Murder suspect’s shoes at center of motion to suppress evidence in Nevada County case
Blood splattered on Michael Sturgell’s shoes provides a compelling link to tie him to the murder of his ex-wife, Pamela Diane DeGrio, prosecutors say.
But a decision by Nevada County Sheriff’s Office detectives to seize those shoes — after interviewing him in an unrelated gun theft — is the basis for a motion that could weaken the case against him.
The body of DeGrio, 67, was found in her North Bloomfield Road home in early February 2018. Sturgell, 72, was arrested days later, after he reportedly tried to pawn in Oroville a firearm stolen from a Nevada County home. It was after Sturgell’s arrest in Butte County and subsequent interview that his shoes were seized. A DNA test of the shoes reportedly showed DeGrio and Sturgell’s blood on both.
Sturgell’s attorney, Samuel Berns, filed a motion to suppress that evidence because, he argued, the shoes were not part of an inventory search. And, Berns continued, there was no valid claim of an exigent circumstance that would allow law enforcement to seize evidence without a search warrant, such as protecting evidence or property from imminent destruction.
In a Nevada County Superior Court hearing Friday, Sheriff’s Det. Brandon Corchero testified regarding Sturgell’s arrest and subsequent interview, as well as the decision to seize his shoes.
DeGrio was found Feb. 6, 2018, and a subsequent autopsy revealed she had been shot multiple times in the head, Corchero said. Five .22-caliber bullets were recovered during the autopsy, he said. According to Corchero, a search of DeGrio’s home found blood splatter on the wall behind the recliner in which she was found. Two firearms believed to have been in the residence were missing, although a box of .22-caliber ammunition was located in the bedroom.
Detectives learned Sturgell had pawned a firearm in Oroville on Feb. 4, which was linked to the Nevada County burglary and firearm theft. Sturgell was detained by Butte County Sheriff’s deputies on Feb. 11 and Corchero interviewed him there.
Sturgell denied stealing the firearms. He also denied killing DeGrio, but knew she had been shot multiple times in the back of the head, Corchero said.
Corchero testified that during a break in the interview he was outside the room with Sgt. Bob Jakobs, when they were informed by a Butte County deputy that Sturgell had made a comment about “those shoes.”
Later in the interview, Sturgell admitted to stealing the pawned firearm and he was arrested, Corchero said.
Sturgell eventually was charged with DeGrio’s murder in April 2018, while he was in custody after failing to appear in court for the burglary case.
The detective said Sturgell’s shoes were seized prior to transport to the jail because of the comment he had made. According to Corchero, that was because the shoes could prove relevant to proving elements of the burglary and gun theft.
During cross-examination, Corchero acknowledged that he made a mistake when he testified in an October hearing that the shoes were part of a search warrant.
But, he said, Sturgell’s shoes would have been collected at the jail in any case.
Berns told Judge Candace Heidelberger the comment that reportedly led to the seizure is inaudible, but added she will be the arbiter on that issue. In any case, he said, there was no exigent circumstance under which the shoes could have been seized without a search warrant, and the shoes were not part of an inventory search or a booking search.
“It’s disingenuous to say the shoes would have been seized eventually,” Berns said, adding their seizure exceeded the scope of what was legal and should be suppressed as evidence.
The shoe comment makes for “good drama,” but there was still probable cause, retorted Deputy District Attorney Ed Grubaugh.
“The shoes were always going to be seized,” he said.
Heidelberger told the attorneys she wants to listen to the video and took the matter under submission. She said she would issue a ruling prior to a trial readiness conference set for March 22.
Sturgell’s trial is scheduled to begin April 9 and is expected to last three weeks.
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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