Rape victim’s murder jury foreman was just 18: ‘I’ve grown some humanity since then’

Melinda Henneberger
·9 min read

In the more than a year that I’ve been writing about Sarah Gonzales-McLinn, who was essentially being held in sexual slavery in Lawrence, Kansas when she killed her rapist at age 19, I’ve never stopped wondering what the Douglas County jury was thinking back in 2015.

After deliberating for half of a single day, they found this abused young woman guilty of the premeditated, first-degree murder of the man prosecutors insisted on calling her “benefactor.” Most news reports blandly referred to Hal Sasko, the former employer she drugged and then nearly decapitated in January of 2014, as her 52-year-old roommate. The worst, doing what they do, went with “sugar daddy,’’ and called her a “young hottie.”

The jury quickly decided that Gonzales-McLinn had killed Sasko in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner, too. Definitely it was lurid, scrawling “FREEDOM” on the wall in his blood. The judge sentenced her to a minimum of 50 years in prison, and everybody else went home.

So what did go on in that jury room? Did no one ever ask, ‘FREEDOM from what?’ Jury foreman Brandon Wingert, who is 25 now, and was just 18 at the time of the trial, finally cleared that up for me in an interview last week in Lawrence, where he works in retail. (And in case you’re saying wait, an 18-year-old not only served on the jury but headed it, yes and yes: “No one else said anything, so I put my hand up.”)

Why Gonzales-McLinn had killed Sasko, who was mostly characterized at trial as the kindly Christian pizza parlor owner who’d taken her in, wasn’t a major focus of the deliberations, Wingert said, but only whether she’d “done the crime.” And since she’d already admitted that, what else was there to talk about?

“I was definitely of the mindset that you do the crime, you do the time. Evidence is there, done. I was like, ‘What’s the holdup, guys?’ I’ve grown some humanity since then.” And many qualms. Wingert’s honesty, and willingness to say he’d come to a different conclusion today, ought to raise questions about why our criminal justice system still has not changed, though we keep saying that it should. Shouldn’t what had been happening in that house for more than a year before the killing have been taken into account?

“One gentleman who had my mental outlook to the extreme — guilty — was just kind of relaxing and waiting, like ‘I’m just here to push the red button.’ ‘’ A few jurors, he said, “had a more — I would say, ‘of today’s thought process’ — and thought maybe she was in some sort of horrible circumstance that wasn’t presented to us. But people on my side of it, we just viewed it as, our job was to determine” one thing and only one thing. “Was the crime done? Yes? Then you say guilty.”

Words ‘rape,’ ‘trafficked’ never came up

If that sounds pro forma, it was, Wingert said: “Some people were a little, ‘Hey, I’m doing this. I have other things to do. Boom, guilty, she did it, let’s move on with our lives’ kind of thing.”

Defense attorney Carl Cornwell did not really present his client as Sasko’s victim. Though the fact that he’d regularly coerced her sexually was mentioned, almost in passing, the word “rape” was never spoken.

That Sasko had tried to force Gonzales-McLinn to get breast augmentation, which a doctor ultimately refused to do because she was so young, came up, and so did the fact that he had successfully pressured her into getting implants in her buttocks. But somehow, nobody spelled out that, as she said later, she was his “personal Barbie doll.”

And yes, there was testimony that he’d kept a running tab of the money she owed him, and constantly held it over her. But the word ‘trafficked’ was never uttered, either.

Instead, the defense focused on the argument that Gonzales-McLinn was not guilty by reason of her diagnosis of dissociative disorder, or DID, which we used to call multiple personality disorder.

The jury didn’t so much doubt that diagnosis, Wingert said, as they just felt that “it didn’t seem relevant. The defense attorney was sort of bouncing between these personalities,” which included nasty Alyssa, suicidal Vanessa, Bible-quoting Myla and a fourth one known as No Name. “The way he framed it is that one of the personalities killed” Hal Sasko. “And sure that could be possible, but she still did it.”

“I think I personally glazed over while hearing” about the various personalities, he said. “It felt a lot like — theatrics might be an overused word, but it felt like that.” Bottom line, “DID didn’t help make sense of things.”

And no, jurors did not see her as fighting back against an abuser.

“Not at all,” he said. The terrible abuse she’d suffered as a child “was brought up, but to solidify the idea that that trauma” in her childhood “had developed a mental illness, not necessarily that she was still going through said traumas.”

