The Act of Murder: Daniel was short of cash and desperate. His solution? The cold-blooded murder of his neighbor – with some collateral damage thrown in.
Mr. & Mrs. Monster: A deeply depraved couple snatch an innocent 12-year-old from a suburban street. What happens next is beyond shocking.
The Sins of Essie Bible: Essie was a woman on a mission. She knew what she wanted out of life. Those who stood in her way tended to come to a bad end.
Mother’s Little Helpers: Paul was a monster and Marie wanted him gone, out of her life, preferably dead. She knew just who to recruit for the job.
The Pretty Girl Murders: An incredibly savage double homicide rocks a small town. The killer’s identity isn’t hard to figure out. He lives next door.
Life Sucks: An ill-conceived kidnapping plot goes horribly wrong for the bumbling abductors, with dreadful consequences for the victim.
Hero’s End: A former Green Beret, turned paramedic, lands a high-paying, dream job with a billionaire client in Monaco. What could possibly go wrong?
Death Lives Next Door: The murders spread panic throughout the apartment complex. A serial killer was at work here. And he might just be your neighbor.
Murder Most Vile Volume 35
At first, Cindy wasn’t overly alarmed. She figured that her timing was off and that Cindy was still in the shower. But when several more calls failed to get a response, she started to worry. Eventually, she asked if she could leave work early to check on her daughter. She arrived home to an empty house.
Now Cindy really was concerned. A quick check of the mailbox told her that Jodi had been home. The mail had been cleared. Next, Cindy phoned her husband and between the two of them they started working the lines, calling all of Jodi’s friends. No one had seen her since she’d left dance practice earlier that afternoon. By 6 p.m., having exhausted all other avenues, the Sanderholms called in the police.
A short while later, a police officer arrived at the Sanderholm residence to obtain some details from the anxious family. One of the first questions he asked was whether Jodi had a boyfriend. Cindy said that she did but that the young man, David Merenger, was out of town for a few days, visiting his brother in Texas. That offered at least a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Jodi had gone on the trip with her boyfriend and failed to tell her parents. Cindy thought it unlikely but the police tracked down Merenger anyway. He swore that he hadn’t seen Jodi since leaving town the previous day. This was now an official missing persons case.
By that evening, a full-scale search was underway for the missing co-ed. It found no trace of either Jodi or her car, a black Dodge Stratus. In the meantime, investigators began questioning Jodi’s friends and classmates. Asked if they had seen anything untoward, several of the girls mentioned a creepy man who liked to hang around the college campus and often sat watching the Tigerettes practice sessions. Some of the girls knew him by name. He was 23-year-old Justin Thurber, an employee at a local sandwich shop.
Thurber was not exactly unknown to the Arkansas City police. He was a petty criminal who had been picked up on several misdemeanors. Currently, he was out on bond, having been arrested for theft. Local law enforcement regarded him as more of a nuisance than a menace. Nonetheless, an officer was dispatched to question Thurber at the home he shared with his parents. Asked where he’d been that afternoon, Thurber said that he’d been heading out of town, on a road trip with three friends. However, his car had spun off the road and become stuck in the mud. They’d had to abandon their trip and Thurber had then walked for some distance to where he could get a cellphone signal. From there, he had called his father and asked for a ride home. Thurber senior confirmed this, saying that he’d picked up his son on Highway 166, near the Cowley State Fishing Lake.
At this point, it appeared that Justin Thurber had been cleared of involvement in Jodi’s disappearance. Perhaps he was just a creep who liked to ogle pretty college girls. But Thurber’s alibi would soon begin to creak and would then collapse entirely. First, officers drove out to the spot where his vehicle had supposedly left the road. Such an incident would have left deep tire impressions on the shoulder. They found none. Then Thurber’s friends were questioned and denied being with him that afternoon. Each of the men also provided an alibi which cleared them of involvement but proved that Thurber had lied about his whereabouts. Justin Thurber had just elevated himself to the top of the suspect list.
At this point, however, there was nothing to directly link Thurber to Jodi’s disappearance. Moreover, Thurber had never been arrested for any violent offense. Seeking to learn more about their suspect, investigators started talking to some of his acquaintances. An ex-girlfriend provided them with the most troubling insight. She said that Thurber was frequently violent during sex. She also pointed out two remote areas that Thurber was fond of visiting. One was the Kaw Wildlife area, which Thurber had told her was the perfect place to hide a body. The other was the State Fishing Lake, where Thurber’s father had admitted picking him up.
Jodi Sanderholm had by now been missing for 24 hours and the search to find her had been massively expanded, with a helicopter co-opted to the effort. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) had entered the fray, offering its help; local news stations were providing wall-to-wall coverage; missing person posters were going up all over town. In the meantime, the police had obtained security footage from the parking lot at Cowley College. They soon picked up Jodi’s car, leaving the area just after midday on January 5. Trailing close behind her was a blue Cadillac, similar to the one owned by Justin Thurber. It was time to bring their suspect in for questioning.
With insufficient evidence to arrest Thurber in connection with Jodi’s disappearance, the police decided on the next best thing and had his bond in the theft case revoked. Thurber was taken into custody while driving back from a Bingo game with his mother and sister. He offered no resistance. He would, however, prove a tough nut to crack in the interrogation room, sticking doggedly to his story, even when much of it was exposed as a lie.
