3.1 Christmas Eve

Book Three / 1

On Christmas eve, as charging documents alleged, 29 year-old Kristen Anders and her boyfriend of six years loaded their handguns and left the single-wide trailer home where they’d been living.  They drove their pickup truck a couple hundred yards through the dark, winter afternoon to the main Anders family residence, a doublewide trailer home on the same property perched at the top of a hill.

Anders and her older brother had grown up together on the wooded rural lot.  The family still gathered at the home for holidays.  Although Anders’ brother regularly brought his wife and two young children, on this occasion they had not yet arrived.  They were expected later that evening.

Inside the house Anders’ mother was wrapping gifts for her young grandchildren.  According to statements Anders and her boyfriend, John Mackey, gave to investigators a couple days later, Anders’ parents were in separate rooms when she and Mackey first entered the house.  Anders found her father in one room, while Mackey approached her mother in the rear of the house.

Following a brief argument Anders aimed her handgun at her father and attempted to shoot him.  She missed.  Mackey and Anders’ mother came running at the sound of the gunfire.  When they entered the room, Mackey shot Anders’ father in the head, killing him.  As Anders’ mother began to scream, Mackey shot her twice, killing her as well.  The young couple dragged the dead bodies out of the house to a small shed in the back, then cleaned up the blood with towels and rugs.

Anders’ brother and his family arrived at the house early that evening.  They settled in the small living room where a variety of snack food was spread out on a coffee table in front of a large television monitor.  At some point Anders confronted her brother with her gun.  As he lunged at Anders she shot him several times, eventually killing him with the assistance of Mackey.

Anders then shot her brother’s wife twice before running out of ammunition.  The wounded woman was able to crawl over the couch and place a call to 911.  When Mackey broke the connection she retreated to huddle with her children.  Anders told Mackey to “finish” her, as Anders stated in her confession.  Mackey apologized to the woman, then shot her in the head.

After Anders’ brother and his wife were both dead, Mackey shot their six year-old daughter as she crouched near her dead mother’s body.  Finally, to make sure no witnesses would survive, Mackey turned to the couple’s three year-old son.  The boy had picked up the batteries that had fallen from the cordless telephone when Mackey ripped it from the wall.  In his confession to investigators, Mackey claimed that the toddler held up his hand, clasping the batteries, and looked at Mackey with “complete comprehension . . . as if he understood.”  Believing himself absolved by the gesture, Mackey shot the boy.

_______________

A 911 operator received the call placed on Christmas eve by Anders’ sister-in-law as Anders shot at her and her family.  The operator would explain at trial that she’d only heard three seconds of screaming in the background before the line was disconnected.  On that information she dispatched officers to a loud party call.  The sheriff’s deputies who responded to the property that holiday evening found the gates to the property locked.  They decided the call was a mistake, and chose not to investigate further.

On the day after Christmas a co-worker of Anders’ mother peered in through the windows of the Anders home to determine why her friend had failed to appear for work at their small rural post office.  She saw a body lying on the floor and entered the house to investigate, thinking at first that the victim might have succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning.  911 tapes captured her terrified voice as she called to report what she found.  Hiding in a back bedroom, she remained on the phone with the operator as deputies drove to the property, cowering behind a bed in the belief that the shooter might still be active on the grounds.

Anders and Mackey had fled the scene on Christmas eve after locking the gates against the police.  They would later tell the detectives that they had decided to drive to Las Vegas to get married but kept getting lost along the way.  Giving up on their elopement, they returned on the same day that law enforcement and the media were discovering the crimes.  Standing just outside the yellow crime tape, seeking permission to enter their own home, the two captured the attention of a deputy sheriff.  Once detained on probable cause they both provided a complete confession.  They were arrested and ordered held without bail, pending charges for the murder of Anders’ entire family.

_______________

The week after Anders’ and Mackey’s arrest the two appeared for arraignment before the Chief Criminal Judge.  Each faced six charges of aggravated murder, the only crime in the state that carried a possible penalty of death.  As file folders and papers flew around the bar, the judge proceeded with arraignment in the full glare of national media attention.

Upon their arrest, just two days after the murders, Anders had commented to the detective interrogating her that she wanted to cooperate in order to keep Mackey out of jail.  For his part, Mackey had asked the detective interrogating him if he and Anders would be able to share a cell when they got to the jail, and whether the detective thought they might still be able to get married.  The early details of their crime spree had made them sound like Bonnie and Clyde, but the transcripts of their confessions would reveal characters who were deeply out of touch with the realities of the world around them.

Now they stood together before the court for their initial appearances to hear the charges against them and enter their pleas.  At the start of a bewildering odyssey of incarceration and prosecution, they entered pleas of not guilty, surrendered their fates to separate teams of public defense attorneys, and quickly retreated to their cells.

_______________

After the New Year’s holiday the judge returned from vacation and our court resumed its busy trial calendar.  One morning midway into January the judge and I met in chambers with the attorneys involved in the State’s case against Ervin Quinley.  Quinley was the young man who would face re-sentencing in our court later that year for the murder of a police officer.

On that January day, however, we were still months ahead of the morning when Quinley would appear before a packed courtroom to hear his new sentence pronounced.  Quinley’s case had just been assigned to our court, and this was our first opportunity to discuss the pretrial needs of counsel.  The attorneys had come today to discuss a case schedule for the trial we did not yet know would be unnecessary.

As I worked in my office following the conclusion of the meeting the judge stuck his head around the door frame and looked at me with a hesitant, inquiring expression.  He took a seat at the desk and leaned back.  “We’re up for pre-assignment of the Christmas Eve murders,” he said.  “Think we can manage it?”  After a brief discussion of our current caseload, including the trial of Ervin Quinley, we agreed that we could.

3.2 Murder and Mitigation