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Jonathan Sander gets life in prison, avoids death

Judge: ‘You’re going to die alone’

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RALEIGH — Jonathan Frederick Sander will spend the rest of his life in prison, but he won’t be executed.

A jury on Monday suggested a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, sparing Sander, who was found guilty last week of killing three of his Wake Forest neighbors, from the death penalty. The jury found Sander guilty of three counts of first-degree murder the week before.

Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley called the three consecutive life sentences given to Sander “a sentence worse than the imposition of the death penalty” due to the living conditions prisoners face.

Then Shirley told Sander he would immediately be taken to Central Prison, according to video from WRAL.

“When you lay your head on your pillow tonight, and you hear that iron lock click for the first time on your first night in Central Prison, when the lights go dark, I want you to lie in your bed and think ... about that two-minute period in which you ruined the lives of not only your family but the Mazzellas,” Shirley said, referencing the victims’ family.

He then told Sander that in the next 25 years, before he is projected to die of natural causes, he would replay the two-minute crime in his head 6,578,000 times “before you take your last breath” and that “you’re going to die alone and you’re going to die forgotten.”

The judge’s astonishing rebuke capped a dramatic three-week trial marked by outbursts from Sander toward family members of the victims, tearful testimony and questions about the role of Sander’s mental health.

‘Ticking time bomb’

On March 25, 2016, Sander, then 52, used a shotgun to blast his way into his neighbor’s home in the 5900 block of Clearsprings Drive on the eastern edge of Wake Forest. He then shot and killed his business partner Sandy Mazzella, as well as Sandy’s wife Stephanie and 76-year-old mother Elaine.

The killings shocked Wake Forest and plunged the neighborhood into chaos as other family members ran for their lives. Sander barricaded himself in his home and law enforcement swarmed to the area before he eventually surrendered and was arrested.

Investigators were left to figure out why Sander would turn on Sandy Mazzella, who operated Advance Mowing and Landscaping Inc. in Wake Forest with Sander. The families had bought homes next door to each other, went on vacations together and frequently looked after the other’s children, according to testimony during the trial.

But as the business faced financial hardships, the relationship became strained. Deputies were frequently called to settle disputes over pets, infidelity and threats. A few days before the killings, an underage female member of the Mazzella family accused Sander of inappropriately touching her, an accusation Sander denied.

The Mazzella family began calling Sander “Chester the Molester” and took out a restraining order against him, citing threats made against their lives. Sander claims the Mazzellas likewise threatened to kill him.

“So he threatened you,” a friend texted Sandy Mazzella in early 2016, according to The Washington Post.

“No worries. I’ve got plenty of firepower,” he texted back.

During closing arguments of the sentencing phase, Sander’s defense attorneys characterized Sander as a ticking time bomb who was paranoid about going to prison on child molestation charges. Two days before the killings, Sander and his partner went to a local mental health clinic, but left because they could not afford a $250 up front fee, The Washington Post reported.

Sander claims he got drunk and high on the day of the murders and blacked out.

Family forgives

Throughout the trial, there was clear tension between Sander and Mazzella family members. On the first day of testimony, as Sandy’s father Sal Mazzella was describing the attack, Sander began shouting and accused Sal Mazzella of the killings.

Judge Shirley ordered Sander be temporarily removed from the courtroom and told him he must remain civil for the remainder of the trial.

But after Sander was found guilty, as Sal Mazzella was leaving the courtroom, Sander again spoke up, sarcastically saying “See you later, Sal” and mouthing profanities at the family.

That earned him another warning from Shirley.

On Monday, during the sentencing phase, Sal Mazzella was called forward to share his own remarks. He spoke directly to Sander.

“I hope you can hear me,” Sal Mazzella said, as shown in video by WRAL. “You’re going to hear me now.”

Choking up, he then said how his wife Elaine, who was one of the victims, wanted the word “hate” to be removed from the dictionary. He said she would never hurt a fly.

He said his son Sandy never expressed hate toward Sander in the days leading up his murder. He said he was baffled as to why Sander hated his family so much, and why he chose to murder his wife, son and daughter-in-law.

“Though we will forever live with the loss of my precious family members, I do not hate you,” Sal Mazzella said. “I have chosen to forgive you. The Lord has given me the strength to do the impossible.”

Sander lashes out

As Sal Mazzella finished his remarks, Sander, stone-faced, clapped.

The judge then let Sander give his own statement, but as Sander stood up, Sal Mazzella left the courtroom.

“Sal, I think you should really hear this,” Sander said. “Or if not don’t disappear because that’s going to be a problem.”

When Sal Mazzella did not return, Sander launched into a freewheeling and sarcastic monologue in which he hurled accusations at the Mazzellas and lashed out at the jury, prosecutors and his own defense attorneys.

Sander claimed that he only caused minor injuries when he shot the Mazzellas and that after he left their house, Sal Mazzella arrived and killed his own family. Sander said evidence not presented in court would exonerate him and he would seek an appeal.

After more than 20 minutes, Shirley cut Sander short. He chastised Sander for relishing in the spotlight during the trial and said Sander would quickly be forgotten once he is behind bars.

“Get him out of my courtroom” Shirley said after issuing the sentence.