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Chance Observation Leads to Trial 7 Years After Murder

September 15, 1986|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

Bill Mills last saw his girlfriend on Mother's Day in 1979. They had brunch with friends, returned to Savannah Leigh Anderson's apartment in Irvine, made love and then parted, agreeing to meet the next day to wax the 22-year-old secretary's car.

When Mills couldn't rouse Miss Anderson that Monday, he called the police, who found her body on the lavender sheets of her neatly made bed. She had been bludgeoned, strangled, sexually assaulted and washed--circumstances repeated in the deaths of at least eight other young women in six Orange County cities between 1976 and 1979.

Police found the finger and palm prints of an apparent assailant in Miss Anderson's bathroom and took similar prints from several potential suspects, but the case was never solved. One suspect was Robert Lloyd Sellers, then 22, who was the security guard on duty in the woman's apartment complex the night she died.

Sellers' trial for rape and murder is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court. It was a fluke that the one-time Marine was arrested at all. Now he could face the gas chamber.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 16, 1986 Orange County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in Monday's Times about the upcoming murder trial of Robert Lloyd Sellers did not intend to imply a link between a murder that Sellers is charged with and the deaths of several other women in Orange County between 1976 and 1979. Sellers has not been charged in connection with any other killings.

Robert Sellers had a "rather unfortunate childhood" in the rural Ohio town of Painesville, where he was born in 1957, said Susanne Woolf, a paralegal who has worked on Sellers' defense for the last two years. (Defense attorney Jennifer Keller could not be reached for comment.)

"He had a stepfather who kind of liked to beat up on kids," Woolf said. "He started leaving home in early adolescence and by the time he was 15 he had left for good. He entered the Marine Corps at 17 just to get away from it all."

The Marine Corps brought him to Camp Pendleton but didn't pay enough to make ends meets, Woolf said, so he took a job as a security guard at Miss Anderson's apartment building at 61 Cascade in Irvine. The two were acquaintances, exchanging hellos in the halls when Sellers was on duty.

He was on duty on Mother's Day, Savannah Anderson's last day alive.

According to court documents filed by the district attorney's office, when Mills left his girlfriend's apartment, she showered, returned to the bed, pulled the pillows up near the telephone "and called someone, perhaps her mother--after all, it was Mother's Day--and when she hung up, the defendant began his attack."

Apparently, she tried to fight off the man who was trying to rape her, the documents said, and was beaten severely on the arms, hands and head. She then was dragged into the bathroom, where her assailant washed off her body. The man apparently dragged her back to the bed, which he had straightened, placed her on the neatly folded bedclothes and sexually assaulted her.

Anderson died of strangulation. Her head wounds, which rendered her unconscious, could have killed her, but it would have taken days, according to the autopsy.

Police investigating Miss Anderson's death took the prints from the bathroom, but at the time could not match them conclusively with any of the suspects, including Sellers.

The case remained dormant until 1984, when investigators reopened it in a fruitless attempt to link the killing to a mass murder suspect who had been arrested in Texas. Once the files were reopened, an alert sergeant examined the prints collected at the murder scene and noted the similarity between them and Sellers' prints.

The sergeant, Scott Cade, took the prints to the FBI in Washington, where a positive identification was made. Sellers was arrested in March, 1984, and has been held in Orange County Jail since.

At the time of Sellers' arrest, Lt. Al Muir, an Irvine Police Department spokesman, said he had no answer to the question of why the evidence had not been matched with Sellers earlier.

According to Woolf, Sellers "was looked at by other police agencies (in the other bludgeon murders that happened in the late 1970s), but as yet no one (else) has filed charges."

Court documents show that the timing of the sexual attack is a major issue in the case, although neither Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard King nor Woolf would comment on it. If intercourse occurred while Miss Anderson was alive and resisting, Sellers could be convicted of murder with a special circumstance of rape, which could send him to the gas chamber or place him in prison for life without the possibility of parole.

If intercourse occurred after the murder, then the rape charge could be dropped and Sellers could be convicted of murder. First-degree murder carries a penalty of 25 years to life in a state prison, with parole possible after 12 1/2 years served.

"I think there's overwhelming evidence, 95% certain," that she already was dead, Orange County Municipal Judge Selim Franklin said at Sellers' preliminary hearing, according to documents filed by the defense. "Now the evidence to me seems almost overwhelming that at the time of the rape the victim was dead. . . . You can't rape a dead body."

But in court documents, the district attorney's office disagreed, citing evidence from Dr. Peter Yatar, who performed the autopsy. Yatar said that the young woman had internal injuries that could only have been caused if she had been resisting, the documents said.

Sellers originally had been charged with murder, rape, attempted rape and burglary, King said, but the attempted rape and burglary charges were dropped through the appeals process because the statute of limitations on them had run out.

Sellers was arrested five years after Miss Anderson's death. Under the statute of limitations, rape charges must be filed within six years and attempted rape or burglary charges must be filed within three.

"What we're left with is rape, but it still qualifies him for the death penalty," King said. "And we are seeking the death penalty."

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