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McGeough trial draws to a close; question of murder or suicide put before jury

From the Calaveras Enterprise:

The trial of Sean McGeough for first degree murder is running ahead of schedule, as both the prosecution and the defense rested their cases by Nov. 15.

During the past five days of proceedings at the Calaveras County Superior Court, a jury of 12 was asked to discern whether McGeough, 56, strangled his 54-year-old sister, Stephanie McGeough, while staying at her San Andreas apartment in 2016, or if she killed herself.

The prosecution utilized 10 witnesses, crime scene photos, surveillance footage from an ATM, and Stephanie McGeough’s journal entries and medical records to paint a picture of a woman who was emerging from mental illness and preparing to start a new life in a desert climate.

Thus far, the defendant has not taken the stand.

Through Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Brad Jones’ examination of witnesses, a timeline was established in which a jobless Sean McGeough was allegedly kicked out of his ex-girlfriend’s San Diego-area house in June of 2016 and was picked up by his mother, Barbara Hale, at a Sacramento train station, with the promise of some money and a place to stay.

However, Hale testified that she was spooked by her son’s “cold” and “scary” demeanor during the car ride to her Tuolumne County home, and that she dropped him off at the Jumping Frog Motel in Angels Camp after paying for a two-night stay and some groceries.

“I told him I’d come back in two days, knowing I would not come back,” said Hale, who stated that she lost her previous home in the Butte Fire, and that she did not want McGeough to know where she lived. “I was afraid of him.”

Two days later, Hale said she received a call from McGeough at the Angels Camp Starbucks, and she told staff not to let her son use their phone again.

She also received a call from McGeough’s ex-girlfriend, Shelley Collins, asking for her home address, which Hale refused to provide, she said.

In her testimony, Collins stated that McGeough had asked her to call his mother and obtain her home address.

Collins said that McGeough had called her on Aug. 31, 2016 to inform her that he was staying with his sister, that the two were getting along well and she was letting him use her car.

A few days later on Sept. 5, he called again and stated that “he was gonna kill himself and take his mom and his sister with him," she said.

Hale said she did not know how the defendant learned of Stephanie McGeough’s address and came to stay with her.

However, both the defense and the prosecution have confirmed that Sean McGeough was staying at his sister’s apartment before and after her death, which is estimated by forensic entomologist Dr. Robert Kimsey to have occurred between 19 and 34 days prior to her body’s discovery on Sept. 21, 2016.

The last time Hale saw Stephanie McGeough was approximately one year prior to her death, according to Hale.

The 78-year-old mother of four said she worried about her daughter, who was unemployed and on medications for depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and crippling arthritis pain, some of which made her psychotic.

“She was in terrible, terrible condition, physically and mentally,” Hale said. “She thought she was Shirley Temple.”

Despite her ailments, Hale said her daughter was always an “immaculate housekeeper” and had gotten annoyed by Sean McGeough’s “terribly messy” habits when he came to visit her on previous occasions.

Photos presumed to be taken by Stephanie McGeough while her brother was staying with her at her previous home in Colorado were brought forward as evidence by Hale. The photos, which she estimated were taken 15 to 20 years ago, showed the defendant eating and drinking beer and had what Hale identified to be her daughter’s handwriting on the back.

One photo read, “I’m starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable” and described Sean McGeough growing “more [expletive]” as he drank.

When asked if she had ever felt afraid of her daughter, Hale replied that she had, on one occasion, due to her perceived level of psychosis.

However, Hale testified that “it had been a history” with the defendant–that she had been afraid of him on previous occasions and that she would still feel afraid if they were alone in a room together.

Another ex-girlfriend of McGeough, Yolanda Borders, testified that he had attempted to choke her with his hands sometime in 2012 and had been arrested in their motel room, though she said she suffered from memory problems and could not remember the details surrounding those incidents.

The scene

A former deputy with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) testified that it looked like Unit 20 at Creekside Apartments in San Andreas had been “ransacked” and was littered with trash when he made entry through an open rear window.

The deputy responded to the scene on Sept. 21, 2016 after landlord Kathy Ames reported a foul smell coming from the apartment and her concern that Stephanie McGeough’s Chevrolet Tahoe had been gone for approximately two weeks, Ames said.

Photos of the scene taken by investigators show a badly decomposed body on the living room floor, covered with laundry and gallons of Arizona Iced Tea that former CCSO investigations unit superior Lt. Rachelle Whiting believed were once frozen, according to her testimony, along with other typically frozen items and a plastic bag that appeared to once hold ice.

On the bottom layers of clothing, there were large stains that resembled bleach, Whiting said.

Beside the body, on the TV table, were two “burnt down” candles and three air freshener units, as well as a number of cleaning products, Whiting pointed out in the scene photos.

A number of fans were pointed toward the body, and the thermostat was set to 60 degrees, photos showed.

