After two decades, John Sandoval leads authorities to body of Tina Tournai Sandoval, missing now 21 years
March 31, 2017
Almost 2 feet below the concrete plate of Arthur Hert's grave at Sunset Memorial Gardens, the key to the one of Greeley's longest-running mysteries was about to emerge.
Wrapped tightly in a comforter, covered by a tarp and sealed with duct tape, the body inside was exhumed last week to solve the mystery of where Tina Tournai Sandoval was buried after her husband killed her on Oct. 19, 1995.
John Sandoval last week led police to this World War II veteran's grave after offering to reveal the remains of his former wife in exchange for a shorter prison sentence. Since his conviction on Aug. 5, 2010, Sandoval had been serving a life sentence. His conviction was overturned on appeal last year, and he was awaiting a second trial.
On March 7, while awaiting hearings for that second trial on the charge of first-degree murder, Sandoval reached out to prosecutors with the only thing he had to bargain with, said Weld District Attorney Michael Rourke.
That resulted in an agreement this week in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for 25 years in prison. The seven-plus years already served will count toward that. His earliest parole date is estimated to be 2028; upon his release, he will be required to serve five years of parole. Rourke said he and the family both wanted to make sure Sandoval was under lock and key and supervision at least until he reach the age of 70.
"This is not a man to be thanked," Rourke said in court Friday. "He should receive no additional accolades for his cooperation. He sat in silence for 22 years, hoping and believing he'd gotten away with murder, and only on the eve of a second trial did he come forward and bargain with the only thing he can … and that's Tina's whereabouts."
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Sandoval had spent his three-year marriage to Tournai Sandoval, who grew up in Windsor and graduated from Windsor High School, stalking women and collecting underwear from women's homes as a trophy he kept in a garbage bag in the garage. Tournai Sandoval left when police came knocking one too many times — especially after an allegation that her husband was stalking women in her car overnight in the summer of 1995.
She moved out in August. By October, she had planned one final meeting with him, to settle an IRS debt during their marriage. She left her overnight nursing job at North Colorado Medical Center at 7 a.m. Oct. 19, 1995, bound for his home in north Greeley. She was never seen again.
Until Sandoval's March 7 revelation, police had no body, no physical evidence, nor solid DNA evidence, much less a confession or witnesses to Tournai Sandoval's death. Jurors at his first trial said prosecutors eliminated any doubt that Sandoval was the killer during the month-long trial. He was the last to have seen her; he had been known to be stalking her; she disappeared off the face of the earth a little too sudden for a promising young nurse who had just landed her dream job; he had fresh scratch marks all over his torso and neck; and he lied about his alibi, which he concocted in jail with his mother.
His conviction, however, was overturned by the Colorado Court of Appeals last year. For the past few months, prosecutors had been readying for a second trial.
Prosecutors considered offering an agreement of a reduced sentence in exchange for the location of the body prior to the first trial, but the family wouldn't accept it.
But time has taken its toll on the family, weary of continued publicity, and continually reliving the pain associated with the loss of their sister, daughter and aunt.
"We wrestled with the idea that by giving our consent to a plea deal, Tina's murderer will ultimately be released from prison," said Bob Kuznik, father-in-law to Susan Kuznik, Tina's sister, in a news conference Friday after the hearing. "Given credit for time already served and the prospect of an early release for good behavior while in prison, that day of his release would come much sooner than we might like. Knowing that a second trial could again result in a life sentence without the possibility of parole, at what personal sacrifice do we decline the offer and allow a trial to proceed? Would our decision to accept a plea endanger another woman? Could we live with a longer sentence knowing that we would likely never recover Tina? These were not easy issues for us. In the end, we decided as a family and are at peace with it."
Police had examined tips about the graveyard burial several years before. On Nov. 1, 1995, then-police detective Brad Goldschmidt followed up on a tip about the possibility of Sandoval hiding his wife's body in an open grave. Sandoval had worked there in 1993 and knew the cemetery's procedures for burial.
There were three open graves on Oct. 19, 1995. Two had a concrete floor; a third did not. Goldschmidt interviewed an employee of the cemetery who discounted the idea that a body would be hidden in the graves because the concrete vaults had already been placed. The employee said he even looked around the cemetery at possible places to hide her. Nothing was found. It was one of literally hundreds of tips that came in for years that led nowhere.
Monday morning quarterbacking aside, Rourke and Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner said they were satisfied police 20 years ago did the right thing.
"There were tips both in 1995 and 2005 about the fact that Sandoval had worked there, there were open graves and perhaps are where they could look," Rourke said in a news conference Friday. "The investigation focused on obtaining information. But for reasons everyone could understand, there were no steps at that point to further investigate or seek to investigate any other grave."
Rourke said he almost "passed out" when he learned they would have to exhume a World War II veteran's grave. He called the family of the veteran, who drove down the next day from Casper, Wyo. On March 22, the family, along with Greeley police and Weld District Attorney's office members, and the honor guard, posted colors over Hert's casket.
"We felt that was a fitting way to honor him," Rourke said. Hours later, along with the Evans Veterans of Foreign War post, they gave Hert a proper military burial and placed his casket back in the grave, Rourke said.
Rourke said on March 24, the Weld County coroner conducted a forensic autopsy on the remains, and the cause of death has not yet been determined. Sandoval did not offer any specifics about the Tounai Sandoval's death. Rourke said he would pursue that question next.
Just four days prior to her body being exhumed was Tournai Sandoval's birthday. She would have been 45.
"She would have continued to make a difference in the world," said her mother, MaryEllen Tournai in court Friday, "if she had not been killed by her husband."
Her family described her in court as brilliant, loving and a gentle soul. Her absence continues to haunt them.
"Even after 21 years of the horrific and violent murder of Tina, the entire Tournai family regularly experiences shock, numbness and disbelief," said Brian Kuznik, the husband of Tina's sister, Susan Kuznik. "The magnitude of this event and the impact it had on the entire family has proven to be so emotionally difficult, many are unable to stand and share how they feel."
Tina's elder sister, Kelly Fryan, told Sandoval she prayed for his conversion of heart for many years so he would become a safer member of society and never again victimize another woman.
"That being said, God called to make sure I'm not only praying but always active in making sure you do not harm another person," she said in the packed courtroom. "I take that calling seriously. I have accepted this task. I will keep a watchful eye over your life so the safety of any community you reside in will be kept."
Not once did Sandoval look back to anyone in the courtroom Friday. But for the first time, he spoke, offering condolences to the Tournai family.
"I certainly would like to express my condolences and my apologies to Mike and Mary Ellen (Tournai, Tina's parents), the extended Tournai family for the time it took to convince police where we're at today. The devil hardens hearts of man; if man allows, God is able to soften hearts of men … That's what I pray for."
Mike Prill, the Greeley Police detective who re-examined the evidence in 2009, and found new angles and witnesses, had agonized with the family throughout the trial and subsequent setbacks. He glared at Sandoval as he walked in, and was led out of the courtroom.
"I'm happy the family got their baby back," Prill said later. "John now is irrelevant for almost everyone."