“If I can’t have you no one else can.”
-District Attorney Michael Rourke
It was the 19th of October 1995. A Thursday. Twenty three year old Kristina Tina Tournai Sandoval left her overnight nursing job at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colorado, United States at 7 am. Her colleagues did not know it then but that was to be her last shift.
Tina had just graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and was elated to get a job at the North Colorado Medical Center. It was a job that she worked hard to get and she was good at it. Tina was one of nine children so she grew up looking after her siblings and caring for others came naturally to her. Things were good for Tina professionally but her personal life was going through some changes. Tina was married to John Sandoval.
Tina met John at college when she was studying nursing and he was taking classes to become a radiology technician. They married in 1992 in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. But after just two years of marriage, Tina filed for divorce. Tina was determined to move forward with her life and was hoping the divorce would soon be finalized. She moved in to a new apartment and started dating again.
That day, the 19th of October, Tina's sister, Susan Tournai, was worried about Tina and that worry intensified as the day went on. Tina told Susan that she had made plans to meet John at his home that day after her shift. She was anxious about how it would go as she wanted John to sign some papers and settle an IRS debt so that the divorce could be finalized. John did not want a divorce and he did not want Tina to date anyone else and she was concerned, due to some things he did in the past, about meeting him that day. Tina asked Susan to go with her to meet John but as Susan had work that day, she couldn't. Susan asked Tina to call her straight away after she met John to let her know how it went.
Susan waited for the call from Tina but no call came. As Susan was still at work, she asked their mother, Mary Tournai, to check on Tina. Mary went to Tina's apartment and she discovered that she was not there. She went to John's home. He lived with his aunt. His aunt told Mary he wasn't home. Mary was concerned for Tina's safety when she saw Tina's jacket in the kitchen. Mary reported her missing to the police that night.
John Sandoval and Tina Sandoval
Police went to Tina's apartment and everything appeared in order. It looked exactly how they thought it should look. It looked like she had returned home after her shift to change and left again. They found her nurse's uniform in the apartment. But they did not know where her car was so they began to search the area for it.
Police found Tina's car at 3am on the 20th of October. Her car was parked four blocks from John's home. The police dog traced the scent from the driver's seat of Tina's car to John's home. Police knew John Sandoval as he had convictions for harassment and burglary and they had spoken to him a number of times in the past.
When police went to John's home, he jumped out of a bedroom window at his home and tried to run from them. They had to hold him down and they observed fresh scratches on his torso and neck. They arrested him on foot of trespassing charges in relation to a different case. They arrested him in relation to the trespassing charge as they wanted to bring him to the station to question him about Tina and at that point, they did not know what to charge him with in relation to Tina's disappearance as it was very early in the investigation.
John told police that he didn’t know where Tina was. They searched his house and car. During the search, they found a white 5-gallon bucket and a new shovel with mud on the spade. They also found Tina’s credit cards. Police found a loaded 9mm handgun, rope and a flashlight in his car. But John was not willing to talk or cooperate in any way with the investigation.
Tina’s family told police that Tina was nervous about meeting John that day. She had filed for divorce as she had discovered some things about John that she did not like. Tina told one of her colleagues that John had a disease known as voyeurism. She told her that if he saw a pretty lady at the store, he would follow her home and may watch her for 2-3 days. John would also leave their home in the middle of the night to look at women by peering through their windows. At times, he entered their homes and hid somewhere where they couldn't see him, like a cupboard, so that he could get a closer look. On occasion, he stole their underwear and brought them home. When police called to their house in the Summer of 1995 to question John about another incident involving a woman who believed someone was stalking her, Tina had enough and made the decision to file for divorce.
When Tina's colleague asked her if John ever watched her, Tina admitted that he did and she would see his car parked outside her new apartment for hours at a time.
Tina told her family about her concerns about John too and told them that when she told John she was filing for divorce, he threatened to kill himself. He put a pistol to his head. Tina had also confided in her doctor that she was worried John would harm her. Despite that and other circumstantial evidence, the District Attorney at the time believed they needed more evidence to arrest and charge John. They did not know where Tina was, they didn’t know what happened to her and there were no witnesses.
