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.
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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 email@example.com or 578-2338.