The voicemail came just after midnight — only hours before a woman’s mangled corpse was found abandoned near the seventh hole of an Indio golf course.
It sounded like a barely audible conversation between a man and a woman, and Ian Thompson figured the call was an accidental “butt dial” from his friend Michael John Franco.
But the recording took on dark significance when workers at Terra Lago Golf Club discovered the bloody remains of Franco’s girlfriend just days before Christmas in 2013.
Now, the Riverside County district attorney’s office plans to use the voice mail as a key piece of evidence in the death of Jill Grant, a beloved local math teacher and Indio resident. The message “appeared to be a female begging for her life” and points to Franco as the woman’s killer, according to court documents.
Grant, who was 41 at the time of her death, taught at Palm Desert High School, her alma mater, and remained close to many of her classmates. Her slaying has left many in the Indio and Palm Desert communities shaken.
A transcript of the message paints a portrait of Grant’s last moments, prosecutors say.
In it Franco asks Grant, “Is that better?”
Grant responds, “No,” followed by something inaudible, and then “No. No.”
“All I wanted to do. I will take you to the hospital. I will call 911,” Franco says.
“Wait until I can think of, another idea. What if I drive the car someplace, call myself and say I was attacked?” Grant responds. “Would that work?”
Much of what Franco says after that is inaudible, according to the transcript. But Grant can be heard trying to negotiate with her boyfriend, prosecutors say.
“But we can think of something to say,” Grant says. “I am sure we can think of something.… What can we say?” Grant then shifts the focus on herself. “What do you want me to say? What should I say?”
Franco’s attorney, Dante Gomez, said it was unfair to characterize Grant as begging for her life.
“In the first lines of the recording, the person who’s being accused here is saying, let me take you to the hospital, let me call 911,” Gomez said. “My client and I are looking forward to a jury evaluating all the evidence, not just what’s been presented in the prosecution’s trial brief.”
He added that his defense will likely include Franco’s longstanding mental health issues. In 2011 Franco tried to commit suicide and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, Gomez said.
“I do intend on calling mental health professionals who did examine Mr. Franco two years before the alleged crime,” Gomez said.
A spokesman from the Riverside County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.
Jury selection has begun, and testimony is expected to begin in March.
The message recording is just one of a number of pieces of evidence prosecutors plan to present at trial, including an alleged jailhouse confession and surveillance video. However, the phone message may be one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the jury to hear, said Loyola Law School criminal law professor Laurie Levenson, who has not read the whole trial brief.
“What you want is the jurors to … identify as much as possible with the victim. And this tape allows them to do that,” Levenson said. “I imagine they’re going to play this tape as often as they can.”
Prosecutors say that on the day Grant’s body was discovered, Dec. 23, 2013, the pair had intended to host a Christmas party. Friends grew concerned when Grant couldn’t be reached at home. Franco told them that the two had gotten in a fight and that she’d left.
Workers at Terra Lago found Grant’s body in the early morning.
Her face was swollen and bloody and “her head was under dirt and plant debris,” according to the trial brief. She had on unbuttoned jeans and was “naked from the waist up.” Near her were flip-flops and a black shirt.
Officers were able to identify Grant based on her family’s description of her tattoos — an Aries ram on her back and flowers on her left foot.
When they arrested Franco the next morning, he said he knew he would spend the rest of his life in prison, the trial brief states. In jail, Franco allegedly told his cellmate that he had cut his girlfriend’s throat during an argument, according to the trial brief’s synopsis of the cellmate’s interview.
He told his cellmate that he had driven Grant away to dump her body, but “she got up and took off running, at which point he ran her over with the car,” the trial brief says.
Grant’s friends say they have found the circumstances of her death disturbing.
“I couldn’t imagine being in that situation and what must have been going through her mind,” said Tara Huffman, who first saw news of the recording in the Desert Sun. “She was dealing with pure evil in front of her.”
Huffman wants her friend to be remembered for how she lived her life, not just how it ended.
She and Grant met at as high school students.
“We sat next to each other in one of our classes and we used to just laugh and joke and giggle about things,” said Huffman, 44, a graphic designer who lives in Indio.
Huffman remembers Grant for her sense of humor, her two cats — Hocus and Pocus — and a collection of shirts printed with jokes about math.
“We filled almost an entire side inside a high school auditorium with people who attended her memorial service,” Huffman said. “She was loved by everybody. … She was gentle, and she would never hurt anybody.”