RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Loved ones present and past defended a recently convicted killer Tuesday as Wake County prosecutors seek the death penalty.
The capital murder trial of Jon Sander entered the sentencing phase Tuesday, which was the trial’s 12th day. Jurors convicted the 55-year-old landscaper Monday afternoon of three counts of first-degree murder for the March 2016 shooting deaths of Sandy, Stephanie, and Elaine Mazzella.
Prosecutors declined to make opening statements Tuesday before calling three witnesses to testify. Jurors heard 911 calls made by Sandy Mazzella in the weeks before the shooting and from his daughter moments after their neighbor, Sander, blasted his way through a door and shot three members of the family.
“You need to come here right now or we’re gonna die,” the girl told a 911 dispatcher.
Mazzella and his father, Sal, made multiple attempts to obtain protective orders against Sander, who lived next door. Mazzella and Sander were friends and business partners, but the relationship went south in late 2015.
“I don’t have proper protection. Something’s not right here. My life’s in jeopardy,” Mazzella told a dispatcher in February 2016.
“He has guns in that house that he’s not allowed to have. They’re not registered to him or they’re not registered at all. This whole thing’s being ignored and it’s a volatile situation. I’ve told you over and over, I’m trying to do what I can and it’s like I have no protection here,” he said.
“When one of us are dead, then the sheriff’s department will be responsible.”
Mazzella’s fears were confirmed on March 25, 2016.
One day earlier, investigators questioned one of Mazzella’s teenage family members about an encounter she had with Sander in December. The Mazzellas contacted law enforcement that week to file a complaint of child molestation.
The girl told a specially-trained interviewer on March 24 that she watched a Christmas movie with Sander at his home.
“She described that her and the defendant sat on the couch — that they oftentimes sat with their legs sort of intertwined — that they were under a blanket. She described the activity as cuddling,” a Wake County sheriff’s investigator said.
“She went on to further say that during the course of the movie, he placed his arm around her, and with his other hand he first touched her lower back, he then touched her belly area, and then eventually moved his hand under her waistband on top of her underwear, down toward her private area.”
Sander told deputies on March 25, a few hours after the shootings, that he did not want to go to jail for child molestation, so he decided to kill Sandy Mazzella for the accusations.
Defense attorneys painted a picture of paranoia. Joe Sander testified his older brother built safe rooms every time he moved into a new home or office, though prosecutors said there was not a safe room at the house in Wake Forest.
“He would draw up designs and plans of how to make houses that were bulletproof, and how to make rooms you could go in but nobody would know you were there. Hidden walls.
Bookcases that you could enter and nobody would know you were in there,” Joe Sander said.
“He’s been paranoid most of his life.”
Jon Sander and his first wife, Tracy Caggiano, saw each other Tuesday for the first time in more than a decade. Caggiano said she ended their relationship so that he could have a family, which she couldn’t provide. Caggiano had two miscarriages during the 1990s.
She took the stand in defense of a man she still loves and told the jury Sander’s life has value. She wants his children to still be able to see him.
“Jon is not the man that you guys all seem to think he is. For Jon to have done anything like this, to me, he had to have been pushed to some limit,” Caggiano said. “This is not Jon. This just not Jon.”
Joe Sander said he hung up the phone when his brother called and claimed he had killed three people. He told jurors he then realized that would be something strange to joke about, so he called Jon Sander several times before his brother answered.
“That was probably the hardest conversation I ever had in my entire life. I didn’t expect it,” Joe Sander said.
“As Jon was talking to me, he was rambling and I couldn’t make out a lot of what he was saying. Then a police officer would ask him something and he would be like ‘yes officer sir,’ like a totally different person than was on the phone with me.”
Joe’s cell phone recorded the calls with his brother, because of an app he had installed on the device after his own history with Sandy Mazzella. Joe worked with Mazzella before Jon did, and told his brother that if Jon went into business with Mazzella, they would no longer have anything to do with each other.
Joe said he has not talked to his older brother in more than a year. In the three years since the shootings, Joe said he realized Jon’s entire life has been about image.
He said Jon always had to have an outward appearance of perfection and wealth. His brother had a gambling addiction, but even when he was low on cash he would drive around in nice cars. Joe said Jon might not have had money to eat but he would live in a huge house.
“The idea of Jon being crazy, well, some people pretend to be crazy for certain reasons. I always believed that Jon pretended to be normal, because if he had a defect, then he wasn’t perfect. He always wanted everybody to view him as being perfect,” Joe Sander said.
“I viewed him as perfect for most of my life.”
A forensic psychologist testified that she diagnosed Jon Sander as having narcissistic tendencies. Dr. Cindy Cottle conducted an extensive assessment of Sander which included hours-long interviews on five occasions.
Cottle said Sander was a man who was not coping well and who was mentally ill at the time of the shootings, but that he could not have been found not guilty for reason of insanity. Defense attorneys said that although they did not call anyone to testify about Sander’s mental health during the guilt phase of the trial, they can present information about his sanity as a factor in the sentencing phase.
Cottle said a series of tests determined that Sander did not fake symptoms.
“At the time and preceding the offense, Mr. Sander met diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder, also alcohol use disorder, and mixed-personality disorder with borderline and narcissistic features, so, therefore, I felt that he was under the influence of a mental disturbance. I also felt he was under the influence of emotional distress from his circumstances at the time,” Cottle said.
“It was my opinion that while he had a mental health condition, it didn’t impair his ability to the extent of impairing his capacity to understand or appreciate the wrongfulness as you might see in a mental state or an affirmative defense of insanity or things like that,” she said.
“His mental health functioning at the time, both as a result of his mental health conditions and as a result of alcohol and emotional distress, affected his capacity to conform his behavior or to control his behavior at the time.”
Cottle said he responds to things he perceived as taunting him, which included literal taunting from the Mazzellas. Sander’s domestic partner, Lori Botti, testified Sandy Mazzella heckled Sander with chants of “Chester the Molester” with regard to the accusations of inappropriate touching.
The psychologist said Sander also experienced a series of psychotic symptoms.
“He had a very well documented history of, at a minimum, perceiving events inaccurately,” Cottle said.
She said Sander contributed to his impaired mental health functioning by drinking heavily — including the consumption of six pints of beer shortly before the shooting — and taking medication which had not been prescribed. Cottle said Sander also failed to take medication he needed.
A forensic psychiatrist will testify on the defense’s behalf Wednesday. Sander’s domestic partner will also take the stand, and part of her testimony will include the reading of notes written by their children. The jury will see a video interview with Sander’s father as well.
Sander told a judge Tuesday that he does not plan to testify.