Killer sentenced to 2nd life term in '86 Turlock murder

Arthur Sanchez
Arthur Sanchez Stanislaus County Sheriff

A convicted murderer who was the prime suspect when an elderly woman was raped and had her throat cut behind Turlock's Sacred Heart Catholic Church more than 20 years ago was sentenced to a second term of life in prison without the possibility of parole Friday.

There was little fanfare as Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova pronounced judgment, and the outcome of the case won't change much for 44-year-old Arthur Sanchez, who has spent the past two decades behind bars.

But the resolution may bring some closure to the daughters of Mary Martha Odermatt, whose partially clothed body was found at 7:35 a.m., Aug. 11, 1986, covered in blood. A plea deal eliminates the possibility of a death sentence, something the devout Catholic opposed. Sanchez pleaded no contest to the rape and murder of Odermatt in January.

"She would want her attacker, Arthur Sanchez, to be repentant and remorseful, so she could meet him in heaven," daughter Agnes Green of Turlock said in a letter to the court, which a prosecutor read aloud during a short sentencing hearing. "May he make amends so justice can be served."

Odermatt, 65, was a cook at Sacred Heart School and arrived at church early each day to prepare the altar for Mass. When the authorities found her body, her throat had been slashed and a rag was stuffed in her mouth.

Sanchez, who lived nearby and walked to work at the Valley Fresh restaurant in Turlock, was an immediate suspect. Months later, he was arrested and tied to violent attacks on three others:

The Aug. 31, 1986, stabbing death of 16-year-old Angela Turnbough of Keyes. Her partially clothed body was found on the floor of her bedroom, with a knife through her throat.

The Oct. 6, 1986, rape and stabbing of a 25-year-old woman who was attacked at her apartment on Scenic Drive in Modesto. She broke free and staggered outside, collapsing on a sidewalk.

The 1982 rape of a woman who was attacked near the county library in Modesto. She had been carrying her 17-month-old daughter, had car trouble and was looking for a phone to call for help.

The district attorney's office dropped the death penalty in 1988, when Sanchez pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder and rape. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The police said inconclusive lab results made it impossible to charge Sanchez with Odermatt's murder.

Two DNA tests in fall 2002 -- an analysis that was not possible in the mid-1980s -- tied Sanchez to Odermatt's murder. According to court records, a detective resubmitted evidence after he took a class on solving cold cases.

Nearly two years later, then-District Attorney Jim Brazelton charged Sanchez with Odermatt's murder, announcing he would handle the case and seek the death penalty. Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan took over after Brazelton retired in July 2005.

In January, Brennan dropped the death penalty in return for Sanchez's no contest plea. He said the chances of persuading a jury to hand down a death sentence two decades later was not strong enough to justify the emotional strain the case would have placed on Odermatt's family.

Defense attorney Martha Carlton-Magaña said a plea deal is the appropriate outcome, because Sanchez is a changed man and does not deserve to be executed. Although Sanchez now is legally blind, he is known for sophisticated drawings done on paper with a 3-inch pencil, which is all that he is allowed because of security regulations. For the past several years, his work has been included in Penumbra, an annual art and literary journal published by California State University, Stanislaus.

Dennis Merino, a chaplain who worked with Sanchez at Folsom State Prison, said he volunteered to serve as a character witness when Sanchez was charged with Odermatt's murder, because Sanchez is a quiet man who is at peace with himself and has come to terms with an abusive childhood.

Merino, of Pollock Pines, said Sanchez, also known as "Running Horse," was his clerk for several years, helping with prayer services for American Indian inmates.

Sanchez doesn't remember his crimes, the chaplain said, but he acknowledges his guilt and knows he must spend the rest of his life in prison.

"The man today does not deserve to be executed," Merino said.

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

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