COLUMBIA — Almost four months passed between the day police pulled over 19-year-old Daniel Sanders and found his mother’s dead body in the trunk of the car and his indictment Friday on a charge of second-degree murder.
During that time, authorities were building what appears to be a complex case involving DNA samples, 123 witnesses and a cause of death that wasn’t immediately apparent. Meanwhile, Sanders was in the Boone County Jail, charged with tampering with evidence in a felony prosecution.
“It’s as thorough an investigation as I have seen,” Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Scholz said Friday.
Scholz said the lengthy list of state witnesses and the large number of items requiring lab analysis, combined with a backlog at the Missouri Highway Patrol lab, contributed to the time it took to file charges. But, he said, four months is not an unusually long time in murder cases.
“Obviously, this is an incredibly important issue,” Scholz said of the case against Sanders. “The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office doesn’t want to charge anyone unless we feel there is evidence to do so.”
Scholz said he couldn’t comment on any specific evidence or what lab analysis was performed. But there are a few indications of what evidence investigators gathered.
When police pulled Sanders over on Aug. 14, he had scratches on his arms and face, court records state. When police originally questioned him, they took nail clippings and swabbed his mouth, according to court documents.
Boone County Medical Examiner Eddie Adelstein, who performed the autopsy, said DNA specimens were taken from scrapes on Helen Sanders’ body, but he doesn’t know the outcome of the lab analysis of those samples.
Police searched the Sanders home at 4509 Melrose Drive multiple times. The day after 53-year-old Helen Sanders’ body was discovered, court records indicate, police searched the house and seized items including three computers, cell phones and a blanket that looked similar to the one in which Helen Sanders’ body was wrapped when she was found.
The next day, investigators returned, this time hoping to find DNA evidence in laundry or clothes, court documents state. They seized items including razors, clothes and a Gerbes receipt.
After initial autopsy results indicated thatHelen Sanders had a significant amount of fluid in her lungs, as well as a broken sternum and broken ribs, police asked for another search warrant so they could investigate scuff marks on a bathtub "capable of holding enough water to successfully drown inside of," court records show.
Adelstein’s job was complicated by the fact that it was not immediately clear how Helen Sanders had died. She had only “superficial scrapes and bumps,” Adelstein said.
In potential drowning cases, he said, “the most important thing you need to see is that they were pulled out of water. When you don’t have that information available to you, it’s tough.”
He said he also had to rule out the possibilities that she died naturally or of an illness and that her broken bones resulted from attempted CPR. Adelstein ultimately ruled the death a homicide on Sept. 2.
Now, more than three months later, authorities think Daniel Sanders, "acting in concert with another," drowned his mother, according to the indictment filed Friday. Sanders then tampered with evidence by hiding his mother's body in the trunk, the indictment says.
Columbia police Capt. Brad Nelson said the investigation is still open. Nelson said police consider Sanders’ brother, Gary, who was 16 at the time of the crime, a suspect.
Scholz said that Gary Sanders has not been charged but that the investigation is ongoing.
Because Gary Sanders is a juvenile, Scholz said, the Prosecutor’s Office could not charge him with a crime unless he was certified as an adult — a decision made in the family court system.
Family Court Commissioner Sara Miller said, through an assistant, that she could not comment on an ongoing case.
Scholz and Nelson said that, as far as they knew, Gary Sanders is currently in Texas with family members.
After Daniel Sanders' indictment Friday, his bond was increased to $1 million, cash only, and he is scheduled to be arraigned on Monday in Boone County Court.