Forensic Files – Season 11, Ep 33: Skirting the Evidence


NARRATOR: She won $5,000
at the blackjack table,
then left the casino.
Three hours later,
she was kidnapped.
A single fiber and a
tiny piece of cellophane
were the only clues
to her disappearance.
[theme music]
NARRATOR: Tunica, Mississippi,
is the third largest
gambling center in
the United States.
And that’s where
Shannon Sanderson
and her second husband,
Robert, loved to go.
On April 19, 1996, Robert and
Shannon planned a gambling trip
to Tunica to celebrate
Robert’s 58th birthday.
But at the last minute,
Robert canceled.
AMY WEIRICH: He told
her that his daughters
from another marriage had come
by and brought him a birthday
cake, and he wanted to spend
a little time with them,
and wanted to delay
their departure
for Tunica, Mississippi.
NARRATOR: The couple argued,
but Robert decided to stay home.
Shannon took her children
from a previous marriage
to the babysitter and went
to the casino without him.
And played blackjack,
all night long.
By the end of the evening,
she had won $5,000.
SGT. RICHARD DAVID ROLESON:
She took $5,000 in cash.
They tried to get her to take
a check, but she wouldn’t.
NARRATOR: Shannon left
the casino around 3:00 AM.
Then drove to her
babysitter’s house
to pick up her three children.
When she got there,
she was attacked.
Her babysitters
heard the commotion.
SGT. RICHARD DAVID ROLESON: They
saw somebody wearing a red ball
cap forcing her into a
maroon Chevrolet Beretta.
NARRATOR: And the car took off
before anyone could intervene.
JERRY KITCHEN: They found a fake
fingernail that had been left
during the struggle, and
a button from the dress
that Shannon had been wearing.
And they, of course,
tagged that as evidence.
NARRATOR: One of
the neighbors was
able to identify the assailant.
-A neighbor said
it was Shannon’s
husband driving the car.
NARRATOR: When questioned by
police several hours later,
Shannon’s husband, Robert,
denied any involvement.
He said his children stopped
by for small birthday party.
After they left, he went to
bed and was alone all night.
Since there was no one
to corroborate his alibi,
police asked Robert to
take a polygraph test.
SGT. RICHARD DAVID
ROLESON: His attorney
wouldn’t let him take
the polygraph test
and wouldn’t let him
give a statement to us,
other than what he had already
told the uniform officers that
made the scene the
night of the kidnapping.
So, that kind of
sent a red flag up.
So, we couldn’t eliminate him.
NARRATOR: A look into
the couple’s marriage
revealed they were having
their fair share of problems.
It was the second
marriage for both,
and there was a 33
year age difference.
AMY WEIRICH: We had heard
some reports from some family
members, that perhaps
there was more trouble
than usual with their marriage.
That this argument they
had on his birthday
was not an isolated incident.
That they had been
fighting quite regularly.
NARRATOR: If Robert Sanderson
knew anything about his wife’s
disappearance, he
wasn’t talking.
And police had no
idea where she was.
There were several
witnesses to Shannon
Sanderson’s early
morning abduction.
One of them claimed
that the assailant
looked like Shannon’s
husband, Robert.
JERRY KITCHEN: We had a witness
that observed a maroon Beretta,
and she identified the
individual as Robert Sanderson.
And that was the strongest
piece of evidence
that we had at that time.
NARRATOR: Robert
denied any involvement,
and said he didn’t
own a red Beretta.
But Robert was one
of the few people who
knew where Shannon
would be that evening.
AMY WEIRICH: And he
was also an individual
who had made a lot of money
in the security business,
and would know things
that, you know,
the average citizen on
the street wouldn’t know.
NARRATOR: Amid rumors that there
was trouble in the marriage,
investigators also uncovered
a possible financial motive.
AMY WEIRICH:
Prenuptial agreement
had been signed– it was
actually signed post-marriage–
and provided for– I believe,
he would had to have gotten her
an apartment and
paid her $10,000
if they were to
divorce, of something
was to happen to their marriage.
