CONEJOS — The freezer in a small, abandoned store became a sealed coffin for the remains of James H. Sprouse, 77, some time between June 3 and 12, 2016.
After a lengthy preliminary hearing on Friday, Conejos County Judge Kimberly Cortez bound the alleged perpetrator, Michael John Robinson, 33, over for trial for first-degree murder, a class one felony; tampering with physical evidence, a class six felony; and aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree, a class five felony.
Neighbor sounds an alarm
Next-door neighbor Shirlene Killian testified that she had known Sprouse for many years, since he and his wife bought the small business and attached residence from her parents. Friends, they looked out for each other.
She said Robinson moved in with Sprouse, but she didn’t get to know him as well. She identified the defendant in court.
Killian said she went to the residence in early June 2016 and saw Sprouse lying on a mattress in front of the living room sofa. Robinson said the older man was asleep.
That wasn’t unusual, Killian said, since Sprouse was known to sleep on the floor. She testified she saw his face and he was wearing a beanie on his head. He was wearing a red flannel shirt, which was known to be what he slept in.
She testified she never saw Sprouse again, but she did see Robinson pulling on a door at the residence during the first or second week of June, and then driving off in Sprouse’s vehicle, a red Ford Ranger.
Killian said Sprouse would always call when he was going out of town so she could keep an eye on the house. She did the same with him.
Up until the final day, Killian said she never saw Robinson driving the vehicle. Sprouse was very particular and didn’t allow anyone else to drive it, she said.
He didn’t go outdoors much, Killian said, but he would drive his vehicle when going to the store and running other errands. Robinson would ride along, but Sprouse drove. Killian said she saw Sprouse in the vehicle at the end of May 2016 and went to his home in early June to deliver an emergency preparedness packet. Robinson answered the door, but Killian said he seemed anxious for her to leave.
After some time had passed, Killian said she asked for a welfare check on Sprouse, since Robinson had driven away alone and she hadn’t seen the elderly man since.
She never saw the red vehicle return and when she knocked on the door, no one answered. There also was a padlock on the door that hadn’t been there before.
Her concern was heightened when she recalled Sprouse had health problems, such as diabetes and high cholesterol. “His feet were blue. He didn’t take care of himself.”
Killian wrote a statement for the sheriff on Feb. 4, 2017, reporting that people were asking questions about Sprouse and she had called 9-1-1 after hearing a noise outdoors and discovering a metal part of the electrical box had been removed. She said she didn’t see any vehicles driving away.
The sheriff’s department got a warrant and went into the house on a welfare check. Killian said she spoke to the police again in March about Sprouse possibly being missing.
Sprouse’s daughter Ann was staying with her when they drove to the police station, Killian said. Ann didn’t stay in the Sprouse home because she had been told, “it was under investigation.”
When she went to the property in February 2017, she said she did not walk around the whole property, but “I had a gut feeling (Sprouse) was dead.”
Conejos County Sheriff’s Sergeant Margarita Ortega said she went on the first welfare check but couldn’t get into the house, so she obtained a warrant to make sure no one was there.
A board was taken off the back door to gain entry and Ortega walked through each room and the shower but found no one.
She called Sprouse’s daughter and a missing persons investigation was begun.
Ortega said she made a special effort to drive past Sprouse’s place every day to see if anyone had been there.
Robinson became a person of interest, she said, and it was learned that Sprouse told people he was afraid of Robinson about two weeks before someone last heard from him.
An examination of Sprouse’s bank records caught Ortega’s attention 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.
In June 2016, Sprouse’s vehicle was located in California. The license plates had been removed and paperwork found inside included Robinson’s birth certificate.
Robinson, called a transient by authorities there, was found in the restroom at a nearby park. He had come under law enforcement radar in San Diego, California, because he also was contacted while sleeping on a park bench.
It was determined the transient was Robinson and a California detective agreed to interview him. He was held as a person of interest.
During questioning, Robinson claimed to have been attacked in San Diego and the resultant head injury had affected his memory.
Electricity had been cut off at the building in June 2016 and, in April 2017, another search warrant was executed to look for human remains or signs of a crime. Only natural light was available and Ortega said she walked through the building, didn’t see any blood spatters or anything covered with blood and there was no odor of decomposition.
Agents with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arrived on April 19 and Ortega said she didn’t go in with them.
