Testimony begins in murder trial

Suspect Michael Robinson

CONEJOS -- Trial began Thursday for Michael Robinson, now 35, accused of killing his step grandfather, stealing his vehicle and heading for California, and the first witness was a detective who questioned him in Indio, Calif.

He is charged with first-degree murder, tampering with physical evidence and aggravated motor vehicle theft in connection with the death of James H. Sprouse, 77, in June 2016.

Robinson’s fate is being decided by a jury panel of eight women and six men.

Sprouse’s remains were found in April 2017 sealed in an old freezer in the office of small store he once operated in downtown Romeo. He and Robinson lived in an adjacent apartment when Sprouse disappeared and his vehicle was driven to California sometime between June 3 and 12, 2016.

Prosecution witnesses went first, questioned by the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s staff and then answered questions by defense attorneys from the State Public Defender’s Office

Bruce Moore, a district attorney’s investigator from San Diego, Calif., said he picked up and interviewed Robinson at the request of Colorado authorities and received a basic packet detailing what they knew of the crime before questioning him.

Each member of the jury received a transcript of the subsequent interview, then listened to a recording that was not made under the best conditions.

Essentially Robinson detailed a troubled childhood in California and his own descent into drug abuse. Knowing he had problems, he told Moore he didn’t seek help. His usage dropped and he moved to Colorado.

During the interview, Robinson claimed drug use had clouded his specific memory of things -- that and a head injury suffered in San Diego.

Moore said he told Robinson his grandfather was dead and under what circumstances, then the young man replied, “That’s not possible.” Later, he allegedly described the death as “an unnecessary thing that needed to happen.” Moore said he didn’t include that comment in his official report, though it is on the transcript.

He said Robinson showed no emotion when asked if he felt bad about his grandfather’s death.

Toward the end of the day, Officer Colin Goberinski detailed finding Robinson in a park restroom in San Diego and giving him a warning.

The final California officer to testify was Heidi Hebert, a crime scene specialist assigned to vehicle processing who went through a red four-door Ford Explorer that had been located on a city street and was suspected of being connected to a crime in Colorado.

The rear license plate was on the vehicle she said. Ordered to go through the vehicle, she found ATM withdrawal tapes, fast food receipts and Robinson’s birth certificate, which was sealed in an envelope and lying on the front doormat. There was also a California vehicle entry inspection certificate dated June 14-15.

Under defense questioning, she said a parking coupon found in the vehicle was dated June 16.

Sprouse’s family and friends taking the stand began with Adam Ziel, husband of Sprouse’s daughter, Ann.

A resident of Chula Vista, Calif., he said he sometimes answered the phone when Sprouse called and, in late May 2016, Sprouse allegedly said he was afraid of Robinson and wanted him to leave.

“I didn’t talk to anyone about it and I don’t know why,” he said.

Sprouse had been missing 10 months when he and Ann traveled to Colorado to help with the search.

Ann Ziel-Sprouse testified James Sprouse moved to Romeo, Colo. from California in the early 2000’s and ran Romeo’s Little Market until closing it in 2006 and then working on washers and dryers, work he had performed in California.

She testified she and her father were close and she considered him her best friend.

Ziel-Sprouse said her father went to visit her several times over the years and had a stroke while visiting her the last time, but went back home. Once there, she said he had problems living alone. “There was trash around the house and bugs in the fridge.”

In May 2016, she often didn’t take his calls because he would begin yelling at her. Then when he didn’t call again or answer the phone, Ziel-Sprouse feared for his welfare and called the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office, speaking with Deputy Margarita Ortega. After that, she said she talked only with her aunt and Ortega.

She said she didn’t know Robinson personally, but knew his mother and sister, who live in El Cajon, Calif.

Handed a photo of her father, she began crying openly, sobbing, “I loved my dad.”

After receiving no concrete answers from Ortega, Ziel-Sprouse said she was upset law enforcement hadn’t found her father. 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 and anywhere else his body might fit.

“I knew she (Ortega) didn’t go through the house,” she told the prosecution.

When Ziel-Sprouse called again, she talked with Ortega because she felt a thorough search hadn’t been done. Without that pressure, she suggested, “I think he’d be in there to this day.”

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 a missing person report because she wasn’t sure he was actually missing.

Neighbor Sherlene Killian testified that she had been good neighbors with Sprouse after she moved to Romeo in 2010. They watched over each other and their residences.

He would check on her and she would check on him.

After Sprouse returned from visiting his daughter in California and was diagnosed with diabetes and the after-effects of a stroke, Killian said she “kept a better eye” on him.

After Robinson moved in, she said the friendship remained the same.

She said she sometimes heard Sprouse and Robinson arguing, often loudly. Toward the end of May, she went to take some materials to Sprouse and had a conversation with Robinson. Sprouse was lying prone on mattresses on the floor next to the living room sofa, his usual sleeping place. He was nicely covered and had a beanie on his head.

“I did ask Michael if Jim was all right,” she said.

Usually, Sprouse drove his vehicle whenever the two men went away together, but Robinson was driving the last time she saw it, Killian said.

She didn’t see Sprouse after June 4, 2016 and, on June 15, she called the police to check on Sprouse and then wrote a statement on the 17th.

The jury will return at 9 a.m. today.