PORTLAND, Maine — The 8-year-old son of Joel Hayden and Renee Sandora told jurors Monday he saw his father shoot his mother outside the home they shared in New Gloucester on the evening of July 25, 2011.
The boy, who was 7 years old at the time, was one of four witnesses called to the stand by prosecutors during the first day of Hayden’s double murder trial. Hayden is charged with shooting and killing his girlfriend and mother of his four children, Sandora, 27, of New Gloucester, and mutual friend Trevor Mills, 28, of New Bedford, Mass.
Also on the first day of the trial, the jury heard audio recordings of two 911 calls, including one in which a panicked Sandora told a dispatcher “my boyfriend just shot me” and that “he’s going to kill me in front of my kids” just moments before she died.
Hayden’s attorney, Sarah Churchill, acknowledged the traumatic scenario allegedly witnessed by the boy, but cautioned jurors to weigh whether “his memory of the event is credible.”
Churchill said police “ignored alternative theories and evidence” in their investigation of the crime, suggesting that another individual could have been responsible for the shootings. Among the evidence she alleged was overlooked in the investigation was DNA from an unidentified male found on Hayden’s shirt from the day. She said the DNA belonged to a male who was neither Hayden nor Mills.
“Police jumped to conclusions early on,” Churchill told jurors during opening arguments in the case Monday, held in Cumberland County Superior Court.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber countered in his opening argument, however, that Hayden was a drug abuser and jealous, and that he was known to spy on Sandora from the woods and accuse her of cheating on him with a number of different people.
Macomber said on the day in question, Hayden shot Mills in the head, neck and twice in the back, enraged because he believed his longtime friend had been in a relationship with Sandora behind his back.
“Then, as [their son] watched, he walked up to Renee and shot her from close range,” the assistant attorney general told jurors.
That son took the witness stand Monday and largely corroborated Macomber’s account. In response to questioning by fellow Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese about what transpired the evening of July 25, 2011, the boy said his parents were getting along “not so well” at the time.
The boy said he was in the front yard when he saw the first victim, whom he knew by the name “Trey,” “go through the glass” of the front door.
Marchese asked the boy, “What did your father do next?”
The boy answered softly, “He went outside and he shot my mom.”
The boy said he “was shocked” by the shootings and that Hayden then “took Trey’s car and drived [sic] away.”
The boy, his younger brother and twin younger sisters now live with Sandora’s parents, the children’s grandparents, he said.
Macomber told jurors in his opening statement that Hayden fled in Mills’ black Cadillac, later was spotted at a tollbooth traveling south on the Maine Turnpike, and subsequently pulled off the highway to lead police on a high-speed chase — reaching speeds greater than 100 mph — through Saco, Biddeford and Dayton before crashing the vehicle in a ditch. Macomber said Hayden injured his back in the crash, and was taken to the hospital before being arrested and charged with two counts of murder.
Churchill acknowledged to jurors that her client had a checkered past, and said the difficulties in Hayden’s relationship with Sandora were rooted in Hayden’s drug abuse, but suggested he did not shoot Sandora or their mutual friend. She said that Sandora and Mills were both reportedly alive when police first arrived on scene, and it took rescuers an hour or longer to get both victims to Central Maine Medical Center.
Churchill argued that state scientists were given small samples from which to collect DNA and other evidence. She said that of multiple rounds fired, only one casing and one bullet were sent to the state crime lab for testing, and that only a small swatch of cloth from Hayden’s shorts was sent. She said that DNA found on the shorts matching both Hayden and Sandora should not be surprising considering the couple lived together, and pointed out that an unidentified male’s DNA was discovered on Hayden’s shirt from the day.
But under the questioning of prosecutors, the couple’s oldest son and two other witnesses — the first Maine State Police trooper to arrive on scene and a neighbor who came to see what was wrong after hearing the commotion — said no other adults were at the 322 Bennett Road home on the evening of the shootings.
Co-defense attorney Clifford Strike, during his cross examination of two state troopers Monday, pointed out there were periods of time after the shooting during which the crime scene — and the victims — went unattended.
In response to questioning by Strike, Trooper Nathaniel Jamo, the first law enforcement officer to arrive on the scene, admitted that he left the scene for “a few minutes” to drive farther up Bennett Road and back in search of a suspect, and that upon returning to the area, first stayed at the neighbor’s house where the children had been gathered. Jamo said he stayed at the neighbor’s house out of concern that the shooter would return and endanger the children.
Under that course of action, the property where the crime took place was unattended for several minutes, until a second trooper arrived to support Jamo, Strike confirmed.
Strike also critiqued the responding law enforcement officers’ handling of the victims and crime scene, asking repeated questions of Jamo and fellow state Trooper Douglas Cropper about whether and how Sandora and Mills, both of whom were alive when police arrived, were “dragged” down the driveway to waiting ambulances before being taken to the hospital.
Jamo acknowledged that he and another law enforcement officer looped a K-9 dog leash around the waist of the larger victim, Mills, to help get leverage in moving him. Jamo and Cropper said the responding officers were moving the victims without knowing for sure whether the shooter was still at the location, so they had to do so behind a ballistic shield and with firearm cover to stay safe.
“So you dragged him a hundred some-odd feet down a gravel driveway with a serious head wound with a dog leash,” Strike said.
The defense attorney also pointed out that the removal of the victims and subsequent clearing of the residence were done in such a way that could have affected evidence at the scene. In response to Strike’s cross examination, Cropper said he “wasn’t concerned about the evidence” — rather, he was concerned about moving the victims away from a home that officers believed may still have had a shooter inside at the time.
“So there’s a possibility that during this process the evidence could have gotten moved around, kicked around or whatever,” Strike said.
The trial will continue Tuesday morning before Justice Nancy Mills in Cumberland County Superior Court. The trial is expected to last into next week.