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Nevada County judge denies motion to throw out evidence in DeGrio murder case

Michael Sturgell

After listening to a portion of an interview with homicide suspect Michael Sturgell, the judge in the case ruled against a defense motion to throw out some of the evidence.

At issue was the decision by Nevada County Sheriff’s detectives to seize Sturgell’s shoes after interviewing him on an unrelated burglary case.

Sturgell, 72, was arrested by Butte County Sheriff’s deputies in February 2018, days after Pamela DeGrio, his ex-wife, was found dead in her North Bloomfield Road residence.

Sturgell allegedly had stolen a number of firearms from a Nevada County man and tried to pawn one of them in Oroville.

A statement made by Sturgell while he was alone in the interview room led to the seizure of his shoes, which were found to have DeGrio’s blood on them. 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.

During a hearing in Nevada County Superior Court last week, Sturgell’s attorney, Samuel Berns, argued that the seizure of his shoes was improper and they were evidence that should be suppressed.

Deputy District Attorney Ed Grubaugh, however, told Judge Candace Heidelberger the defense arguments were immaterial, saying, “The shoes were always going to be seized.”

Heidelberger agreed, ruling the seizure of the shoes was justified on two fronts.

First, Heidelberger wrote, the seizure was justified as incident to Sturgell’s arrest and booking on the burglary charge.

“The fact that his shoes were removed prior to transporting him to jail … does not change the fact that the property could be lawfully seized during an inventory search,” she said.

Heidelberger also found there were exigent circumstances to seize the shoes, meaning there was a reason that would allow law enforcement to seize evidence without a search warrant, such as protecting evidence or property from imminent destruction.

Sturgell reportedly revealed details of DeGrio’s murder that had not been released to the public, Heidelberger noted, adding that detectives became aware that he might be wearing the same shoes he had been wearing at the time of the homicide.

Heidelberger listened to the relevant portion of the interview that allegedly contained the incriminating statement, writing that she heard him say what sounded like “Those shoes,” followed by an expletive.

The officer was aware the shoes might contain blood splatter evidence that could be destroyed if not preserved, Heidelberger said, adding that Sturgell knew he was under suspicion for DeGrio’s murder.

“Seizure was necessary to rapidly secure the evidence to preserve its integrity,” she wrote.

Sturgell next will be in court March 22 for a trial readiness conference, His 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 lizk@theunion.com.

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