SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A critical hearing in the killings of three teenage girls spanning eight years and two California counties starts next week.
The preliminary hearing in the case against alleged serial killer Joseph Nissensohn begins in El Dorado County Court in South Lake Tahoe Monday morning.
Prosecutors have charged Nissensohn with three counts of first degree murder with special circumstances for the 1989 killing of South Lake Tahoe teen Kathy Graves and the 1981 slaying of 14-year-old Tanya Jones and 13-year-old Tammy Jarschke.
A skull believed to be Graves' was found near the Mount Tallac trailhead on Aug. 22, 1990, and the decomposed bodies of 14-year-old Tanya Jones and 13-year-old Tammy Jarschke were found in a wooded area near Seaside, Calif., on Sept. 9, 1981.
During the preliminary hearing, Judge Suzanne Kingsbury will determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed.
The hearing is expected to last several weeks.
Kingsbury included the Monterey killings in the Graves' murder case in October 2008, after determining the allegations were legally “connected together in their commission.”
Prosecutors contend Nissensohn killed Graves after taking her into the forest area the Tallac trailhead while his future wife, Cheryl Rose, waited in the couple's vehicle. They allege Nissensohn killed Jarschke and Jones more than eight years earlier after luring the girls to an secluded area of Monterey County.
Nissensohn is eligible for the death penalty if convicted of first degree murder with the special circumstance of multiple murders.
Prosecutors have not made a final decision about whether they will pursue the death penalty, said Dale Gomes, the El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney heading the case.
Also on Monday, attorneys are scheduled to argue whether a 1991 interview of Nissensohn by South Lake Tahoe Police Sgt. Rich McGuffin and El Dorado County Sheriff's Sgt. Fred Kollar should be allowed into evidence.
In a motion filed Dec. 9, Nissensohn's attorney, Mark Millard, contends the police officer and deputy violated Nissensohn's rights by continuing to interview him after he made several requests for an attorney.
“He wanted representation, he made that clear and the questioning should have immediately stopped. It didn't,” Millard said in the motion.
According to a transcript of the interview included with Millard's motion, Nissensohn admits to being in the woods with Rose and Graves on the day of the murder, but says it was Rose who killed the teenager by stabbing her and hitting her with a piece of wood.
Nissensohn requested the interview with police after he was convicted of 2nd degree murder in 1991 for the drug-fueled stabbing death of 46-year-old Sally Jo Tsaggaris in Tillicum, Wash.
Nissensohn said he was interested in providing law enforcement information regarding Rose's involvement in the Graves' killing. He said he hoped to “make a deal” with prosecutors in exchange for testimony against Rose, according to the transcript. He also expresses a desire to see Rose locked up for her involvement in the murder of Tsaggaris and Graves.
Rose acted as a principal witness against Nissensohn in the Tsaggaris murder trial.
“I want to take her down OK,” Nissensohn said in the interview.
In the 1991 interview, Nissensohn also admits that he helped dispose of Tsaggaris' body, but says Rose killed the women during a sexual tryst while he was away obtaining drugs.
El Dorado County district attorneys have shown reluctance in the past in prosecuting Nissensohn.
The office originally filed a murder charge against Nissensohn for the Graves murder in 1991, but the charge was dropped due to lack of evidence, said Rick Meyer, El Dorado County chief public defended, in court documents.
Former El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy also reviewed the case in 1995, but did not re-file charges because of a lack of evidence, Meyer added.
Prosecutors re-filed the murder charge against Nissensohn on Jan. 29, 2008, days before Nissensohn was scheduled for release from Washington state prison after serving time for the Tsaggaris murder.
No new evidence has been brought to light since the 1995 review, Meyer said in the documents.
Gomes said he couldn't speak to the reluctance of previous members of the district attorney's office to prosecute the case because he was not with the office at that time, but said he is confident about obtaining a conviction.
Millard declined to comment on the case when reached by phone on Friday.