Letters from a convicted killer’s kids brought family members – and the killer – to tears on Thursday in a Wake County courtroom.
Jonathan Sander murdered his former business partner and neighbor, Sandy Mazzella, as well as Mazzella’s wife, Stephanie, and his mother, Elaine.
Jurors began hearing from Sander’s common-law wife, Lori Botti, at 11 a.m. She read notes to Sander from their three children, who have only seen him a few times since the March 25, 2016, shootings.
Johnny Sander wrote:
Dad I love you so much and I miss you. I remember when we used to do everything together. I miss being your best friend. Some of the things I miss about you is hanging out with you, going to work with you, and going shopping with you. The family and cats miss you. I hope you get out of jail soon. Love, your best friend.
Samantha Sander’s letter said:
Hey dad it’s Samantha and I miss you every day. Remember that time we snuck out and got donuts for everyone? That was fun. I wish we could do that again. I miss watching movies with you and Mom. I really hope you can come home someday because I can’t be happy without you here. If you were to come home, I think it would be amazing if we moved back to PA, because we have no family down here and the pollen sucks. The cats miss you too and don’t worry the cats aren’t scratching the furniture. I miss and I love you, Samantha.
Michael Sander wrote:
Hey Dad, I really really love you, I also miss you. I miss you every day. I remember when we used to buy Hot Wheels and watch Spongebob. If you were never to come back, I will be so sad. I will cry every day. But If you did come back, we will do what we did back then. I really miss the daddy lounge chair. I loved the daddy lounge chair so much. I remember Dad picking me up in his Corvette. He also is very playful. Me and my dad bought Hot Wheels sets and cars to play with them.Dad is awesome, loving, caring, playful person. I hope he gets out of jail soon. Love, Mike
A bailiff retrieved some tissues for Sander, who struggled to wipe his face as his hands cuffed with a padlock and shackles around his waist restrict him from raising his arms. An outburst at the beginning of the trial and threats made against his attorneys led Judge Graham Shirley to threaten to put a muzzle on Sander, who has had additional verbal exchanges with witnesses and the judge.
Prosecutors played a recording of a 15-minute call between Sander and his wife from after the first day of the trial.
“You’re acting nuts. What’s wrong? You’re in court, screaming and yelling things. What’s going on with that,” Botti asked at the beginning of the call.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” Sander said.
“When Sal was there yesterday, why were you cursing at the judge? Why were you cursing at the district attorney,” Botti asked.
“Lori, I was framed. Lori, I’m getting out of this.”
“If you keep acting this way, you’re not getting out of this (expletive), Botti told her husband.
Sander spent most of his Wake County Detention Center phone call accusing his attorneys and his family of conspiring against him. He tried to tell Botti and their youngest son what they needed to say during testimony. Sander accused his wife of lying because she wanted to get paid by his attorney, whom Botti referred to as the best defense attorney in the state.
Botti again brought up Sander’s opening day outburst, when he began shouting at Sal Mazzella, the husband of murder victim Elaine and father of murder victim Sandy. Deputies removed Sander from the courtroom as he began to shout at Judge Shirley.
“You’re acting like an (expletive) (expletive). You were screaming in court. You were cursing at the judge,” Botti said on the recording.
She was in the courtroom and reacted with a look of befuddlement (see above photo) when that sentence of the March 25, 2019 recording played over the speakers.
“It’s only just begun. It’s only just begun” Sander replied.
She turned the conversation to his possible punishment.
“Then let them put you in the chair with a (expletive) gag on,” Botti said.
“I told them put me in the [expletive] chair. They can’t do [expletive]. I love this. They can’t do [expletive],” he said.
“They’re gonna put a needle, if you’ve actually won, they’re gonna stick a needle in your arm. I hope you’re happy. No, shut up. You’ve not only ruined my life, but you’ve also ruined your children’s lives. They’ve been miserable for three years and now you do this [expletive],” she said.
“Y’all want me to sign a piece of paper that says I murdered them (the Mazellas).”
