Long-delayed Turlock murder case laid to rest when killer pleads

Convicted killer enters plea in 1986 slaying at Turlock church

January 17, 2008 


    • Jan. 11, 1983 -- Arthur Sanchez, 19, is arrested in connection with the December 1982 rape of a 29-year-old Modesto woman. He is in custody in Stanislaus County jail, on suspicion of robbery, when the authorities file charges.
    • 1984 -- After a conviction for armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a controlled substance, Sanchez is released early in 1984, serving less than a year in prison.
    • Aug. 11, 1986 -- Mary Martha Odermatt, 65, is found behind Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Turlock. She had been raped and stabbed in the throat, her partially clothed body covered in blood.
    • Aug. 31, 1986 -- Angela Turnbough, 16, of Keyes is found stabbed to death in her home. Her partially clothed body was found on the floor of her bedroom, with a knife through her throat.
    • Oct. 6, 1986 -- A 25-year-old woman is beaten, raped and stabbed in the neck and back at an apartment on Scenic Drive in Modesto. She breaks free and staggers outside, collapsing on a sidewalk. Twelve hours later, police arrest Sanchez in connection with the attack.
    • Oct. 8, 1986 -- Sanchez is charged with Turnbough's murder.
    • Oct. 17, 1986 -- Turlock police investigate similarities in the Turnbough and Odermatt cases, but say inconclusive lab results and the absence of other evidence make it impossible to charge Sanchez in Odermatt's murder.
    • December 1986 -- Sanchez is charged with a 1982 rape involving a woman who was attacked near the county library in Modesto. The woman, who was carrying her 17-month-old daughter, had car trouble and was looking for a phone to call for help. She identified Sanchez in a photo lineup.
    • April 1987 -- Sanchez is ordered to stand trial on murder, attempted murder and three rape charges.
    • May 1988 -- Sanchez pleads guilty to the murder and rape of Turnbough, as well as the attempted murder in the apartment on Scenic Drive and the rape near the library.
    • June 1988 -- Sanchez is sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
    • Oct. 25, 2000 -- The California Department of Corrections collects a DNA sample from Sanchez. Violent felons have been required to give DNA samples, which are maintained in a statewide database, since 1998.
    • Jan. 22, 2002 -- After attending a seminar on cold cases, Turlock police Detective Joe Esquivel submits Odermatt's rape kit to the state Department of Justice crime lab in Ripon. The kit is forwarded to a lab in Berkeley and tested against samples from the state's felons.
    • Sept. 20, 2002 -- The Berkeley lab notifies law enforcement that Sanchez is a match.
    • Nov. 1, 2002 -- Esquivel collects a DNA sample from Sanchez at Folsom State Prison. The match to Sanchez is confirmed.
    • Aug. 25, 2004 -- After Sanchez had been behind bars for 16 years, District Attorney Jim Brazelton charges him with Odermatt's murder.
    • Jan. 19, 2005 -- A grand jury says Sanchez must stand trial in Odermatt's murder. He faces a special circumstance, murder during the commission of a rape, that could lead to the death penalty.
    • Jan. 16, 2008 -- Sanchez pleads no contest to rape and murder in Odermatt's case after the district attorney's office takes the death penalty off the table. He is expected to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole when he returns to court March 28.

For two decades, Arthur Sanchez was the prime suspect in a brutal attack on a woman who was stabbed to death in the courtyard of Turlock's Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

On Wednesday, the man who is serving a life sentence for several other heinous crimes closed the 1986 case when he pleaded no contest to the rape and murder of 65-year-old Mary Martha Odermatt.

A prosecutor dropped the possibility of a death sentence that had been hanging over Sanchez's head since the District Attorney Jim Brazelton filed charges 3½ years ago. Brazelton died in September.

Odermatt's daughter, Agnes Green of Turlock, said she felt a sense of closure as she watched Sanchez enter his plea in Stanislaus County Superior Court, even though prosecutors settled for a sentence equal to one the 44-year-old man already is serving -- life in prison without parole.

Green said her mother would not want an eye for an eye, because she lived a simple life and believed that anyone, even a serial rapist and killer like Sanchez, could be redeemed.

"Her whole life was about serving the Lord, forgiving always," Green said. "She never carried any anger or harbored any animosity toward anyone."

Odermatt, 65, was a cook at Sacred Heart School and arrived at church early each day to prepare the altar for Mass. Her partially clothed body was found at 7:45 a.m. Aug. 11, 1986, covered in blood. She had been raped, her throat was slashed and a rag had been stuffed in her mouth.

Sanchez, a high school dropout who was married and had two children, was a laborer at Valley Fresh in Turlock. He walked to work, and the church was on his route.

Police arrested Sanchez in connection with several other attacks on women, including a teenager from Keyes who was raped and murdered much as Odermatt was, but they did not have enough physical evidence to charge Sanchez with Odermatt's murder.

In 1988, Sanchez pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of 16-year-old Angela Turnbough and the violent rape of two women who survived. The district attorney's office dropped the death penalty in exchange for his plea.

Odermatt's murder shocked the conscience of the commu-nity, so it remained on the minds of law enforcement officials such as Turlock police Detective Joe Esquivel, who resubmitted the widow's rape kit to the state crime lab after attending a seminar on cold cases.

Two DNA tests in fall 2002 -- an analysis that was not possible in the mid-1980s -- tied Sanchez to Odermatt's murder.

More than 5,000 cases have been solved through DNA matches, with more than 200 hits per month in 2007, according the the state attorney general's office. The state established a DNA databank for sex offenders in 1990, and violent offenders have been required to submit DNA since 1998.

Brazelton filed charges against Sanchez in August 2004 and announced he would seek the death penalty and handle the case himself, rather than delegate it to one of his deputies.

A prosecutor who took over the case when Brazelton retired in July 2005 said a trial would have revolved around the death penalty, with the defense arguing that Sanchez is rehabili- tated, because he worked with prison administrators and led a prayer group for American In- dian inmates.

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan said Wednesday his chances of getting a jury to impose the ultimate sentence two decades later, despite the heinous nature of the crime, were not strong enough to justify the emotional strain a trial would have placed on Odermatt's fam-ily.

Despite the turn of events, he said charging Sanchez was not a waste of time.

"We're holding him accountable for what he did," Brennan said.

Sanchez did not admit guilt, but his no-contest plea has the same legal consequences as a guilty plea.

Judge Ricardo Córdova said he will sentence Sanchez on March 28.

Defense attorney Martha Carlton-Magaña said the case was a waste of the court's time and taxpayer money, because the best result the district attorney's office could have gotten would have been a death sentence followed by decades of appeals.

Judges have sentenced 672 people to death since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978, but only 13 offenders have been executed, according to the California Department of Corrections.

Carlton-Magaña said Sanchez is an accomplished artist and jewelry maker who believes he belongs in prison, although he has no memory of his crimes. Had the case gone to trial, she said, a guard and a chaplain from Folsom State Prison would have told the jury that Sanchez was a model prisoner and a changed man.

The defense attorney said Sanchez's case taught her about redemption.

"We talk about it all the time," Carlton-Magaña said. "But with Art, it's the first time I've had an opportunity to see it."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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