A Pacific Gas & Electric energy theft investigator, Brian Graddy, testified that his records showed a significant spike in energy usage at the apartment, which likely indicated an air conditioning unit, beginning on Aug. 31, 2016 and ending on Sept. 22, 2016.

A checkbook found at the scene showed a final rent payment and a purchase of pizza for "me and Sean" on Aug. 31, 2016, according to Whiting. There were no subsequent entries.

Stephanie McGeough was reportedly last seen alive by her landlord approximately two weeks prior to the discovery of the body.

Ames said she received notice from McGeough requesting her security deposit and stating her intent to move out on Sept. 30, 2016 and relocate to a warmer climate for her arthritis.

McGeough had lived in the unit for roughly two years and had always been cleanly, Ames said.

The cause of death in McGeough’s case was determined to be asphyxiation due to a nylon strap wrapped three times around the neck with a partial knot and a plastic bag over the head, though Chief Forensic Pathologist Dr. Jason Tovar with the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office could not determine if the manner of death was suicide or homicide.

No other injuries or signs of struggle were detected on the body, though Tovar said the alleged victim’s liver alcohol level of .37 could have rendered her incapacitated.

On the run

The prosecution presented surveillance footage of a man resembling Sean McGeough approaching the Umpqua Bank ATM in San Andreas with a magazine held in front of his face on Sept. 6, 2016.

He then performed a transaction that coincided with a withdrawal of $200 from Stephanie McGeough’s bank account, according to Whiting.

A second withdrawal was made with the alleged victim’s card days later on Sept. 13 in Herlong, Calif., Whiting said.

Two-time felon Christopher Jacobs testified that he was evading police in Sparks, Nev. when he met McGeough in mid-September of 2016.

“He said he was up in the hills trying to end his life with exhaust–carbon monoxide, and he got hungry,” Jacobs said.

The defendant moved in with Jacobs and his girlfriend for roughly three days and drove them around in a Chevrolet Tahoe, according to Jacobs.

Their brief relationship came to a head when McGeough told Jacobs that the car was stolen from his sister, Jacobs said.

“I urged him to call his mom or sister, but he kept rocking back and forth and said he couldn’t do it,” he said.

McGeough also called his sister some “derogatory names,” according to Jacobs, including an “evil, fat [expletive].”

Jacobs said he kicked McGeough out of his apartment and grew nervous when the defendant left the Chevrolet Tahoe at the complex. Jacobs was arrested for being at-large weeks later when authorities tracked down the vehicle, according to investigators.

McGeough was later apprehended and arraigned in Calaveras County in July of 2017.

Upon searching the Chevrolet Tahoe, CCSO Cpl. Deayrian Sanchez testified that she found a dryer vent hose with an aluminum foil-type material attached at both ends, matching additional foil on the exhaust tailpipe.

The defense

One witness was called by the defense, Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and expert consultant.

Melinek said that she had requested all evidence pertaining to the case for review, though some photos and a journal may have been omitted by the Public Defenders with Richard A. Ciummo & Associates

Based on the evidence she received, including police and coroner reports, a five-year-old journal, and photos of the scene and the autopsy, Melinek concluded that the manner of Stephanie McGeough’s death was likely suicide.

Melinek pointed to the method of strangulation, the absence of signs of a struggle and documented suicidal ideation by McGeough as strong indicators of suicide.

In a diary entry dated 2013, McGeough chronicled her depression and an attempt to kill herself by hanging. In 2014, she wrote of her wishes to die and her delusions, including her belief that she was Shirley Temple.

Melinek said she was not privy to McGeough’s most recent journal from 2016, which she filled with “to do” lists.

Still, Melinek said that suicidal people often make plans for the future. She also considered McGeough’s sparse calendar for October of 2016 with an entry that read “homeless” as indicators that the alleged victim was still suffering from depression.

Additionally, Melinek testified that medical records showing McGeough had gone off her medications approximately one year prior were of concern to her.

When asked by Deputy District Attorney Dana Pfeil if a person suffering from mental illness could recover, particularly if they told a physician that they “felt better” after almost a year without medication as McGeough allegedly had, Melinek replied that it was “possible, but unlikely” given McGeough’s diagnoses.

She also testified that McGeough’s blood alcohol level was likely much lower than liver tests showed at the time of her death, as decomposition can increase alcohol levels in the deceased.

Due to McGeough’s heavy weight, she may have been at a “low level” of intoxication at the time of her death, Melinek said.

Alcohol is also known to exacerbate mental conditions including depression, according to Melinek.

Regarding the apparent attempt to cover up the scene after McGeough’s death, Melinek said:

“It’s not unusual to find this kind of stuff in situations where people are embarrassed or upset and wanting to delay the discovery of the body. … It’s not unusual for people to assume that just because something has been done to hide the body that something criminal has occurred.”

She added that fear of the police could also cause a person to react in such a way.

The trial will continue on Nov. 18, at which time the prosecution may deliver a rebuttal.

The defendant faces a felony charge of first-degree murder. If found guilty, he may be sentenced to 15 or 25 years to life in prison.


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