NARRATOR: Robert had Shannon
sign this disagreement just two
weeks before her disappearance.
-It was a factor to consider,
and not something that
hits the radar every time the
Memphis Police Department is
investigating a homicide,
or an abduction.
It was something unusual.
NARRATOR: Weeks
passed, and there
was no word from Shannon
or her kidnapper.
Family and friends
distributed missing posters
throughout town.
And police asked
the public to call
if they have any
information to offer.
And police also questioned
Shannon’s ex-husband, Michael.
The two had only been divorced
for a year and a half.
MICHAEL HOLLAND: I had no
idea what could have happened.
One of the police told
me I was a suspect.
They questioned me for about
a week straight down there,
at downtown Memphis.
NARRATOR: Michael
said he had an alibi.
That he was at work at a
chemical company on the night
of the abduction, and
police confirmed his story.
Investigators also discovered
there was another man
in Shannon’s life, Brett
Musekamp, who dated Shannon
briefly in between her divorce
and subsequent marriage
to Robert.
Apparently, Musekamp was
angry when Shannon dumped him.
AMY WEIRICH: There
were some problems
between he and
Shannon Sanderson.
He was calling and harassing.
He was also following
her around in her car.
There was one incident
where he blocked
her car in and frightened her.
NARRATOR: Shannon
pressed criminal charges
and obtained a restraining
order against him.
Like everyone else in the case,
Musekamp denied any involvement
in Shannon’s disappearance.
AMY WEIRICH: The former
boyfriend’s alibi
was his mother– that
he was at home asleep.
And his mother vouched for him,
and it all seemed credible.
NARRATOR: Hoping
for a lead, police
decided to track Shannon’s
movements on the night
of her abduction,
beginning with the Sam’s
Town Casino in
Tunica, Mississippi.
And once again, Robert
Sanderson became
the focus of the investigation.
An assistant Casino
manager was sure he’d
seen them together that night.
AMY WEIRICH: He remembered
Shannon Sanderson and Robert
Sanderson fighting,
and he even went so far
as to recall Shannon
Sanderson crouched over
in the corner of the
Casino, and indicating
that she was afraid
of Robert Sanderson.
NARRATOR: The
Casino manager also
claimed that Robert
Sanderson asked
him to help provide an alibi.
-He remembers Robert Sanderson
coming back down the casino
after Shannon
Sanderson’s abduction,
and talking to Mr.
Burchfield, and saying,
you know, I wasn’t
down here that night.
NARRATOR: A month after
Shannon’s disappearance,
a man found the
remains of a body
in a deserted farmhouse
40 miles away.
Dental records confirmed that
it was Shannon Sanderson.
JERRY KITCHEN: Shannon was shot
behind her ear, basically– one
shot, which killed
her, of course.
She– prior to
that, she had been
struck numerous
times in the face.
Her jaw was broken.
I believe a tooth
was knocked loose
and another tooth cracked.
NARRATOR: Shannon’s
$5,000 was missing,
and so was her jewelry.
Leading some to suspect
the motive was robbery.
25-year old Shannon
Sanderson was
found murdered in a
deserted farmhouse
40 miles away from her home.
Shannon left behind
three young children
from her first marriage.
At the time, they were just
three, five, and seven years
old.
MICHAEL HOLLAND: I tell them
that she’s a good person.
She’s a loving mom.
She cared about them very,
very much, and to this day,
you know, she still
cares about them.
She’ll care about them until
the rest of their lives.
NARRATOR: The prime
suspect in the murder
was the second
husband, Robert, who
was unable to
provide a solid alibi
for the night of her murder.
A casino employee recalled
seeing Robert at the Casino
that night with Shannon.
A review of the casino’s
security cameras
revealed Shannon
Sanderson was there,
but no sign of her
husband, Robert.
JERRY KITCHEN: We
were able to determine
that this particular night
there was no altercation,
and that Robert
wasn’t at Sam’s Town,
because we were able to go back
and look at who she was with
and where she– when she
left, if anyone was with her.
And of course,
Robert wasn’t there.
NARRATOR: The investigation
into Shannon’s murder
had been dragging on for weeks.
