Robinson jury views mattresses, freezer-coffin

Victim James Sprouse

CONEJOS — Physical evidence was presented to the jury Monday in the first-degree murder trial of Michael John Robinson, 35, in Conejos District Court.

His fate is being decided by a jury panel of eight women and six men who saw the freezer that allegedly became a sealed coffin for James Sprouse, 77, and two mattresses believed to be covered in blood he shed some time between June 3 and 12, 2016.

Crime scene experts from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation exhibited photographs of the freezer when it was found in Sprouse’s home in April 2017 and what it contained when it was opened.

Two twin-sized blood-soaked mattresses were also on display, along with photos of where they were found in an official search of the small apartment Sprouse shared with Robinson, his step grandson.

In addition to the murder charge, Robinson is accused of tampering with physical evidence and aggravated motor vehicle theft.

He was arrested in California and the vehicle belonging to Sprouse was discovered in San Diego during June 2016.

Robinson had become a person of interest when it was learned that Sprouse told people he was afraid of the younger man about two weeks before someone last heard from him.

An examination of Sprouse’s bank records led investigators to California as his debit card was being used in places outside the San Luis Valley, as if whoever had it was headed for California.

Family members said they never knew Sprouse to travel anywhere without telling someone he was going and Robinson wasn’t allowed to drive the vehicle unless Sprouse was along.

Several welfare checks and two search warrants were enacted on Sprouse’s home, attached to an abandoned market he once operated in downtown Romeo, and then a crime scene team from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation found his remains sealed in a chest freezer in a small room alongside what once was the grocery store.

Freezer found and opened

CBI Agent Joseph Cahill, a 23-year veteran of law enforcement, testified Monday afternoon that he had been called by Agent Pat Crouch to help determine if a crime had been committed at that commercial property.

After looking around the building and determining there was no way to go except breaking in, the team broke into a south door that was secured by a padlock.

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.

Cahill testified he observed a workbench and freezer in one of the rooms. The freezer had towels around its base, Cahill testified. It was wrapped in plastic and had air fresheners at each corner.

Most of the light was coming from the open door and Cahill said he saw the freezer quickly.

There was no electricity, but someone had placed air fresheners at either side of the freezer.

Cause of death suggested

Following Cahill, Dr. Leon Kelly, chief medical examiner and coroner of El Paso County, provided credentials and presiding 12th Judicial District Judge Martin Gonzales accepted him as an expert witness.

Kelly said he performed an autopsy on Sprouse’s remains April 21, 2017 and filed a written report, which was placed into evidence.

He said the body arrived sealed in a chest freezer, which he opened to find human remains partially wrapped in plastic wrap with a trash bag over the head. The body was placed into the freezer face first, head down in a sort of fetal position, a ball, Kelly said.

Removing it and examining it, the pathologist found multiple depressed fractures and lacerations on the right side of the head, above the ear and back of the head, across the base of the skull, immediately life-threatening injuries.

The blunt impact that caused the fractures didn’t provide much of a clue as to what object was used, Kelly said.

He said Sprouse would have shed most of the blood while his heart was still beating, since there is only some passive blood flow after the heart stops. In addition, an examination of the hands and arms of the body showed no defensive wounds, he said.

Further examination did not show any other cause of death.

Under questioning by the Public Defender, Kelly said he found some decomposition, despite the fact that the body had been sealed in the freezer. A strong odor was present and Kelly said this was caused by bacteria that remained after death and without oxygen. “Many bacteria don’t like oxygen,” he told the jury.

In spite of the fact that the freezer had been off for a while, it was still sealed until it was opened at the scene so the odor wasn’t evident to persons walking in the room around it.

He said the freezer arrived sealed with evidence tape and he couldn’t tell if it had been frozen or thawed, though it wasn’t outside the freezer for very long in the beginning. He couldn’t say how long the remains had been in the freezer.

CBI Agent Dennis Honeycutt, a crime scene specialist, detailed discovery of the freezer in a side room. The appliance was completely covered with layers of plastic wrap and that wrap was secured with layers of duct and packaging tape. Two dumbbells and some other items were on top and the opening had been sealed with paint.

He described what was found with the remains and provided photos of a blood soaked jacket, regularly worn by Sprouse.

There were no signs of a struggle, though a bloody pillow was found in the living room area and there were some blood splatters on and under the nearby sofa. Blue Star, a derivative of the blood splatter detector luminol, was sprayed and showed blood traces several places in the residence.

Blood spatters were found on and under the front of the sofa and in several locations around the small apartment.

Also provided via photographic evidence was Sprouse’s wallet, which had been tucked into the living room sofa and contained more than $70 in cash.

Honeycutt said burglary was ruled out as more items valuable on the resale market were found in the residence.

Questioned by the defense, he said there was no way he could be sure more valuable items had been in the apartment before it was locked up and left abandoned.

He said the crime scene crew determined the killing wasn’t at the hands of a random burglar due to the time the perpetrator would have taken to finish and leave.

Due to the efforts taken to conceal the crime and clean up the scene, he felt it was someone known to or near the victim, especially room deodorizers, dryer sheet and the effort taken to seal up the freezer.

Since evidence established there was a lock on the front door that a witness said she hadn’t seen there before, Honeycutt said he never knew a burglar to place a lock on a door after the crime was done.

The padlock was never swabbed for prints or DNA, he told the defense.

Jury members will hear more crime scene testimony this morning at 9 a.m.