‘More sad than heated’ in jury room

There was one female juror who’d had a loved one in an abusive situation, and “I feel like she had the most clear view of what was going on in this case,” though the dots were never really connected in the courtroom. “Looking back, we needed more of her on that jury. She was probably the one to bring up everything that was correct and the right way of looking at it. But there were so many of us on the jury who just thought that we had to find the evidence true” if she’d killed him, and she had.

“That’s literally the phrase we always kept coming back to. Not to say we were trying to weigh down the people who were saying things like, ‘Maybe she went through a lot,’ but the ones on the guilty side were like, ‘That’s not the question.’ We just blanket statement said that it’s not a question of why she did it, it’s a question of if she did it. Which makes me feel pretty terrible today.”

No one ever used the word “rape” in the jury room, either, that he remembers.

“Looking back now, it’s very obvious, definitely. Back then, I just felt something was off. It was definitely not organic,” a 17-year-old with a history of abuse and rape moving in with a 50-year-old. In retrospect, “the word ‘freedom’ makes a lot more sense. But it seems like everything worth talking about wasn’t discussed.”

It wasn’t “12 Angry Men,” in the jury room, either, he said. “It was more sad than heated. One of the dissenting jurors was bringing up her abuse in the past and trying to link that to things, which was kind of the correct way to do it, especially since it’s now fairly obvious that this was ongoing. But yet again, we were still at the point where we were like, ‘Hey, we’re not judging character, we’re flipping a yes or no.’ ‘’

The gory photos admitted into evidence, he said, weren’t much of a factor. “I wasn’t sitting there with popcorn.”

Neither was he wowed by the “mechanical” prosecution, led by then-District Attorney Charles Branson, who presented the defendant as killing for fun, and using a hunting knife rather than a gun to enhance her enjoyment.

But the defense, Wingert felt, just left her “underrepresented.”

“I’m no lawyer, I had maybe two months of college, but maybe he should have explained the why, or the circumstances, or something like that. Anything that was concrete.”

Wingert has thought about Sarah “in pockets” in the years since her trial. And maybe especially since they’re so close in age, he’s uncomfortably aware that “I get to do all these things” that aren’t possible for her. “Not that my life is glamorous, but I’m afforded a lot of freedom. Maybe if I’d had a different mindset back then, it wouldn’t be that way.”

No self-defense angle offered to jury

Sasko, who owned several Cicis pizza restaurants in Lawrence and Topeka, did not come across as the “benefactor” that the prosecution described, he said. “Even then I thought, ‘Wow, this is sleazy.’ It was presented that he had this sort of fathership role to her, but that was like Swiss cheese. There were obvious holes in that. There was a power dynamic going there for sure.”

But then, there “was no self-defense angle” made available to jurors at the trial. “If it was presented as self-defense, I could see a not guilty. That makes a lot of sense. I couldn’t tell you if it would have changed the verdict then, but in today’s age I’m sure it would.”

And even though the jury did find her crime “heinous,” Wingert insists that he personally had no idea that meant she’d get a “hard 50,” and might never get out of prison: “We wanted a lax sentencing. Instead of just straight incarceration, behind bars, we wanted some sort of mental treatment.”

Which, of course, she doesn’t get in the women’s prison in Topeka.

More than a year after a hearing on whether Gonzales-McLinn should get a new trial, Judge Amy Hanley has yet to rule on whether Cornwell’s decision not to present a “battered woman’s defense” deprived her of adequate counsel.

Hanley also has yet to rule on whether he sufficiently explained a plea offer of a 25-year minimum sentence. She and her family say she never understood the offer, which they knew nothing about. At her hearing last February, Cornwell was asked whether he‘d left the final decision about whether or not to take the deal up to her, as required by law. “It’s kind of hard to have her make the final decision,” he answered, “because there’s four of her.”

The new Douglas County district attorney, Suzanne Valdez, has offered to file a motion that would reduce Gonzales-McLinn’s sentence from a “hard 50” to a “hard 25” minimum of 25 years in prison, according to her mother, Michelle Gonzales.

But it’s not clear that Hanley would approve such an agreement, which might not shorten Gonzales-McLinn’s time in prison by a single day. Accepting that deal would seem to preclude even the possibility of the new trial she deserves, in a world that hopefully has become at least a little more enlightened since 2015 about predators and victims who kill their attackers.

Wingert hopes that the woman he once considered “guilty, boom, done” does get a new day in court: “I think a reevaluation would be fantastic. A lot of things weren’t included that were pretty fundamental. It’s pretty unfair. If I were in that position, I’d be screaming.”

So would we all.