A federal jury in Billings convicted a Busby man of murder charges on Thursday in the burning death of a Crow Agency woman who was strangled, stripped, set on fire and left in a field on the Crow Reservation last year.

The jury deliberated about 2.5 hours before finding Dimarzio Swade Sanchez, 20, guilty of first degree murder of Roylynn Rides Horse, 28.

Rides Horse died on June 28, 2016, in a Salt Lake City hospital 72 days after the April 17, 2016, attack on Castle Rock Road.

Rides Horse had third degree burns over 45 percent of her body and had severely frostbitten legs. A passerby found Rides Horse 14 hours after the attack in which she had been doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Sanchez faces a mandatory life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

First degree murder is killing with premeditation and with malice aforethought. 

U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said in a news release, "We are pleased with the jury's verdict. Our sympathies go out to the victim's family and the Crow tribal community for their loss."

Federal Defender Tony Gallagher of Great Falls, who was one of Sanchez's attorneys, declined to comment. 

Sanchez was one of three people indicted on first degree murder charges in Rides Horse's death but the only defendant to go to trial. He did not testify in the four-day trial that began Monday.

Sanchez’s two co-defendants, Angelica Jo Whiteman, 24, of Billings, and his half-brother, Frank James Sanchez, 20, of Busby, both pleaded guilty earlier to crimes in plea deals. They testified for the government and are awaiting sentencing.

Witnesses

With little physical evidence to go on, the prosecution relied on statements from witnesses, most of whom lied to investigators and had differing versions of what happened on Castle Rock Road.

The prosecution called 14 witnesses, including people who were at the scene on Castle Rock Road and doctors who treated Rides Horse.

The doctors described in detail the severity of her injuries. The jury also viewed graphic photographs of Rides Horse's burns to her face, back and legs.

The defense called one witness, a neuropsychologist who had examined Dimarzio Sanchez.

What few clues there were led federal agents to start the investigation at the Kirby Saloon, near Busby, where patrons saw Rides Horse and video surveillance filmed Rides Horse leaving the bar with Whiteman the night Rides Horse died.

Prosecutors alleged that the Sanchez brothers, Whiteman, and others were drinking and driving around Busby when they ultimately went to the Kirby Saloon. There, Whiteman offered to give Rides Horse a ride home to Crow Agency. Rides Horse had been arguing with her common law husband and wanted to leave.

Instead of going to Crow Agency, the group of six, in a car driven by Dimarzio Sanchez, ended up on Castle Rock Road, a dirt road along Highway 212. Whiteman started a fight in the car with Rides Horse, and the fighting continued after Dimarzio Sanchez parked the car, prosecutors said.

Rides Horse, prosecutors said, got pulled from the vehicle and attacked. Both Dimarzio Sanchez and Whiteman strangled Rides Horse with a bandanna, and the defendant also told his brother to get a gas can from the trunk of the car.

The main piece of evidence were Ride Horse's jeans, which had been taken from her during the attack and were recovered, washed and clean, from the closet of Sarah Firebear, of Busby, who was with the group on Castle Rock Road. Firebear, who is in a relationship and has a child with co-defendant Frank Sanchez, told agents she had the jeans.

Prosecution

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Suek said in closing arguments that while there were lies and inconsistencies in witness statements, there also were common themes and threads that pointed to Dimarzio Sanchez as the principal player.

"He was right in the thick of it the whole time," Suek said.

Dimarzio Sanchez lied to agents in an interview three days after the attack, telling them he and Whiteman drove Rides Horse to Dunmore and dropped her off at a trailer home, Suek said.

He lied again, Suek said, when he told a defense psychologist that he was at Castle Rock Road but stayed in the car and that somebody else lit Rides Horse on fire.

Dimarzio Sanchez was the only one of the group who said he stayed in the car, Suek said. Four other witnesses, including Whiteman and Frank Sanchez, all said the defendant was outside the car when Rides Horse was doused and lit on fire, she said.

Whiteman and Frank Sanchez both said Dimarzio Sanchez told Frank to get the gas can from the trunk. And Frank Sanchez testified he gave the gas can to his brother but didn't see who ignited Rides Horse.

And, Whiteman said it was Dimarzio Sanchez who doused and ignited Rides Horse and that she tossed the gas can out the car window as the group left the scene. In a debriefing with agents after pleading guilty, Whiteman said she didn't see who set Rides Horse on fire.

Defense

The defense had argued that Dimarzio Sanchez was a follower and functioned at a grade-school level because he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Defense attorneys also argued that the other witnesses all lied multiple times.

The Castle Rock Road witnesses are "a bunch of liars," said Assistant Federal Defender Gillian Gosch, in closing arguments. "Is that really all it takes to convict somebody of first degree murder?" she asked.

Whiteman, Gosch said, gave her statement after she cut a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty and had seen all of the other witnesses' statements.

Gosch also noted Whiteman admitted to making comments in recorded jail calls in which she thought Frank Sanchez was lying, blaming her and Dimarzio Sanchez and was getting away with murder.

Frank Sanchez blamed his brother in an effort to help himself, Gosch said. 

What did not emerge at trial was a motive. Neither co-defendants Whiteman nor Frank Sanchez could explain why Rides Horse, someone they had not met until that night, was murdered.

Whiteman pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting first degree murder and is facing a mandatory life sentence. She could get a shorter term if recommended by the government.

Frank Sanchez pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony and for being an accessory after the fact. He faces a maximum 18 years in prison. His plea deal calls for a first degree murder charge to be dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters set sentencing for March 29. 

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.