A Utah transient accused of fatally shooting a Pleasant Grove woman during a drug bender in a Salt Lake City motel in November will move toward a homicide trial after a judge found there was probable cause for the charges.
Third District Judge Elizabeth Hruby-Mills’ determination to bind 37-year-old Joshua Valasi Saunders over came after a preliminary hearing that started Tuesday and went into Wednesday morning. The hearing included testimony from Salt Lake City police detective Jessica Kilgore, medical examiner Pamela Ulmer and an eyewitness who invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
According to testimony, there were two other people in the room at the Gateway Inn motel at 819 W. North Temple at the time Saunders allegedly shot Mechelle Lindberg on the morning of Nov. 28.
But only Saunders — who allegedly admitted killing the woman — is facing charges of first-degree felony murder, and second-degree felony counts of obstructing justice and possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person.
Lindberg, of Pleasant Grove, was a 25-year-old mother of a young daughter and had been battling drug addiction for three months before her death, according to her husband.
A toxicology report showed Lindberg was under the influence of heroin and methamphetamine at the time of her death and had taken toxic levels that could be fatal to a nonchronic drug user, Ulmer testified.
Kilgore said when police arrived at Room 406 at the motel, Lindberg was obviously dead. Evidence suggests she had her head turned away from the shooter when killed.
Saunders had been seen on surveillance video that morning at a TRAX train platform in front of the motel with a gun in his waistband. That led Kilgore to name him a person of interest in the case. After Saunders was booked into jail on Nov. 28 for a probation violation in a forgery case, Kilgore questioned him about the homicide.
He admitted to being in the motel and taking drugs with a number of people. He also admitted to shooting Lindberg and throwing the gun in a trash can on motel property, KIlgore said.
But Saunders said he didn’t know Lindberg and didn’t know why he shot her.
Saunders said he was a guest of the room, paid for by Javier “Cheech” Pena-Rodriguez. According to court testimony, people were coming and going to buy drugs from Pena-Rodriguez, but only Pena-Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Kristie Marie Hansen, were in the room when Saunders allegedly shot Lindberg with a .357-caliber handgun.
After the homicide, police were searching for Pena-Rodriguez and Hansen, who were also named as persons of interest in the homicide and who were actively trying to elude law enforcement, Kilgore testified. The two were eventually questioned and ruled out as suspects.
According to court testimony, there was evidence that Lindberg owed a drug debt to Pena-Rodriguez and to some Hondurans. Kilgore testified that she wasn’t able to determine whether there was a connection between Pena-Rodriguez and the Hondurans.
There was also video and audio recording equipment set up in the motel room, and Saunders told police there was a recording of Lindberg apologizing, though police never recovered the video.
Kilgore testified that Pena-Rodriguez said to Lindberg at some point “You f---ed me over. You f---ed me over, girl, and this is what you’re going to get.”
Saunders also told police something about being told to “shoot it” or “shoot her,” but Pena-Rodriguez and Hansen denied that, Kilgore testified.
Pena-Rodriguez was subpoenaed to appear at the preliminary hearing by the defense and was transported from the Salt Lake County jail, where he is serving time for violating his probation in a second-degree felony drug possession case in which he admitted to dealing methamphetamine at another Salt Lake City motel in 2016.
However, prosecutors did not give him an immunity agreement in exchange for testifying and, on advice from his attorney, he declined to answer any questions.
During the preliminary hearing, Saunders’ defense attorney, Nick Falcone, questioned Kilgore about how vigilantly police followed up on leads, such as Lindberg supposedly owing Pena-Rodriguez money, and how closely they looked at Pena-Rodriguez and Hansen as suspects.
When questioned by police, Pena-Rodriguez said Lindberg didn’t owe him money. But Falcone argued that Saunders didn’t have any motive to kill Lindberg and that there might have been other reasons for him saying he shot Lindberg.
Falcone said he felt police trusted the word of Pena-Rodriguez and Hansen in a way that they didn’t with Saunders, and the only difference was Saunders’ utterance of, “I shot her.” And those words came from a man who admitted to being on drugs during the interview, who didn’t have his hired attorney present and who might have been suffering from mental health issues, Falcone said.
“Once they interviewed my client, they felt like they had enough to go forward in prosecuting him,” Falcone said after the hearing. “The question is, did they continue the investigation?”
“The question of money being owed, the question of drug debt. Mr. Pena’s role. He was a suspect at the front end. He was the primary suspect,” Falcone added.
Hruby-Mills ruled there was enough evidence to bind Saunders over for trial. But Falcone said he plans to file a variety of motions, including a motion to suppress Saunders’ interview with Kilgore since it was done without consulting his attorney, who had already been assigned in the forgery case that was holding him in jail.
“Why did he say what he said to them?” Falcone said of Saunders’ alleged admissions.