During that time,
police received
numerous calls about the case.
One of them came from a
woman named Sharon Powers.
-She called the Memphis
Police Department,
and she said, my husband,
Gerald Lee Powers,
was at Sam’s Town
Casino the night
that this woman was abducted,
he was driving a maroon Beretta,
and he was wearing
a red baseball cap.
That’s all she told the police.
NARRATOR: A background check
revealed 41-year-old Gerald
Powers was an
unemployed construction
worker with a criminal past.
AMY WEIRICH: Gerald
Lee Powers had
a horrible criminal history
of terrorizing women.
One in which he jumped in a car
of a woman that he didn’t know,
held her at knife
point, threatened her.
Somehow, miraculously, she
was able to drive and escape.
And there was another case where
he broke into a woman’s home,
beat her with a skillet,
stole money from her,
and stole jewelry from her.
NARRATOR: Powers had served
seven years in prison
for the last assault.
And police couldn’t speak to
him about Shannon’s murder,
because he had disappeared.
Police finally caught
him a month later
at the Mexican border attempting
to re-enter the United States.
SGT. RICHARD DAVID ROLESON:
They pulled him over,
Powers come out with a knife,
the border agent drew his gun,
Powers decided he wasn’t gonna
take a knife to a gun fight,
and gave up.
NARRATOR: Powers was
driving a red Beretta,
the same kind of car witnesses
saw at Shannon’s kidnapping.
But Powers claimed
he had an alibi
for the night of
Shannon’s murder.
-We weren’t still sure that
he had an involvement in it.
He had told the officers that
he went to visit a sick friend.
NARRATOR: That friend, who lived
50 miles away from the Casino
in Clarksdale,
corroborated his alibi.
But in Power’s
trunk investigators
found pieces of
a fake fingernail
with pink nail polish,
similar to the fingernail
found at the crime scene.
So investigators
took the unusual step
of exhuming Shannon’s body.
-We needed to make
sure that these were
her fingernails that
had been recovered.
NARRATOR: Just as
they suspected,
Shannon did have fake nails
glued onto real fingernails,
and they were sent to the
forensic lab for comparison.
-We were sent a number of
artificial fingernails.
One from the abduction site.
One from the victim at autopsy.
One from the suspect’s
trunk of his vehicle.
NARRATOR: Under a microscope,
the nail found at the abduction
site matched the fake
nails from Shannon’s body.
Unfortunately, the nail
found in Gerald Power’s trunk
was a different shape and
painted a different color
than Shannon Sanderson’s nails.
-The fingernail from
the subject’s trunk
differed from the fingernails
associated with the victim.
-When we found out the nails
didn’t match, we were shocked.
-You know, everybody just,
well, it’s gonna match,
it’s gonna match.
It’s gotta match, but it didn’t.
NARRATOR: To find out if Gerald
Powers was in Sam’s Town Casino
on the night of Shannon
Sanderson’s abduction,
investigators asked
casino management
to screen their security
videotapes once again.
-We happened to get lucky,
because cameras that we were
looking at are normally
pointed at table games.
In this incident, we were–
had some table games that
were getting ready for
table drops– that’s
the collection of the
money from the table games
early in the
morning– and a camera
was left out of place,
out of position.
NARRATOR: That camera caught a
partial image of a man wearing
white sneakers standing
on a balcony overlooking
the blackjack table where
Shannon Sanderson was playing.
The man went down the escalator,
past Shannon’s blackjack table.
At the cashier’s window,
Shannon collected her $5,000.
Then, a Casino security
guard escorted her
to the parking lot.
The man followed Shannon out
the door 30 seconds later.
Most of the video
was black and white,
but he did walk past a
color security camera.
The baseball cap was red, and
he looked like Gerald Powers.
TOM SCOTT: I was pretty elated.
It was a lot of work
that we got this guy.
It was, like I said,
hundreds and hundreds
of hours of reviewing time.
Very tedious, and when we
did finally get our guy,
it was a– a celebratory moment.
