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Burning death trial begins: Victim's 'dying declaration' not admitted; rancher recounts finding woman

Burning death trial begins: Victim's 'dying declaration' not admitted; rancher recounts finding woman

From the A man was found guilty of burning a woman to death. See our full coverage of his case here series

The murder trial of a Busby man accused in the burning death of a Crow Agency woman last year began on Monday in federal court in Billings with emotional testimony and graphic photographs.

Dimarzio Swade Sanchez, 20, is charged with first degree murder in the death of Roylynn Rides Horse, 28, who died on June 28, 2016, in a Salt Lake City hospital, 72 days after suffering third degree burns over 45 percent of her body.

Prosecutors charged Sanchez and two others in the death of Rides Horse, who was beaten and strangled into unconsciousness on April 17, 2016, doused with gasoline, set on fire and left along Castle Rock Road on the Crow Reservation. Rides Horse was found 14 hours later.

If convicted, Dimarzio Sanchez faces mandatory life in prison.

Sanchez is the only defendant to go to trial. Co-defendant Angelica Jo Whiteman, 24, of Billings, pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting first-degree murder, while Frank James Sanchez, 20, of Busby, Dimarzio Sanchez’s brother, pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony and to being an accessory after the fact.

Both Whiteman and Frank Sanchez are expected to testify for the government and are awaiting sentencing.

Dying declaration

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters also ruled for the defense on Monday when she decided the prosecution could not use as evidence statements Rides Horse gave to law enforcement officers as "dying declarations."

Prosecutors sought to include Rides Horse's statements through an exception to a heresay rule. The exemption allows a deceased person's statements about the "cause of circumstances" of the death to be admitted in a homicide prosecution if the person "believes death to be imminent."

While saying it was "a close call," Watters said she didn't know whether Rides Horse thought her death was imminent or if she could have survived.

Opening statements, witnesses

Federal Defender Tony Gallagher, one of Dimarzio Sanchez’s attorneys, said in an opening statement that Rides Horse’s death made “no sense” and was a tragedy.

Gallagher said the evidence would show that Frank Sanchez and Whiteman both lied to investigators numerous times, cut deals with prosecutors and blamed Dimarzio Sanchez, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. Dimarzio functions at a 10-year-old level and was a follower, not a leader, he said.

The prosecution's first witnesses included a Lame Deer woman, who was with Dimarzio Sanchez, Rides Horse and others in the group that night, and those who found Rides Horse.

Steve Peterson, a Kansas rancher with cattle in Montana, was the first person to find Rides Horse. Peterson testified he was in Montana to check on his cattle and was driving toward Billings when he stopped on Castle Rock Road for a bathroom break.

Peterson resumed driving when he thought he saw a calf. Then, he said, he realized it was a person, Rides Horse, who was “completely naked” and in “very bad shape.”

Peterson paused, bowed his head and took a deep breath before continuing. “I was just totally shocked,” he said.

Rides Horse asked for help and said she was thirsty, Peterson said. He gave her a bottle of Diet Coke, which, because of her injuries, she was able to drink only with a clean straw he happened to have, he said.

Peterson said he covered Rides Horse with a sleeping bag and drove to where he could call 911.

Peterson also flagged down Shawn Cottingham, Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, who had been temporarily assigned to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Cottingham testified he tried to communicate with Rides Horse, covered her with more blankets and took photographs of the scene. Rides Horse appeared to have been beaten and burned, he said.

Prosecutors also showed the jury graphic photos taken of Rides Horse at the Crow emergency room. The photos showed burns and injuries to her face, one of her legs and her back.

Prosecutors allege the defendants picked up Rides Horse at the Kirby Saloon to give her a ride home after she and her boyfriend argued at the bar. The defendants and Rides Horse were in a vehicle driven by Dimarzio Sanchez, when Whiteman began fighting with Rides Horse.

Dimarzio Sanchez drove up Castle Rock Road and stopped. Whiteman dragged Rides Horse out of the car, Rides Horse was stripped, and the fighting continued, prosecutors said. At one point, Dimarzio Sanchez showed Whiteman how to strangle Rides Horse with a bandanna, prosecutors allege. The attack culminated with Rides Horse being set on fire.

Prosecution witness Judaya Threefingers, 19, of Lame Deer, said she was with the Sanchez brothers, Whiteman, Rides Horse and others as they left the Kirby Saloon.

Threefingers, who was 17 at the time, said she had been drinking all day and continued drinking with group. She said everyone was drunk but that Dimarzio Sanchez was “driving all right.”

Threefingers said she met Rides Horse for the first time that night.

Whiteman and Rides Horse got into an argument over a man, and Whiteman, who was in the front passenger seat, began throwing punches at Rides Horse, who was in the back seat, Threefingers said.

Whiteman eventually told Dimarzio Sanchez to pull over on Castle Rock Road so she could continue fighting Rides Horse, Threefingers said. Everyone got out of the vehicle, and Whiteman and Rides Horse ended up on the ground fighting, she said.

Rides Horse was stripped naked, and the Sanchez brothers and Whiteman told her and another witness to get back into the car and to turn up the music, Threefingers said. That’s when they were looking for the gas can and the trunk was open, she said.

Whiteman left and came back to the car crying. Threefingers said she heard a male voice say, “you didn’t finish it” and offered a bandanna. Whiteman left again.

At some point, the Sanchez brothers and Whiteman returned to the vehicle, Threefingers said. Dimarzio Sanchez told her to not look back, while Whiteman said that if she looked back, she’d “end up just like her,” Threefingers said.

“Did you look back?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Suek.

“Yes,” Threefingers answered.

“What did you see?” Suek continued.

“Fire,” Threefingers said.

Threefingers said she was too scared to call law enforcement and didn’t talk to anyone.

The trial will continue on Tuesday with U.S. District Judge Susan Watters presiding.



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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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