RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The wife of a Wake Forest man charged with capital murder said she never saw her husband with a weapon, but his face told her something was seriously wrong.
Lori Botti was the first witness called by defense attorneys in the trial of Jonathan Sander. He could receive the death penalty if convicted of the March 25, 2016 killings of Sandy Mazzella, Stephanie Mazzella, and Elaine Mazzella.
Prosecutors concluded their portion of the case by playing a video recording of Sander’s interview with interrogators from a few hours after the shooting. He asked investigators to tell his wife he loved her.
Botti began her testimony by referring to Sander as the love of her life. They have been a couple for 19 years and have three children together. She remained committed and married to her husband as he spent the past three years in jail.
She recounted a long history of friendship between her family and the Mazzellas. Sander and Sandy Mazzella not only worked together but lived together at times, and they became neighbors. The friends began to feud over money, and in March of 2016, the Mazzellas accused Sander of having inappropriately touched an underage female family member.
“Sandy was in his garage screaming ‘Chester the Molester, Chester the Molester,’ and cackling,” Botti said, and then made mocking laughter sounds.
“He said ‘you’re going down, you’re going down, and it was just non-stop.”
Botti and Sander left their home to stay at a motel for a few days. She said they began to make visits to some of their landscaping clients to inform the customers that Sander and Mazzella were no longer working together. Sander was in the process of building a case to file a civil lawsuit against Mazzella.
After meeting with some of the clients on March 25, 2016, Botti said she dropped off her husband at a restaurant while she ran some errands. He called her in need of a ride after consuming six pints of beer.
“He was in rough shape,” Botti said. “In the car ride home, we got into another argument, and I told him I was going to go back to Pennsylvania.”
She said Sander grabbed her by the back of the head and she responded with a slap to his face. Her hand broke his sunglasses and cut his eyebrow.
Botti said they were both overwhelmed by the tension with the neighbors. Several witnesses said the Mazzellas blasted on repeat the 1982 funk song You Dropped a Bomb on Me by The Gap Band, and both families called the police on each other at times.
When they got home, Botti told him to take a nap while she began to make dinner. She wanted him to rest from stress caused by the worry of a possible arrest for the molestation accusations.
“He was more upset than mad. His emotions were going crazy. He was mad, he was angry, he was scared, he was panicking. He thought they were ruining our lives. He said something along the lines. He said I can’t go to jail for being a pedophile,” Botti said.
“I decided to put on some music, have a beer, go on the porch, and cut garlic. I wanted to make him his favorite meal,” she said.
“I went back inside to get something and he was in the laundry room. He said ‘I need you, I’m reaching out, I need you.’ I told him I needed space and I said ‘go to bed, and I will wake you up when dinner is done.'”
Botti said she later heard a loud bang and thought their children made the noise. She then saw Sandy Mazzella’s cousin run near their yard, and she locked the door due to fear that the man might harm her.
“I ran inside and did not hear anything else,” Botti said.
A few moments later her husband returned home.
“My daughter let him in the back door, and he said Lori I need to talk,” Botti said.
“I didn’t see anything in his arms and I couldn’t tell you whether or not he had a shirt on or not. I do not remember seeing a gun,” she said.
“I just looked at his face and he did not look like my husband. I don’t know how to describe it when you’re with somebody for so long and… it just did not look like him.”
The defense ended its questioning of Botti after she described the moments before police arrived to arrest Sander for the murders of three of her neighbors:
He said ‘Lori, I love you, I need to talk to you.’ He said ‘I love you and the kids more than anything in the world,’ and he wanted to go upstairs and talk. At that point I heard sirens outside. I said ‘Oh my God, now what?’ I opened the front door, and it looked like there were a lot of officers out there and they had their guns drawn. I grabbed the kids and listened and did whatever they wanted us to do.
During cross examination, prosecutors asked Botti if she was aware that eight different people called 911 to report hearing gunfire in the neighborhood. She testified that she only heard one loud bang, and did not know it was a gunshot.