decide guilt, and if Sanders is convicted, decide whether the crime warrants an exceptional sentence.

If Sanders is convicted of second-degree murder, he would normally face a standard sentencing range of 123 to 220 months, but aggravating factors could increase that.

When he didn’t get his way, Platt abruptly handed in a notice to withdraw from the case, but Hawkins wouldn’t let him withdraw.

In the search warrant applications, Det. Sgt. Jerry Baker and Det. Cedric Niiro, both with the Oak Harbor Police, detail a dark and changing tale that Sanders allegedly weaved when questioned.

Baker wrote that Sanders at first claimed that he only met Sepulveda by chance near a church on Regatta Avenue at about 2:45 a.m., Dec. 6. He hinted to police that the girl was with another male student and may have run away to her extended family in El Paso, Baker wrote.

After Sanders’ mother gave police a bag of Sepulveda’s clothing which she found in her home, he admitted setting up a meeting with her at school to meet in the middle of the night. He claimed she handed him a bag of her clothing because it smelled of drugs and she was worried about her parents getting angry.

Baker also wrote that Sepulveda had told a number of her friends that Sanders and she had sex a number of times and that she had become pregnant. She told a friend that Sanders urged her to get an abortion, but she was against it.

Sanders, on the other hand, denied ever having sex with the younger girl, but admitted he gave her information about inducing a miscarriage, the report shows. Sanders said he was worried because Sepulveda had become obsessed with him and even started riding her bike in front of his Glencoe Street home.

On the night and early morning of the alleged murder, Sanders told his mother that he was staying at a friend’s home, but ended up leaving, meeting Sepulveda and then going home to sleep in the garage, Baker wrote.

Niiro wrote similar information in his report, adding that Sanders’ may have corresponded with Sepulveda through e-mail.

Based on the reports, the Superior Court judges approved the search warrant of Sanders’ home in early December and the search of Sanders’ e-mail account, blac_sun@hotmail.com, on Jan. 5.

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

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