Suspect's Past Led Him to 'Snap,' Kill Woman, His Attorney Tells Jury

Times Staff Writer

A lifetime of rejection and months of little sleep that gave him delusions caused a security guard to "snap" and kill a young woman in an Irvine apartment complex when she warded off his advances, his attorney told jurors Wednesday.

Robert L. Sellers, now 28, a Marine who was moonlighting as a security guard, faces a possible death sentence in the slaying of 22-year-old Savannah Leigh Anderson at her apartment on May 14, 1979.

But his attorney, Jennifer L. Keller, told jurors in Santa Ana Superior Court that the killing was not first-degree murder because it wasn't premeditated. She also argued that an allegation that Sellers raped his victim--which could result in the death penalty if proven--can not be true because Miss Anderson had been dead two to three hours before she was sexually molested.

Prosecutors contend that the time of the sexual attack does not affect the death penalty allegation because what happened to the woman was one continuous action.

The Sellers case, riddled with unusual circumstances both on the night of the woman's death and in the follow-up police investigation, became even more bizarre Wednesday when Keller told jurors about events in Sellers' life in the months before the killing.

Sellers, who pleaded not guilty, might never have been brought to trial had it not been for an alert Irvine Police Department officer, Scott Cade, who discovered some overlooked evidence when the case was reopened five years later.

Miss Anderson had just talked to her mother by telephone to wish her a happy Mother's Day when the attack occurred in the one-bedroom apartment.

Sellers had been seen getting off duty soon after that, with his shirt off and his belt in his hand. But he was eliminated as a suspect when officials decided that his palm prints did not match a bloody print left in the victim's bathroom.

But in 1984, the Irvine police reopened the case to see if it might be linked to a serial killer arrested in Texas. In reviewing the case, Officer Cade noticed that Sellers' palm print did match one found in Anderson's bathroom. He took it to the FBI in Washington, whose print expert confirmed it.

Sellers was arrested and confessed to the crime. He admitted in his confession that he returned to the apartment two to three hours after the murder, dragged the victim's body to the bathroom, washed it, then returned the body to the bedroom, where he sexually attacked the dead woman.

"It's not pretty; it's an ugly, ugly, ugly story," Keller told jurors as she confirmed most of the facts presented by prosecutor Richard M. King.

But Keller claims that the attack was the result of Sellers' deeply troubled past.

He was raised in a rural Ohio township with a brother and a sister in the home of a stepfather who severely disciplined him and showed him little love. He forced the children to work so hard on the farm that life was too dreary for Sellers to stay, jurors were told.

Sellers, not yet 15, got a handyman's job at a local motel and began living there. He eventually fell in love with a woman who talked him into joining the military at age 17.

They married by proxy, and she visited him occasionally where he was stationed in California. She had two children during this time, and Sellers felt that he was part of a real family for the first time, Keller said.

But in late 1978, five months before the Anderson woman's murder, he discovered that his marriage was a hoax and that he wasn't a father. The woman was already married, had not given birth to two children, but instead had shown him two foster children.

All of this, attorney Keller said, was so the woman could milk Sellers for thousands of dollars. Sellers had been working two full-time jobs thinking he was supporting a wife and two children, plus his wife's ailing parents.

Keller said her client responded to this rejection by working even harder, with two full-time jobs and getting no more than two hours' sleep a night. Psychiatric testimony, she claims, will show that Sellers' mind was "psychologically and organically" affected by so many months of sleepless nights. It leads to delusions, she said.

And Sellers' greatest delusion, she said, was that the Anderson woman was romantically interested in him.

"We're not saying she was interested in him; in fact that wasn't the case at all," Keller told the jurors. "What's important is that he thought she was."

Prosecutor King claims that Sellers had sneaked into the victim's bedroom that night and listened to her tell her mother on the telephone that she was in love with her boyfriend and would be bringing him home to meet them in two weeks.

Keller claims that Sellers waited for her to get off the telephone, then knocked on the door. A fight broke out, Keller said, when Miss Anderson realized that Sellers had misunderstood her friendliness.

"He goes berserk," Keller said. "She was savagely beaten. But this was a psychotic thing, not something he coldly and calmly intended to do."

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