Police searched a number of locations looking for Tina including a reservoir and woodland. As John worked at a cemetery and knew the cemetery’s procedures for burial, police also searched several graves in the area. They were dug up to see if Tina's remains were there, some remains were examined to see if they were Tina's, but it was confirmed that they were not.
The case went cold. In 2002, the State of Colorado issued a death certificate for Tina , after a Judge found in December 2001 that there was enough evidence to believe that she was dead.
Despite the investigation slowing down, police still believed that John was involved. He was a suspect from the first day Tina was reported missing and that hadn't changed. But a belief is not enough to convict. Charges were never filed mainly because Tina’s body was never found.
That changed in June 2009 when a new District Attorney who had been appointed asked for the case to be looked at again. Ken Buck looked at the evidence on file and even though no new evidence had emerged, he decided to file first degree murder charges against John. He believed that the circumstantial evidence in the case was compelling and was enough to convict John even though they still could not say with absolute certainty that Tina was dead, what happened to her and where her body was located. John was charged with first degree murder.
John pleaded not guilty.
It was the Prosecution’s case that even though Tina had not been found, they believed that she was dead. After she left work the morning of the 19th of October, all of her activity stopped. There was no activity on her credit cards, her bank account, her nursing license, earnings or Social Security since October 1995. Tina did not own a passport. There was no evidence she changed her name either as that would have required a petition to the Court.
The Court heard that Tina was a responsible and reliable young woman. She never missed a day of work and paid her bills regularly. She had just signed a lease for a new apartment. There was no indication that Tina wanted to leave and start again somewhere else. It was their case that the only explanation for her absence was that she had been murdered and all of the evidence pointed to the involvement of her husband John.
It was the Prosecution’s case that even though there was no body and no physical evidence, there was a multitude of circumstantial evidence and they set out with a case of 137 witnesses to take the stand. It was their case that John killed Tina and disposed of her body.
The Court heard that John was a voyeur and followed women. The Jury heard from some of the women.
Wendy Faust testified on behalf of the Prosecution. She told the Court that she worked at the Greeley Tribune. A man followed her intensely from west Greeley to downtown in 1993.
Wendy told the Court about the incident:
"I looked through the windows of a car next to me to see what this person looked like. I thought, 'Do they know me? It was weird, because I didn't know him. I got a flushed feeling, so I backed out at that point, thinking he was following me. I went past his car and got his plate number. He backed out and continued following me."
Wendy told the Court that the man followed her to her next sales stop to Scott Realty just blocks away. He parked behind her:
"I knew at that point, he was following me. I was crying."
Wendy told the Court that the incident frightened her. She left and drove to the Tribune and told her supervisor what had happened. The man, who she believed was following her, was also there and walked into the building. The supervisor confronted the man.
Wendy was so uncomfortable that she took down the license plate of the car the man was driving. Police traced the car to Mary Lou Sandoval, John’s mother.
Police spoke to John afterwards. He told them that he was at the Tribune that day for one reason only. He was there to place an ad for a piano. When asked about Wendy, John told police that he did not follow anyone that day.
The Court also heard from Kim Eaton. Kim was a former Evans police officer. She investigated John in relation to a stalking allegation that was made in June 1995.
When she spoke to John, he told her that he was a recovering voyeur. Kim testified that John seemed to be under a lot of pressure and John told her that his wife was seeing another man.
It was the Defense’s case that John was not involved in Tina’s disappearance and questioned whether or not Tina was even dead. They put forward an argument that she may have left town. They believed that it was more likely Tina was a runaway looking for a fresh start.
The Jury deliberated for seven hours. John was found guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
John’s conviction was short lived. In March 2016, the Colorado Court of Appeals overturned his conviction due to procedural errors and ordered a new Trial. John's conviction was overturned based on three errors committed at Trial. The Court ruled that the introduction of prior acts of stalking other women, the testimony from a domestic violence expert correlating stalking with murder, and the District Attorney directing Jurors to remember that testimony in closing arguments violated John’s right to a fair Trial.
