Mueller’s fate now in jury’s hands
Jury charged with finding guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-02-07
Prosecution and defense attorneys presented closing statements to a packed court room in the trial of Texas businessman Frederick Mueller yesterday, exactly a year to the day after he was arrested on the charge of first degree murder in the death of his wife, Dr. Leslie Mueller.
Leslie Mueller was found drowned in Cottonwood Creek near Lake City, where the couple owned a home, on May 3, 2008.
District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller presented statements for the prosecution, while the three defense attorneys tag-teamed their arguments.
Hotsenpiller was only about a sentence into his closing statements before an objection was called by the defense and attorneys had a sidebar conversation with the judge — an event that has been very characteristic of this trial.
When he resumed, Hotsenpiller recalled one of the prosecution’s most important testimonies — that of Andrea Zafares, an expert in aquatic accidents and fatalities, who said that a human being would have had to have physically placed Leslie Mueller’s body in the position she was found under the log.
When she was found, Hotsenpiller pointed out, Leslie Mueller’s clothing was intact, her unzipped jacket still in place and the vomit, which was a result of her drowning, was still in her hair. He recalled demonstrations done with a mannequin, dressed and weighted similarly to Leslie Mueller, which at no point — without being physically coaxed — washed down the three waterfalls and successive streams between where the victim fell into the water and where the body was recovered.
“Dr. Mueller was drowned in the area of the downed log,” Hotsenpiller concluded. “This is where she was murdered.”
Defense attorney Roger Sagal rebutted her testimony, saying that Zafares was “spoon fed” information by the Colorado Bureau of Investigations and the prosecution, and that she didn’t even visit the site of the alleged murder until December 2012.
“She (Zafares) came to the conclusions that she came to without doing a single stitch of independent investigation,” said Sagal.
He also attempted to cast doubt on the testimony and memory of Justin Sparks, who made the 911 call after Frederick Mueller appeared on his front porch saying that his wife had died.
“Suspicion started when Jennifer Sparks turned to her husband and said, ‘Don’t trust this man.’ That planted a seed in Justin Sparks that never stopped. Doubt was transferred to Sparks, to CBI, to the prosecution,” Sagal said. “That accident, and it was an accident, changed both of their (Fred and Leslie Mueller’s) lives forever. In Fred’s case, it put him in that defendant’s chair, fighting for his life.”
Sparks said during his testimony that he began to doubt Mueller’s story when Mueller took him to a different location than where he claimed his wife was. Hotsenpiller pointed out that Mueller claimed to not know where his wife was when he took Sparks to Cottonwood Creek, yet he led first responder Michael Golob right to the site of where her body was recovered.
The defense claimed Mueller made a mistake because he was unfamiliar with the area and distraught at the death of his wife.
“Fred’s not exactly clear what happened, we know that,” admitted defense attorney Andres Sanchez.
The defense also claimed that Mueller only saw part of his wife’s fall — her going off the cliff and her entering the water — and that his mind “filled in the blanks” of what happened between those two moments.
“What he has in his head is a swan dive, and the only time he would have seen her was at the top and when she was in the water,” said defense attorney Mike DeGeurin.
Yet the prosecution saw the discrepancies in Mueller’s story differently.
“Why does he report that she fell on her head? Where’s her head? Jammed under a log. If there’s going to be injuries, where would they be? On her head,” said Hotsenpiller.
Defense attorney Roger Sagal disputed the prosecution’s claims.
“It’s not a search for truth, it’s an effort to confirm suspicion,” Sagal said about the prosecution’s case. “There’s not a single piece of credible evidence that Fred Mueller was ever at that log.”
Sanchez asked jurors to recall the testimony of Allen Nelson, whose dog Georgia followed the scents of both Leslie and Frederick Mueller.
“What did the dog tell you? They tracked Leslie’s scent. Hers went to the last photo area, then disappeared, ended at the cliff. Fred’s went to the last photo area and continued down the road,” he said.
Hotsenpiller addressed Mueller’s possible motive. During testimony, prosecution witnesses recalled that Frederick Mueller had contemplated divorce but didn’t want to put his kids through a divorce and didn’t want a woman dictating when he could see his children.
“What was said after that last photo? What was said by Leslie, by the defendant?” posited Hotsenpiller. “Was it about divorce? I don’t know, but something triggered the events that led to murder.”
“The defense wants you to have this view of people, that they’re either all good, or all bad. ... Common sense and life experience tell you people are more complicated than that,” he continued. “Sometimes people kill someone they like. We know people are capable of doing things that they never imagined they could do.”
Prosecutors took four years to build their case. Mueller was arrested on the charge at his home in San Angelo, Texas, on Feb. 6, 2012. He’s been in the Gunnison County Jail ever since and has remained in custody over the course of the five-week trial.
The defendant’s family joined him in the court room — his three children, his parents, his late wife’s parents and his current wife, Wendee Walker-Mueller.
The defense rested Monday morning. Each side called a number of rebuttal witnesses in the day-and-a-half that followed, including a hydrologist, an orthopedic surgeon and CBI Agent Jack Haynes, who investigated the case.
The case, based solely on demonstrative and circumstantial evidence, was given to the jury early Wednesday afternoon. They were instructed by Judge J. Steven Patrick that there were three outcomes for the case: guilty of first-degree murder, guilty of a lesser charge of second-degree murder, or not guilty. As of press time Wednesday, the jury had not reached a verdict.
For day-to-day coverage of the trial, visit www.gunnisontimes.com, and read in-depth stories in coming issues of the Times.
(Laura Anderson can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)