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Elaine’s death results in manslaughter plea

James Sanders sobbed, and many in the courtroom wept with him, as he apologized for what he called “an unforgivable and horrible mistake” which led to the death of his Oak Harbor High School friend, 15-year-old Elaine Amanda Sepulveda.

Sanders said he would accept any punishment and promised that he will think about Sepulveda every day of his life.

“I know no matter how many times I apologize,” he said, “it will not bring Elaine Sepulveda back.”

The 18-year-old student pleaded guilty in Island County Superior Court Tuesday to first-degree manslaughter, unlawful disposal of human remains and making false statements to a public servant as part of a settlement agreement reached by his attorney and the prosecution.

By pleading guilty, Sanders admitted that he recklessly caused the girl’s death Nov. 6, 2004; buried her partially-clothed body in a debris pile behind his grandparents’ Oak Harbor house; and then lied to police about her whereabouts for more than two months.

Island County Judge Alan Hancock agreed with the sentence recommendation laid out by the prosecution and defense; he sentenced Sanders to eight and a half years in prison. With good time, Sanders could be free in about seven years and eight months.

Perhaps the most symbolic moment of the emotional morning came after the hearing was over. Sepulveda’s mother and Sanders’ mother embraced in the front of the court and cried in each other’s arms.

Before sentencing, both Sepulveda’s and Sanders’ family members addressed Sanders, the judge and a courtroom filled with friends and family from both sides.

Sepulveda’s mother, Mary Jimenez, spoke through sobs that shook her body to describe the misery Sanders caused.

“You can’t even image how many lives you ruined by what you did to our daughter, Elaine...” she said. “The decision you made to bury her and put trash over her like she was nobody is unthinkable.”

She said there is no closure to something this painful. “Sometimes I feel I can’t go on living and sometimes I have to remember to breathe,” she said.

Nevertheless, she said she and Juan Jimenez — her husband and Elaine’s stepfather — don’t feel hatred toward the young man.

“Instead of vengeance,” she said, “I ask God to give you a conscience so you can feel how much pain you caused.”

Elaine’s father, Carlos Sepulveda, flew in from El Paso, Texas, to speak at the hearing. He talked briefly about his own painful and lonely experience in prison.

“I ask that when you come out,” he said, “that you make something better of yourself. Do it for Elaine. That’s all I ask.”

Similarly, Pastor Dave Veach of the Living Word church urged Sanders to do something positive with his life as a memorial to Elaine. He also spoke of the strength and kindness of Elaine’s family.

“Mary said she was so worried that James’ mother will not be able to visit him,” he said.

On the other side, Desiree Sanders tearfully described the difficulties in her son’s life and how he was, nevertheless, always kind and helpful. He has a serious learning disability. She said the family moved to Oak Harbor, to be near Sanders’ grandparents, after his father got a new girlfriend and kicked them out of the house.

Last year, she was diagnosed with a rare disorder which made her blind. She lost her job, her car and couldn’t pay bills, so James got a job to help out.

“I love my son very much,” she said. “To me he is a good boy and a good son. He always makes me and my daughter laugh.”

Ted Duris, Sanders’ grandfather, said that his grandson was very remorseful for what happened. Sanders confessed to his grandfather in January, ending the mystery of Elaine’s disappearance.

Duris said he believes it was an accident. “I know deep within my heart that James would never hurt anyone,” he said.

But as Prosecutor Greg Banks pointed out, nobody but Sanders may ever know for certain what happened and exactly how Elaine Sepulveda died. The official cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation, but the decomposition of the body could make that difficult to prove with certainty. The medical examiner found no evidence of any type of injury and her toxicology screen did not point to a cause of death.

“We know that he killed Elaine by homicidal violence, and that we can prove manslaughter in the first degree beyond a reasonable doubt,” Banks said. “But, after extensive investigation, follow-up interviews, and consultations with pathologists and other experts, we are no closer to knowing of the exact mechanism he used to kill her.”

Other nagging questions remain, like why did Sanders have some of Elaine’s clothing that she was wearing the day she died? Why did his friends say they didn’t notice any emotion or changes in Sanders after he killed Elaine? Why did he allow the mystery of her disappearance go on for so long?

Banks said a trial would not have answered the remaining questions. Sanders was originally charged with second-degree murder, which carried a standard sentencing range of about 10 to 20 years in prison.

Sanders’ attorney, Craig Platt of Coupeville, said he was so moved by the speeches that he decided to skip most of his presentation about the case. He said the “objective” nature of the legal analysis didn’t seem appropriate.

He did, however, defend his client’s version of events. Sanders told his grandfather that he accidentally killed Elaine in trying to prevent her from committing suicide. He claimed he knocked her down and she hit her head and died. He said he tried CPR, but when she didn’t respond, he panicked and buried her.

Platt said that his expert witness, an internationally-recognized and respected pathologist, would have testified that Sanders’ account was indeed possible.

In fact, not long after Sanders pleaded guilty to manslaughter, Platt went as far as to suggested his client was innocent.

“Quite possibly,” he said, “James Sanders is not guilty of any felony.”

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

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