While the interrogation continued, a team of investigators arrived at Thurber’s home, armed with a search warrant. They were hoping for something that might provide a forensic link to Jodi Sanderholm but they would leave disappointed. Thurber had already laundered the clothes he’d worn on Friday and had hosed down his sneakers. These were bagged anyway. The sneakers, with their distinctive herringbone tread pattern, were of particular interest. They might prove useful, if and when the police found a crime scene. At this point in the investigation, they could not even say for certain that a crime had been committed.
But that was to change. Investigators had by now decided to focus their search on two locations – Cowley State Fishing Lake and the Kaw Wildlife Area, a rugged wilderness of over 400 acres. To cover this vast expanse, the police called in a couple of brothers with a unique skill set. Ron and Jon Cannon were firefighters by day but had an interesting hobby. They were elite trackers, trained in the art of following spoor. At the Wildlife Area, the brothers soon picked up two sets of tracks, two individuals walking together. One set of prints left a herringbone pattern, similar to that made by Justin Thurber’s sneakers. The other, appeared to have been made by a flip-flop. Following this trail led the searchers deeper and deeper into the brush. Eventually, they came upon a lone flip-flop, lying by the side of the trail. Jodi had been wearing just such a pair when she’d left school. From this point on, they detected only one set of tracks. Unfortunately, it was getting dark by now. They would have to call off the search and resume at first light.
The day had yielded some promising clues but still left the key questions unanswered. Where was Jodi? What had become of her? The searchers were contemplating these conundrums as they headed back into town, along a route that would take them down Highway 166, past the spot where Thurber’s father had picked him up. Here, Ron Cannon asked them to pull over. On a hunch, the tracker started scanning the ground, walking towards a concrete apron where he picked up clumps of mud, possibly left behind by someone’s shoes. Following these led him to a public restroom. In the fading light, he entered, walked into the first stall and peered into the bowl. His flashlight picked up something in there, which he fished out. It was an envelope addressed to Cindy Sanderholm. The family’s missing mail had been found.
Not wanting to disturb evidence, Cannon immediately stepped away and placed a call to the Sherriff. A short while later, officers were on the scene to conduct a thorough search. They soon found additional evidence hidden in the septic tank – the matching flip flop to the one they’d located earlier and a Cowley College windbreaker with the Tigerettes logo emblazoned across the back. Now they knew that they were on the right track. They knew also, with almost complete certainty, that Jodi Sanderholm would not be found alive.
And that, tragically, would prove to be the case. Jodi’s naked body was found the next morning, concealed beneath a pile of sticks and branches, beside a track in the Kaw Wildlife Area. An autopsy would provide the details of her horrific death. Jodi had been strangled but that told only a small part of the story. Her death had not been quick. It appeared that her killer had throttled her into unconsciousness several times, each time reviving her before choking her out again. He had also beaten her, striking her so hard that he’d ruptured major blood vessels. If that were not enough, he had sexually violated her, forcing sticks and tree branches into her vagina and anus. She had died a painful, protracted death.
What kind of a monster would inflict such harm on an innocent, young woman? The police thought they knew the answer to that and the evidence would soon mount up to support their case. Shoe impressions were lifted from the Kaw Wildlife Area and from the Sanderholm residence. These were compared to Justin Thurber’s sneakers and produced a match. Then the police called in a volunteer group called Equusearch to look for Jodi’s missing car, which they believed was hidden beneath the murky waters of the State Fishing Lake. The group uses sonar equipment for this purpose and soon had success. The Dodge Stratus was found submerged near a wooden dock. Painstaking forensic examination of the vehicle would produce a single hair, Justin Thurber’s hair, matched to him by DNA. Additional evidence came from skin cells retrieved from under Jodi’s fingernails. This too matched Thurber.
Reconstructing the crime, investigators theorized that Thurber had followed Jodi home from school and abducted her in her driveway. He’d then driven her in her own car to the Kaw Wildlife Area, where he’d forced her into the brush. At one point, Jodi had refused to go any further and Thurber had picked her up and carried her. This was the spot where the first flip flop was found. Eventually, reaching an isolated spot he had attacked the helpless young woman, spending at least a half-hour terrorizing and hurting her. He’d also tried to rape her but had been unable to do so. Instead, he’d violated her with sticks. Finally, he’d tired of his sick games and strangled her. Then he’d hidden the body, walked back to the car, and driven to State Fishing Lake. Here, he’d disposed of evidence in the restroom before pushing the car into the water. Finally, he’d walked to the road and called his father for a ride home. By the time news of Jodi’s disappearance broke the next day, he was playing Bingo with his mother and sister.
Justin Thurber went on trial for murder in February 2009. After a hearing lasting one week, the jury took just three hours to deliver its unanimous verdict – guilty. It also offered a sentencing recommendation which the judge delivered on March 20, 2009. Thurber was sentenced to death by lethal injection. He is currently an inmate at the Eldorado Correctional Facility in Butler County, Kansas, awaiting his date with the executioner.
FOOTNOTE: In the aftermath of Jodi Sanderholm’s murder, the state of Kansas passed new legislation, authorizing the police to intervene sooner in stalking cases. This legislation is known colloquially as Jodi’s Law.
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