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Sufficient evidence, two suspects held for murder

Ruth Ellis
Staff Writer
8/8/2011

Superior Court Judge Michelle Verderosa ruled there was sufficient evidence to hold Joanna Lynne McElrath and Robin Glenn James for trial on charges stemming from the alleged murder of Robert McElrath.

Charges include premeditated murder and conspiracy. McElrath also faces special charges of lying in wait and murder committed for the purpose of financial gain. James is also charged with lying in wait and alleged use of a handgun during the commission of a crime.

James is scheduled for arraignment on those charges Monday, Aug. 15, 11 a.m. in Lassen County Superior Court Department 1. McElrath will appear Monday, Aug. 15, 11 a.m. for an arraignment setting conference.

McElrath and James were arrested Thursday, Jan. 6, after investigation into the death of Robert McElrath, a Susanville police officer. His body was found near the riverbank at the Devil’s Corral railroad trestle Sunday, Jan. 2.

Attorneys Bud Landreth and Laureen Bethards are representing Joanna McElrath. Larry Barnes and Dave Headley are representing James.

During the preliminary hearing, officers who responded to the scene and investigated the alleged crime testified. In addition officers who worked with Robert McElrath testified about his plans for the evening of his death.

Dr. Susan Comfort, a forensic pathologist with the Shasta County Coroner’s Office, who performed the autopsy, also testified.

Friends and relatives of both families were in attendance during the sometimes emotional hearing.

Robert’s family was seen holding hands during some of the testimonies. Some averted their gazes or briefly glanced at the screen showing photos of the crime scene at Devil’s Corral, including a distant photo of Robert McElrath’s body lying near the riverbank.

Lassen County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Jones testified that James, who was in custody at the time, told him during an interview Sunday, Jan.  9, that the alleged murder was Joanna McElrath’s idea.

Lassen County District Attorney Bob Burns played a taped interview between Jones, Joanna McElrath and California Department of Justice agent Jeff Lilerly. The emotion in the courtroom became palpable.

James’ preliminary hearing ended Wednesday, July 27, and the defense argued to strike the lying in wait special circumstances allegation. Landreth argued the alleged murder did not occur during a period of lying in waiting.

Landreth said there was insufficient evidence showing the victim was drugged to support the lying in wait charge. He also said the evidence showed that plan failed and James and Joanna McElrath went to Plan B.

Joanna McElrath’s hearing resumed Thursday, July 28, after Verderosa granted a one-day continuance so the defense counsel could review transcripts of the interview between her and Jones.

The hearing concluded Friday, July 29.

In his closing argument, Burns said the evidence clearly showed the defendants intentionally drugged McElrath, created an ambush and killed him when he was involuntarily intoxicated and surprised.

After listening to testimony, Verderosa ruled Joanna McElrath would stand trial on charges of premeditated murder and conspiracy with special circumstances.

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