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ELAINE: Asphyxiated, not pregnant, autopsy shows

Elaine Sepulveda was murdered by asphyxiation and she was not pregnant when she died, though investigators are convinced that the suspected killer believed she was.

The Washington State Patrol’s crime lab released toxicology results Monday on 15-year-old Sepulveda, a month after her body was found in a shallow grave behind an Oak Harbor home.

Yet this new information, which will likely surprise many in the community, will probably not have a great effect on the prosecution of Sepulveda’s accused killer, 18-year-old James Sanders. He sat nearly motionless in court Friday as his attorney and the prosecutor sparred with each other, and were reprimanded by the judge, in a pre-trial hearing.

Tuesday, Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said he had been holding off releasing the autopsy report to the prosecutor’s office until he had the toxicology results.

Bishop said there were no surprises in the results and that toxicology wasn’t a factor in Sepulveda’s death.

“I couldn’t tell from the autopsy whether she died from an overdose or asphyxia,” he said. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t have an overdose on our hands.”

Bishop amended Sepulveda’s death certificate, on which had originally stated her cause of death was “pending.” Now the certificate indicates that her cause of death was “asphyxia” and that her manner of death was “homicide.” It states Sepulveda was killed in a matter of “minutes” in the “church parking lot / yard” at about 3 a.m. Nov. 6.

Moreover, the certificate states that Sepulveda was not pregnant within the last year of her life.

In a short press release, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said his office will not give further details of the autopsy because it is exempt, under state law, from disclosure.

“Furthermore, their non-disclosure is necessary to protect the privacy rights of Elaine’s family and loved ones, and their memory of her,” Banks wrote.

Sepulveda’s cause of death seems to contradict Sanders’ version of events, which he allegedly told his grandfather. Sanders claimed that he met Sepulveda at a church parking lot to talk about her pregnancy in the early morning of Nov. 6. He claimed Sepulveda had told him and her friends that he had impregnated her.

Sanders told his grandfather that he accidentally knocked her down to prevent her from committing suicide and injured her head, court documents state. He said he tried to revive her, but got scared and buried her in his grandparents’ compost heap when he realized she was dead.

Yet Sepulveda did not die from a head injury, according to the death certificate.

Police believe that Sanders killed the girl because he thought she was pregnant, a motive which wouldn’t change if she actually wasn’t pregnant.

The police didn’t find Sepulveda’s body for more than two months after she was killed. Her mysterious disappearance and the large-scale searches were covered by Seattle-area media.

In a lengthy hearing Friday, Island County Superior Court Vickie Churchill ruled on a series of issues regarding the Sanders case. Sanders is charged with second-degree murder and, as an alternative, second-degree felony murder.

Banks asked to obtain a sample of Sanders’ DNA for analysis. He submitted an affidavit that states that the crime lab needs his DNA to compare to blood stains found on a couple of items of clothing. The lab needs to determine whether the blood stains came from Sanders or Sepulveda.

On Dec. 10, the FBI executed a search warrant on Sanders’ home and recovered a pair of his jeans with two small blood stains. Also, the police have some of Sepulveda’s clothing which Sanders’ mother found in her home the day after the girl went missing. The shirt has a blood stain.

Craig Platt, Sanders’ attorney, objected to the request for a DNA sample from his client on constitutional grounds. Churchill, however, ordered Sanders to provide the sample.

Platt requested that the county pay up to $10,000 in expert services for the defense from a well-regarded California expert in DNA analysis. He said the scientist will perform about 20 to 30 hours of analysis.

Churchill was clearly reluctant to authorize the expenditure and questioned Platt about why he didn’t find someone from this state. Platt explained that he acted as quickly as possible to find an expert and the scientist was the best he could find on such short notice.

Churchill authorized the expenditure of up to $10,000, noting that the scientist will be on a wage of $250 an hour. Platt said he will work together with the crime lab in analyzing the samples.

In addition, Platt submitted a supplemental omnibus order requesting that the prosecution provide, or “attempt to cause” other agencies to provide, a series of reports and documents related to the case or Sepulveda. Specifically, Platt wanted preliminary and final autopsy reports; FBI reports; Navy Security reports; reports and investigation material from the El Paso police regarding any case in which Sepulveda was a suspect, witness, a runaway or the subject of mental health intervention; all her medical and psychiatric evaluations since birth; police officer notes; copies of the Oak Harbor High School newspaper referred to in a police report on the murder; and media reports.

Banks, however, said this was an “over-broad request” and that his office didn’t have the time to chase down such mountains of information. He said that his office provides Platt’s office with all the information they have on the case as it comes in. He added, angrily, that he resented Platt’s implications that he was “somehow hiding the ball,” pointing out that he also didn’t have the autopsy results at that point.

“Time after time, Mr. Platt has come to court,” Banks said, “and suggested that we have not been cooperative and diligent in handing over discovery to him.”

Judge Churchill appeared upset over the tension between the two sides. “I would like a presentation on your arguments without all the back-biting that continues,” she said. She added that she didn’t want to spend the county’s resources on “wild goose chases” from the defense.

In the end, Churchill basically ruled that the prosecution should share all the records on the case it has in its possession and should make an attempt to get any additional information that might exist from the coroner, the FBI, Navy security and El Paso Police.

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

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