Just before John was due to face a second Trial, he agreed to a plea deal. It was a plea deal that he had requested. In exchange for the ability to plead guilty to a lessor charge of second degree murder, he would lead authorities to the location of Tina’s body. He confirmed what Tina’s family had long feared. She was dead.
John led authorities to the Sunset Memorial Garden cemetery in Greeley and the grave of WWII veteran Arthur Hert. His grave had been one of three graves that had been dug and were still open on the day Tina disappeared.
Police called Arthur's family to inform them of what they had been told. Within just ninety minutes, Arthur's son Richard went to the police station and signed a release to allow his father’s grave to be exhumed.
Police discovered that John dug about 2 feet below Arthur's grave and buried Tina's body. Tina's remains were found wrapped in a comforter, covered by a tarp and sealed with duct tape, 21 inches below the bottom of Arthur's grave. Cemetery workers had unknowingly buried Arthur over Tina's remains after John had buried and hidden Tina's body there.
As part of the plea deal, John was sentenced to 25 years in prison and 5 years on parole. His sentence was dated back to August 2010 when he was convicted of first degree murder. At the hearing, John apologized and expressed his condolences to the family.
The plea deal offer was something that Tina’s family struggled with. They knew it meant that John could one day be a free man again.
Bob Kuznik, the father in law to Tina’s sister Susan, read the statement on behalf of the family:
"Our horrible ordeal that began on the 19th of October 1995, with the disappearance of our daughter, sister, and aunt, Tina Tournai, has taken its final turn. What we now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Tina was murdered by her estranged husband and after more than 20 years, we recovered her. It turns out that from the beginning, our family was right. The investigators got it right. The Prosecution got it right. The domestic violence expert got it right. The Jury that originally found him guilty in 2010 got it right. In fact, even Tina got it right when she shared with her sister before that fateful meeting that if anything happened to her in her attempt to collect a debt from her estranged husband, it would be by his doing. Now a confessed murderer goes back to prison."
Bob went on to say:
"You might ask, ‘What is it like to be asked to weigh in on a plea offer in exchange for knowing where the body of your loved one was tossed aside?’ We are a large family with a vast array of feelings. And yet we were able to come to consensus on this plea. For however much we all longed to recover Tina, it was nonetheless very disturbing to receive word of a plea offer. We wrestled with the idea that by giving our consent to a plea deal, Tina’s murderer will ultimately be released from prison. 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 reached our decision as family and are at peace with it."
District Attorney Rourke spoke at the plea agreement also:
“For 7,826 days, 3 hours and 22 minutes, the location of Tina’s remains has been a mystery. One that has haunted her family and the investigators who worked this case from the minute it was reported, and the community as a whole. While the original conviction served to hold this defendant accountable for the atrocious act he committed, the lingering question as to her whereabouts cast a shadow over this Prosecution. Over the course of the last week, we have finally been able to give her family what they so desperately wanted. Tina has been returned to her family and may finally be laid to rest.”
Shortly after Tina's disappearance, police had examined tips about the graveyard burial and followed up on a tip about the possibility of John hiding Tina’s body in an open grave. On the 19th of October 1995, the day Tina was last seen alive, there were three open graves. Two of the graves had a concrete floor and one grave did not. Police at the time spoke to employees at the cemetery. One employee told police that a body would not have been hidden there as the concrete vaults had already been placed. The employee said he even looked around the cemetery himself to see if there was anything out of place. Nothing was found. John was able to hide Tina's body in the middle of the night, before the burial and while some people had suspicions that there was a possibility that Tina may have been buried at the cemetery, the only person who knew with absolute certainty was John. And the only reason he gave that information to the police and to the Prosecution was for his own benefit only. John remained silent for 22 years. He only led authorities to Tina’s remains so that he could spend less time in prison.
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"My family and myself are good, decent and very honest people."
"He is the single most blatant, arrogant, yet curiously effective liar and manipulator of the truth.”
- Deputy District Attorney Christopher Evans
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