Courier staff writer
DEL NORTE — Prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that double homicide suspect Daniel Bessey is guilty of the charges against him, but there is sufficient cause to bind him over to district court, a judge ruled on Friday.
Rio Grande County Court Judge Patrick Hayes, Jr., found that attorneys for both sides made strong arguments over the course of Bessey’s two-day preliminary hearing. But he ultimately ruled that the prosecution submitted enough evidence to take its case to the next level of court proceedings on June 19.
“In this case, the prosecution has certainly met that burden (of probable cause),” he said.
Bessey, 41, stands accused of shooting Monte Vista couple Sarah Beasley and John Salazar to death in the early morning hours of Feb. 13, 2012.
However, the judge’s decision to bind the defendant over to district court is not a reflection of what might happen if the case goes to trial. Nor does it imply that Bessey is guilty or not guilty of numerous offenses, including two counts of first-degree murder.
Case law in Colorado suggests that courts must deny a defendant’s request for bail if the evidence against him or her is strong and the presumption of guilt is great.
But in Bessey’s case, Judge Hayes found that the defendant is eligible for bail, and after hearing arguments from both sides, he set the amount at $1 million, including $25,000 cash up front.
The victims’ family members — including Salazar’s oldest son, Johnny, and Beasley’s father, Ed Steinhoff — had a chance to weigh in on the matter, and they urged the judge to set the amount at a reasonably high standard.
“We feel still very scared for our lives,” Salazar said. “I want this bail to be set high enough to protect our family.”
Deputy Public Defender Jill Allen countered that $1 million would be an oppressive amount, and argued that her client’s bail should be set somewhere between $75,000 to $150,000.
Bessey, she said, essentially has no prior criminal record as an adult. She also denied that he poses a flight risk.
However, Judge Hayes noted that the whole purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant will appear at his or her court dates in the future. In this case, he found a compelling reason to set Bessey’s bail at a higher amount, since the defendant faces a potential minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“I don’t think that’s oppressive,” he said. “I think it’s reasonable under the circumstances.”
Bessey, who worked as a truck driver before he was arrested in Oklahoma on Jan. 4, is currently indigent.
However, if he or his family members can raise enough money to post his bail, he must remain under lockdown at home 24 hours a day. He would also be required to check in with the Monte Vista Police Department once a day at the department’s convenience, and he would be subject to random checks.
At this point, the judge found that the case against the defendant is largely circumstantial.
Authorities turned their attention to Bessey at the start of the investigation because he is the biological father of Beasley’s youngest child. But they testified that they focused on other possible suspects, as well.
Allen, however, alleged that they failed to adequately consider the tips they received about other suspects or scenarios.
One anonymous tipster, for instance, suggested that the perpetrator may have targeted the wrong house, and meant to go after a neighboring family instead.
“They’re reaching dead ends because they don’t want any of these theories to possibly be true,” Allen said. “They basically took the path of least resistance.”
But Special Prosecutor Jack Roth said that authorities carefully vetted each and every tip they received, and noted that the case is still being investigated.
“It took time to build up this investigation,” he said.
Along the way, investigators heard from Salazar’s family, who told them that the defendant was upset about child custody issues.
However, Allen told the court that Bessey and Beasley got along well with each other. She noted that they sent each other text messages, which suggested they were planning a future together.
“They had a good relationship around the time of the murders,” she said. “They texted each other frequently; they said ‘I love you;’ they called each other ‘babe.’”
Roth countered that the defendant’s common-law wife told investigators in January that Bessey admitted he wanted Beasley dead.
The special prosecutor ultimately acknowledged that there is no “smoking gun” or DNA evidence against Bessey at this point.
But all of the evidence stacked up together points to the defendant as the murderer, he said. Either that, he said, or Bessey is the unluckiest man around.
One important part of the prosecution’s case against Bessey hinges on the discovery of his flashlight just a few feet away from Salazar’s body.
Bessey claims that he left the flashlight behind when he repaired a leaky drain valve on Beasley’s vehicle.
According to investigators, he said Beasley called or texted him to let him know that the device was there.
But police reported that they found no records of any related communication between the two. Nor was there any indication that someone had phoned him from another number, investigators say.
One of Beasley’s children told investigators that he and his brothers were playing in the family’s yard the day after Bessey claimed he worked on the car, and did not notice the flashlight.
Moreover, Beasley’s family members gave a different account of her activities on the day Bessey said he was repairing the car.
According to their statements, Beasley drove her vehicle to her mother’s home. She never left that house until they drove to the Walmart in Alamosa, where they remained for over an hour, according to video surveillance from the store.
Cell phone records are key to another part of the case against Bessey.
When authorities interviewed him, he told them he arrived at a truck stop in Montrose on the night before the murders. He claimed he left Montrose for Grand Junction at 7 a.m. the next morning.
However, prosecutors say that cell phone “pings” from towers along the route tell a different story, and place him near Gunnison at 6:41 a.m.
“He said he was ahead of where he was on the trip,” Roth said.
Allen told the court that the prosecution’s timeline doesn’t fit, given the road conditions and the weather that day. What’s more, she noted that Bessey was driving a loaded semi-truck, and would have had to stop somewhere along the way in order to change vehicles.
“He would have had to make it (from Monte Vista) to Gunnison in two hours in order to make that timeline work,” she said.