NARRATOR: But prosecutor needed
more evidence against Powers
before walking into court and
trying to get a conviction.
And they didn’t have any.
Then, in a surprising twist,
Gerald Powers wife, Sharon,
led police to the
jewelry that had
been stolen from
Shannon Sanderson.
Sharon claimed her
husband, Gerald,
told her where he hid it.
-He told her that he had buried
the jewelry behind the B and W
lounge, in an old
abandoned couch,
and if she needed it for
any purpose, there it was.
NARRATOR: Just as Sharon said,
the jewelry was there– wrapped
in tin foil, and
pink Saran wrap.
In Powers’ home, investigators
found pink Saran wrap,
similar to the type used
to wrap Shannon’s jewelry.
In the forensic lab,
scientist cut tiny slivers
from each sample,
and subjected them
to a process known
as Fourier transform
infrared spectroscopy.
Infrared light is passed
through each sample.
How much each one absorbs
is then plotted on a graph.
Both samples have
the same composition,
and the color of the
cellophane looked the same.
But the human eye can
only differentiate
110 different colors.
A microspectrophotometer
can detect thousands,
and that test was definitive.
-It’s my conclusion that the
plastic wrap used to contain
Shannon’s jewelry, was
consistent with coming
from the plastic roll recovered
from the suspect’s residence.
AMY WEIRICH: We were ecstatic.
That was very compelling, in our
eyes, and we knew to the jury
that that would be
something very compelling.
NARRATOR: Next,
investigators did
a thorough search
of Powers’ car.
SGT. RICHARD DAVID ROLESON: Not
having all the equipment like
they do on “CSI”– vacuum
cleaners and stuff–
he went and purchased
a lint brush,
and he went over the whole car.
NARRATOR: On the
tape lift, one fiber
stood out– an unusual
black, wool fiber.
CHRIS HOPKINS: I noticed
that the dye was unevenly
distributed across
the wool fiber–
kind of a mocha brown color in
between, inside the wool fiber
itself.
So it had a– kind of a
unique dye distribution
across the wool fiber.
NARRATOR: Fibers from the black
skirt Shannon was wearing when
murdered were compared to this
black fiber from Powers’ car.
Under a microscope,
the fibers appeared
to have the same uneven
distribution of dye.
Using a microspectrophotometer,
scientists
found no differences
between the two.
The wool fiber in Powers’ car
came from Shannon’s skirt.
CHRIS HOPKINS: That
was– that’s exciting.
It’s the reason most of
us in the FBI are here.
We want to find out the truth,
and in these violent crime
cases, there are no witnesses.
We can settle this legal
argument, whether these two
people came in contact,
and so we find the truth
and present that truth.
And it feels good that we
believe that justice was done.
NARRATOR: Prosecutors knew
that Gerald Powers watched
Shannon Sanderson play
blackjack and followed her
to the cashier’s window,
where she cashed in her chips
for $5,000 in cash.
Prosecutors believe Powers
followed Shannon for 45 minutes
as she drove to the babysitter’s
house to pick up her children.
When she got out of her car
Powers knocked her unconscious.
Then, threw her into the car.
No one knows where he
went, but at some point
he killed Shannon with
a .25 caliber pistol,
stole her casino
winnings and jewelry,
then disposed of her body
in an abandoned farmhouse.
-He knew, at that
time, he was not
gonna let Shannon live, because
of his previous encounters
that he had attempted
to abduct women.
And they had lived
to identify him.
In December of
1998, Gerald Powers
was convicted of Shannon
Sanderson’s murder
and was sentenced to death.
AMY WEIRICH: And the
forensic proof in this case
was overwhelming and compelling.
And there was a juror
after this was all over,
who told us that
they couldn’t help
but get caught up in
the wave of evidence
that we created from
the very first witness
until the very last, and that we
left them no choice but to find
Gerald Lee Powers
guilty as charged.
SGT. RICHARD DAVID ROLESON:
That fiber and that dress
put her in that car, and that
was the icing on the cake.
It would probably have been
hard to convince 12 people
that he actually committed
the murder without that fiber.
[theme music]

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