A former Marine was found guilty Tuesday of first-degree murder in the slaying of a young Irvine woman seven years ago, plus the special circumstance of rape, which could lead to the death penalty.
Robert L. Sellers, now 28, admitted that he had become obsessed with 22-year-old Savannah Leigh Anderson, who lived at an apartment complex where he was moonlighting as a security guard. When he learned that she did not feel the same way about him, he said, he went into a rage and killed her.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald ordered the jury to return next Wednesday for the penalty phase of the trial. Sellers could receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Sellers' attorney, Jennifer L. Keller, said later that she almost fainted from shock after hearing the verdict. But Sellers, she said, reacted calmly, taking her arm and saying, "It's going to be all right."
For five years, Sellers had slipped through the police investigation of Anderson's May 14, 1979, slaying, although his fingerprints had been taken routinely along with those of other security guards in the building. But in 1984, Scott Cade, an Irvine Police Department officer reviewing the case, noticed that Sellers' fingerprints matched a bloody print left in Anderson's bathroom.
Sellers, who was living in Brea in 1984, admitted to police that he had killed the woman after they argued and that he had returned to her apartment two hours later. He said he dragged her body to the bathroom to wash her, then returned her to the bedroom and raped her.
Keller, argued that Sellers was not guilty of rape because one cannot rape a corpse. But Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard M. King argued that the sexual attack had begun earlier, when Sellers killed the woman, and that Sellers' return later was part of one continuous act.
Keller also argued that the crime was no more than second-degree murder because Sellers killed in a rage and had not planned to.
After the verdict, Keller said: "I'm completely shocked. This was an amphetamine-induced rage killing followed two hours later by a psychotic incident of intercourse with a corpse. How the jury could find that special circumstances of rape existed beyond a reasonable doubt is beyond me."
Keller said Sellers has no previous record, had a difficult family background, and has numerous supporters who will testify on his behalf next week.
"He is a very decent human being," Keller said. "He doesn't deserve this. I don't for a second believe he had any intentions at all of ever hurting that young woman."
Luann Sellers, who married Sellers about a year after the killing, was visibly upset and did not comment to reporters.
The victim's mother, Maxine Anderson of Salt Lake City, left the courtroom quietly after grabbing King's hand to thank him. Both parents of the victim attended most of the trial.
Sellers was stationed at Camp Pendleton in 1979 but worked nights as a security guard at the apartment complex where Anderson had moved a few months before, telling friends she felt safer with a security guard on duty.
Lack of Sleep Blamed
Keller said that Sellers worked two jobs as a way to forget some of his personal problems and that he was so "brainwashed" by lack of that sleep that his perceptions were altered. She said Sellers believed Anderson was returning his attentions, although she only said hello to him.
She was killed just a few minutes after midnight, after calling her mother in Utah to wish her a happy Mother's Day.
King argued that Sellers had slipped through a window into Anderson's bedroom and waited there for the phone conversation to end. Keller claimed that Sellers knocked on the door and that Anderson, wondering if something was wrong, invited the security guard in.
According to Keller, Sellers said he wanted to have a drink with Anderson and exploded when he learned that she had no romantic feelings for him.