“Because you did,” Botti shouted over the phone.
“You know what, [expletive] you Lori,” Sander responded.
Prosecutors said the phone call proves that Sander is not the loving husband and father which his attorneys present him to be. A second phone call involved Sander demanding his wife put more money in his detention center account, and he again attempted to conspire with his wife about what she and his children should tell investigators.
Sander ended the phone call by demanding his wife tell their children he loves them.
The state closed its case with two videos. The first came from Sander’s cell phone and shows his daughter, then 11 years old, on screen. Sander coaches Samantha into saying her mother his him.
The girl asks Sander multiple times to not record her, and he orders her again and again to affirm his questions about violence. He tells her that daddy is the one who buys her things, and that mommy hits him when she consumes alcohol. He ends the recording after she says ‘no’ to his question of if he hits her mother.
Sander mouthed several sentences to his wife during a break at 11:30 a.m. CBS 17 was unable to decipher what he said but he glared while making the stern statements.
The defense called three witnesses Thursday in addition to Botti.
Walter Sander, who adopted Jon when he was four years old, was not healthy enought to appear in court, so he made comments through a recorded video. Walter Sander said he had not seen his son since 2008, but spoke with Jon two days before the shootings.
“Jonathan called me, and he sounded very agitated and very upset. He said Dad, ‘if anything happens to me, I want you to take care of my children and my family. I want you to bring my family up there (to Pennsylvania) and look after them,” Walter Sander said.
“(Jonathan) said ‘I’m in trouble’, and I tried to get him to explain on the phone but he wouldn’t tell me. He said ‘all I want to know is if anything happens, I can depend on you to take care of my family,'” he said
“He also said ‘Joseph warned me and I didn’t listen.’ I asked what are you talking about, and he said ‘Joey told me and I should have listened to him.'”
Joseph Sander, Jon’s younger brother who Walter also adopted, worked with Sandy Mazzella before Jon did. Joseph Sander testified Tuesday that he told Jon their brotherhood and friendship would be over if Jon ever worked with Sandy.
A former state prison warden testified about the corrections system and how Sander will be housed if he is on death row or sentenced to life imprisonment. James Aiken said Sander can be safely confined without endangering others.
Psychiatrist George Corvin resumed his testimony from Wednesday which focused on Sander’s mental health. Corvin testified that Sander was with his wife at a mental health clinic two days before the shooting–the same day Walter Sander said he got the call from his son needing help–and that Sander balked at seeing a psychiatrist after learning it would cost $250.
Corvin said Sander would have been committed to a mental hospital that day had he discussed his thoughts with a mental health professional. The psychiatrist admitted to prosecutors said there was no physical proof of that occurrence, and that the information came from Lori Botti.
“As I was leaving, I told my therapist my husband needs to be seen. She said go talk to the secretary receptionist in front. I explained it would be great if he could be seen right now. She said if you want to be seen right now, first they wanted $250,” Botti said.
“I was in shock that it would be that much money.”
Prosecutors presented receipts from purchases made by Sander and Botti the same month, which included hundreds of dollars for nights at a Holiday Inn on three separate occasions. Botti said the family needed to be away from the Mazzellas and the motel gave the children chances to play in a pool.
Assistant district attorney Melanie Shekita asked Botti why she did not tell any investigators about the attempt for her husband to see a psychiatrist until long after the shootings.
“That was the day when I walked out of my house and there were police with their guns drawn on me. I had my children. The last thing I was thinking about was a doctor visit that never happened,” Botti said.
“I only answered the questions they asked me. I was not thinking clearly at that point. I had three special needs kids that I had to figure out what to do with. I needed to figure out how to come up with some income on my own. I had to figure out getting a job and taking care of them, plus their therapist,” she said.
“It may not have come to my mind that day. My most concern when all this happened was my children. To this day it’s my biggest concern, is making sure they’re okay.”
Closing arguments begin Friday morning. Sander could become the second Wake County man to receive a death sentence in as many months.