RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A Wake Forest man who killed three of his neighbors will spend the rest of his life in prison with no possibility for parole.
Jurors deliberated for a total of four hours Friday and Monday before reaching the decision to issue a life sentence for Jonathan Sander. The same jury convicted the 55-year-old landscaper on April 8 of three counts of first-degree murder for the March 2016 shooting deaths of Sandy, Stephanie, and Elaine Mazzella.
Sander’s attorneys based their defense on his mental health. Psychiatrists and psychologists who evaluated Sander before and after the killings diagnosed him with bipolar disorder as well as personality and mood disorders, anxiety, mania, and depression.
“This is about whether Jon Sander had a serious mental illness and whether that mental illness contributed to where we are today,” defense attorney Damon Chetson said Friday during closing arguments.
“At the time that he committed these offenses, he was suffering from a mental illness that impaired his thinking.”
Defense attorney Raymond Tarlton compared Sander’s mind to a powerful car with shoddy brakes. He said years of stress took a toll.
Tarlton said Sander’s mental illness is not an excuse for the murders, but can serve as some of an explanation for Sander’s actions.
“Jon was able to function at times. What on the one hand made Jon so good at his craft (of landscaping design) at the height of his manic moments, was on the other hand the mental and psychiatric illness that led him to build safe rooms in his houses to hide from perceived threats,” Talrton said.
“These are mental and psychiatric illnesses tied to the total tragedy that erupted on March 25. Some people with serious illnesses are still able to get help. Some people don’t allow the hollowness to get filled with anxiety and paranoia and panic attacks. That did not happen to Jon.”
The defense also argued that Sander was impaired as he consumed six pints of beer at lunchtime before the afternoon murders.
Prosecutors said Sander knew what he did was wrong, and that he planned the killing of Sandy Mazzella hours before he committed the crime. The bartender who served the beers testified Sander said she would not see him again. Another witness said Sander boasted he would be seen on the news the next day.
Assistant District Attorney Stacy Newton told the jury Sander uses his mental health symptoms to his advantage depending on his audience.
“He certainly has bipolar disorder 1, he certainly suffers from panic attacks, but that did not cause what happened on March 25 of 2016,” Newton said during her closing arguments Friday.
“He doesn’t address (his) issues, he consistently refuses to comply with recommendations of medical professionals, and ultimately, there has been no testimony that these underlying mental illnesses caused what happened that day.”
Assistant District Attorney Melanie Shekita said Sander was able to make choices and decisions which included reloading his eight-round shotgun shell after blasting three shots into a door, and sparing the life of the Mazzellas’ daughter when he ran into her on the way to shoot her father.
Hours after Sander fired three shotgun shells at his former business partner Sandy Mazzella, two at Mazzella’s wife Stephanie, and two at Mazzella’s mother Elaine, he sat in an interrogation room with investigators from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.
Sander chose to talk to deputies without an attorney present. He confessed to killing his former friend. He explained his anger and his intent.
“I wanted to kill him so his family would be hurt just like my family,” Sander said.
“I lost control and had sadness, depression, and anger. I did a horrible thing.”
He was under investigation for accusations of inappropriately touching the Mazzellas’ daughter. Sander and his common-law wife told investigators the Mazzellas heckled him and told him he was going to jail.
Sandy Mazzella contacted law enforcement and court officials several times during the final weeks of his life in an effort to obtain protective orders against Sander.
“I was in a horrible, a horrible get even… My mind just snapped. A month of being tortured by these people and hearing one lie after another after another, I just snapped,” Sander told investigators during his interrogation.
“It was an anxiety attack. It was a vicious ‘this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, I worked my whole [expletive] life for this.’. I said ‘I can’t believe it.’ I was crying and I thought how could this happen to me, and I can’t have my children taken away,” he said during another part of the interview.
“All I said was ‘my life is over and now I’m going to get even.’ I grabbed my gun and snuck out of the house so I wouldn’t scare my wife and my kids. I saw that piece of [expletive] out there, somewhere in the driveway. He ran inside, and then after that all I could remember was I think I looked down at Sandy on the ground.”
Sander told investigators he got his revenge by shooting Sandy Mazzella.