Murder trial concludes first week

Victim James H. Sprouse

CONEJOS -- Looking for a victim was testimony’s theme Friday as the murder trial ended its first week for a former Romeo man accused of killing his step grandfather and sealing the remains in an old chest freezer.

Michael Robinson, now 35, is charged with first degree murder for not only killing James H. Sprouse, 77, in June 2016, but also tampering with physical evidence and stealing his vehicle before heading for California.

His fate is being decided by a jury panel of eight women and six men, seated late Wednesday, Jan. 29 after nearly two days of meticulous and through vetting by attorneys from the 12th Judicial District and the Colorado Public Defender.

Sprouse was reported missing in mid-June 2016 and it took investigators in Conejos County almost a year to determine his fate.

Several welfare checks and two search warrants were enacted on Sprouse’s home, attached to an abandoned market in downtown Romeo, before his remains were found sealed in a chest freezer in a small room that once was the grocery store.

Sprouse and Robinson lived in an adjacent apartment when Sprouse disappeared. His vehicle was driven to California sometime between June 3 and 12, 2016 and Robinson was found sleeping in the restroom at a nearby park.

Witnesses Friday established that the apartment was dark and cluttered, secured by covered windows, a boarded up door and another door with a padlock and hasp.

Veteran Romeo Firefighter Eddie Valdez said his department was called out in June 2016 to help law enforcement get into the little market building and did so by pulling up the lock on a screen door and taking the front door off its hinges.

Using a tactical flashlight, he looked in each room, finding an open wine bottle and an amount of change lying on the bed in the apartment’s lone bedroom.

He also saw a pile of junk and a white cabinet in the southeast corner of what once was the grocery store. He didn’t recall seeing a freezer or any other appliances.

Valdez said he didn’t search the junk because he was concerned about where Sprouse was and if something bad had happened in the apartment.

Margarita Ortega, currently with 23 years of law enforcement work to her credit and serving with the La Jara Police Department, took the stand Friday morning and discussed her efforts to get the small apartment searched, as well as some land Sprouse owned in Costilla County.

The first welfare check was made June 16, 2016, following a call from neighbor Shereen Killian. Ortega went alone and said she continued driving past the small store to ensure no one was there.

She filed a missing person report and contacted the press and other law enforcement with a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for Robinson as a person of interest in Sprouse’s disappearance.

Eventually, she returned, executing a warrant with Conejos County Undersheriff Chris Crown. Pictures were taken of the building’s outside and Ortega returned with Crown the next day, with another deputy and members of the Romeo Volunteer Fire Department, who gained entry through the front door of the store area.

Using flashlights, they searched the building for any evidence of Sprouse’s fate or where he might have gone. Ortega said she didn’t look for light switches and didn’t hear sounds of any appliances running.

Ortega said she didn’t look for evidence of a crime during the welfare checks, but she did during the warrant searches.

The welfare checks were specifically seeking Sprouse’s welfare, whereabouts and well-being, while the warrants sought evidence of a crime. “We were looking for anything indicating a criminal act,” Ortega said, admitting she didn’t see the sealed freezer or a bloody mattress next to it on any one of her visits to the apartment because she wasn’t looking for them

Sprouse had been missing 10 months when Sprouse’s daughter, Ann Ziel-Sprouse and husband Adam traveled to Colorado to help with the search.

Ziel-Sprouse testified James Sprouse moved to Romeo from California in the early 2000’s, bought and ran Romeo’s Little Market until closing it in 2006 and repaired washers and dryers, work he had performed in California. He continued to live in the building.

She testified she and her father were close and she considered him her best friend, but his demeanor had changed before his disappearance. In May 2016, she testified she often didn’t take his calls because he would begin yelling at her. The calls were regular, however, and either she or husband Adam answered. When she would call her father’s phone, either he or Robinson would answer.

As time passed and Sprouse didn’t call again or answer the phone, Ziel-Sprouse feared for his welfare and called the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office, speaking with Sgt. Ortega.

After that, she said she talked about her concerns only with her aunt and Ortega.

Ortega said Ziel-Sprouse grew increasingly concerned and was upset her father hadn’t been found.

Ziel-Sprouse told the court she began making phone calls trying to find her father and suggested to Ortega that she might look in the freezer, the attic of the building, behind the doors and anywhere else his body might fit. She also suggested he might be on some land he owned in Costilla County;

Under cross examination, Ortega said she didn’t recall where the distraught daughter told her to look.

Ortega said she looked around each room. Paper had fallen off one window and she had more light at one point. “I wasn’t in there long and looked around each room,” she told the jury.

When Ziel-Sprouse called again, she testified she talked with Ortega and said she knew something bad had happened, since her father would call regularly and would call her if he was going somewhere. She didn’t want to file another missing person report because she wasn’t sure he was actually missing -- he might be deceased.

In March 2018, Ortega asked the sheriff to request assistance from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. In April, another search warrant was executed and Ortega looked for anything regarding Sprouse, from medical records to property he owned in Costilla County. She testified she didn’t see a freezer and didn’t hear the sound of appliance motors.

CBI Investigator Pat Crouch arrived with a crime scene team and the sealed freezer was quickly located in a room at the store.

A photo showed barbells and other items on top of the freezer, which had been sealed with spray paint and covered with plastic wrap and duct tape. The CBI investigators opened it and found Sprouse’s remains. The freezer was closed again and it all was sent to crime labs for autopsy and identification.

The big question is how he died and who put him in the freezer.

The jury will return Monday morning.