CBI Agent Dennis Honeycutt, a crime scene specialist, arrived with them and 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 tape. Two dumbbells and some other items were on top and the opening had been sealed with spray paint.
Two mattresses were found nearby. Both were folded up and Honeycutt said when they were spread out, they “contained a great deal of blood.”
The plastic wrap had to be cut off the freezer and the seal created by the paint had to be pried off. A human body was inside, but there was little odor of decay. The remains also were wrapped in plastic.
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 the nearby sofa. Blue Star, a derivative of the blood splatter detector luminol, was sprayed and showed blood traces several places in the residence.
It was decided to shut the freezer and seal it until the court ordered it removed to the El Paso County Coroner’s Office.
When autopsy personnel began removing contents of the freezer, they catalogued the clothing worn by the body, as well as other items found with it.
Injuries to one side of Sprouse’s head indicated he had been struck in the right temple and death was due to blunt force trauma. There was no evidence of heart attack or stroke. A number of valuable items found in the residence generally ruled out robbery as a motive, Honeycutt said. It couldn’t be determined if the body had been frozen and then thawed over time and the exact time and date of death could not be determined.
CBI Agent Pat Crouch testified that he assisted in the search of the location in Romeo. The building was photographed and then investigators were allowed to enter.
He detailed discovery of Sprouse’s body in the freezer and said the body was in a nearly airtight container, so there was no odor of decay in the immediate area.
“Somebody spent a great deal of time securing the freezer,” Crouch testified.
There was no indication anyone had rummaged through the house looking for valuables. A great deal of cash was hidden in the couch and a rifle was underneath.
Sprouse’s injuries were to the right side of the head and the ear was almost cut in half, the agent testified. One of the blows to the head crushed Sprouse’s skull, causing death.
There was some skin slippage, since the body had been in the freezer almost a year, he said. Slippage isn’t found in recently deceased individuals.
Skin from the body’s hands was used to positively identify the remains as belonging to Sprouse.
Prints were on record due to an earlier arrest.
Crouch said there were no defensive wounds on the hands and the elderly man did not fight back.
Suspects other than Robinson were ruled out due to the sealed freezer and locks on the outside of the doors. A number of items in the residence could have caused the head injuries, but none was found with blood on it.
Ashley Fetyko, 12th Judicial District chief trial deputy district attorney, told the judge that the people were seeking to have Robinson bound over on the three felony charges and said the only purpose for a preliminary hearing was to establish probable cause that a crime had been committed
Tampering with physical evidence was evident in the meticulously sealed freezer, she told the court, and the motor vehicle theft would be proven by use of Sprouse’s debit card which provided a “literal road map of where the defendant went and when.”
She reminded the court that Robinson’s birth certificate was found in the vehicle.
It is alleged that Sprouse was struck in the head while he was asleep, since blood was found on his mattresses, pillow and the front of the sofa.
“He was not wearing pants and not wearing socks. He was asleep, Fetyko said.
Robinson, being the only person with Sprouse when he was last seen, had plenty of time to prepare the body, she told the court.
“The death was not caused by diabetes, his feet didn’t turn blue and he died, and it didn’t cause the head injuries.”
Public Defender Kalie Latendres pointed out that nine months or more had passed when no one knew where Sprouse was.
He could have been killed by someone else later, she argued, since Sgt. Ortega didn’t notice blood, padlocks or the bloody mattresses.
Arguing that Robinson couldn’t be bound over for trial for first-degree murder, Latendres said there was no evidence Robinson committed the crime or did so after deliberation. There is no direct evidence how and when the crime took place, she argued.
She said the motor vehicle theft was evident, but nothing else was, and there were no other witnesses to the other felony charge of tampering with evidence.
Fetyko said intent and deliberation could be inferred by the way the victim died.
“There is no requirement that there be a witness to first-degree murder,” Fetyko argued. “Some evidence may only be found in circumstantial evidence.”
Cortez said the preliminary hearing is a “screening tool” and she found probable cause that Robinson could be tried for first-degree murder, given the manner of death, the type of injury and the manner of concealing the corpse.
He was also bound over for aggravated motor vehicle theft and tampering with physical evidence in an attempt to conceal the remains.
First appearance in 12th Judicial District Court will be at 9:15 a.m. January 12.
Above, homicide victim James H. Sprouse. Below, homicide suspect Michael John Robinson.