Laguna Hills Man Either Contract Killer or Patsy, Jurors Told

A Laguna Hills man is charged with the murder for hire of a cancer-stricken man, whose wife didn't want to see their nest egg spent on medical bills, prosecutors say.

A Laguna Hills man volunteered to kill a cancer-stricken Placentia resident, in a 1998 murder-for-hire scheme organized by the victim's wife, a prosecutor told jurors today.

Thomas Joseph Garrick's attorney, Dennis O'Connell, countered that the only evidence linking his client to the crime is the testimony of two co-defendants who negotiated plea deals with prosecutors.

Garrick, 37, is the last of four defendants to go on trial for the Aug. 13, 1998, slaying of 56-year-old Jack Jessee in his home.

Garrick got involved in the murder conspiracy when Sandra Jessee approached the defendant's friend, Brett Schrauben, about killing her husband so she could get his 401(k) account worth $262,582 and a life insurance policy valued at $411,858, Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray said.

Schrauben, 40, liked to perpetuate an image of being a "tough guy," so he came to mind when Sandra Jessee's son, Thomas Dayton Aehlert, went looking for someone to kill his mother's husband, Murray said.

Aehlert and Schrauben have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme and will testify in Garrick's trial, Murray said.

"If you don't like the fact they got a deal in a cold-case murder, I ask you to set that aside," Murray told jurors. "Write a letter to my boss, (District Attorney) Tony Rackauckas, and say I did a bad thing ... But listen to the evidence."

The victim's wife was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole last March.

When she and Aehlert approached Schrauben about killing Jack Jessee for $50,000, Schrauben demanded a non-refundable $5,000 fee up-front for a meeting, Murray said. Sandra Jessee and Schrauben met on June 24, 1998, in the parking lot of a Placentia mall, where Schrauben was given a photo of the victim and a sketch of the interior of the house, the prosecutor said.

The plan was to make it look like a burglary, with Schrauben taking a coin collection in the house, Murray said. The slaying would take place while Sandra Jessee was out shopping to give her an alibi, he said.

Schrauben recruited his best friend, Garrick, to be the getaway driver, Murray said. But Schrauben said the payment for the killing was $20,000, which he planned to split with Garrick while Schrauben pocketed the rest, Murray said.

On the day of the killing, Sandra Jessee called Schrauben and told her she was going shopping, his cue to get to work, the prosecutor said.

"The plan doesn't go well," Murray said, adding Schrauben got "cold feet," and locked the garage door leading to the house, claiming to Aehlert that his mother mistakenly forgot to leave it open.

Aehlert insisted that it was now or never because Sandra Jessee was threatening to do it herself, Murray said. She was eager to move to Arizona, where Aehlert, her son from a prior marriage, had relocated, and she feared her husband's medical bills would continue eating away at their nest egg, according to Murray.

Garrick overheard the conversation and volunteered to switch places with Schrauben, Murray alleged. When they returned, they decided to kill the victim with a knife instead of a gun because it would be less conspicuous, Murray told the jury.

"They figure he's 56, he's got cancer, how tough can he be?" the prosecutor said.

In December of that year, Sandra Jessee made a $90,000 profit by selling the Placentia home and moved to the Phoenix area, just 200 yards from her son's home, Murray said. She also cashed in her late husband's insurance policy and retirement account.

The case went cold until 2005, when an Orange County sheriff's detective found a scrap of paper from Sandra Jessee's purse with Schrauben's last name scribbled on it, according to Murray.

Investigators set up a wiretap of the phones used by Sandra Jessee, Aehlert and Schrauben and also had surveillance teams follow them, Murray said.

Schrauben was arrested in 2005 and pleaded guilty three years later to voluntary manslaughter. Schrauben, who is scheduled to be sentenced July 18, is expected to get time served in custody, according to Murray.

Aehlert was arrested in 2007 and pleaded guilty in October 2011 to second-degree murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 26.

Beginning in December 1998, Schrauben made a series of "turnaround" flights from John Wayne Airport to Phoenix to receive $10,000 installments of the fee from Aehlert, Murray said.

Aehlert's live-in girlfriend at the time, Laura Downey, has testified that despite emerging from bankruptcy and working at Target, Schrauben would return from the tips with large rolls of cash.

O'Connell charged that Schrauben is the killer, not his client.

"The only evidence effectively to connect my client, Mr. Garrick, to this crime will be the testimony of two admitted murderers, Brett Schrauben and Thomas Aehlert," O'Connell said, telling the jury there's no DNA evidence linking the defendant to the killing.

The attorney said the two also have offered differing accounts of what happened over the years, and that Aehlert even directed police to investigate two innocent people.

Schrauben "knows the details (of the crime) because he did the act," O'Connell alleged.

Schrauben failed to grab the coin collection because he "doesn't have a partner in crime," O'Connell said.

Schrauben and Aehlert cut deals with prosecutors to avoid spending the rest of their lives in prison, O'Connell said. The only way they could do that was to make themselves "indispensable witnesses," and the only way to do that was to finger Garrick as the killer, the defense attorney said.

Garrick is charged with murder with a special circumstances allegation of committing the crime for financial gain. He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

 - City News Service


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