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Jury finds Mark Gooch guilty in death of Mennonite woman

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U.S. Air Force airman Mark Gooch was found guilty Wednesday of kidnapping and first-degree murder for killing a Mennonite woman after her body was found in a forested area outside of Flagstaff.

Jurors in the Coconino County Superior Court deliberated for less than six hours over two days before returning the guilty verdict against Gooch, 22, who had been stationed at the Luke Air Force Base prior to his arrest.

Prosecutors say Gooch traveled more than seven hours to kidnap Sasha Krause, 27, from her Mennonite community in Farmington, New Mexico. Her body was found by a camper who was in search of firewood a month later in the Sunset Volcano Crater National Monument area.

Gooch was convicted on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping and now faces life in prison for the murder charge. Coconino County Superior Court Judge Cathleen Brown Nichols separately convicted Gooch of a misdemeanor charge of theft, related to Krause's belongings. He is scheduled to appear before a judge for a Nov. 24 sentencing.

Gooch showed no emotion during the trial or when the verdict was announced. He stood in a military stance, with one hand resting over the other behind his back. As he left the courtroom Wednesday, he looked at two family members who sat behind him. They declined to comment.

Krause was an occasional Sunday school teacher in Farmington, where she worked in the publishing ministry. She is remembered by those who knew her as a “light” in her community, a bookworm and a churchgoer with a soft-spoken demeanor.

She was reported missing on Jan. 18, 2020, after disappearing while gathering supplies at the church for the next day's Sunday services.

When investigators first arrived at the forested area outside of Flagstaff, they found Krause face down in the cinders with her hands bound by duct tape and a .22-caliber bullet fired into the back of her skull.

As a devout conservative Mennonite who practiced nonviolence, prosecutors suggested Krause might not have fought back when she was kidnapped. An autopsy did not suggest the presence of defensive wounds.

During 10 days of testimony, prosecutors painted the picture of a heartless act of violence against Krause that manifested from Gooch’s contempt for Mennonites. They said Gooch committed the crime under the “shroud of darkness” as he traversed remote parts of the country.

The defense argued the motive did not fit Gooch’s good character and that the state did not produce enough objective evidence tying him to the crime. They said Gooch, who was raised in the Mennonite faith, had visited Farmington in search of fellowship and had been cooperative with investigators.

Jurors were not presented evidence of DNA, hair follicles, blood spatters or eyewitness testimony. Gooch was ultimately linked to the crime using financial records, cellular location data and surveillance footage.

Based on communication with cellular sites, a cellphone expert testified during trial that Gooch’s phone was the only device that communicated with the same towers as Krause’s phone before her signal dropped off west of Farmington headed toward the Flagstaff area.

Investigators were aware of the cellphone pings when they initially interviewed Gooch before his arrest. In the interview, Gooch said he “swung by” the church on a Saturday to check out their sign, though the records place him in the area for more than three hours, the prosecution said.

The jury also heard testimony from an Arizona Department of Public Safety ballistics expert who said the bullet recovered during Krause’s autopsy is traceable to a rifle Gooch unlawfully possessed in his air force dorm.

The defense called a separate ballistics expert who disputed the claim, testifying that his analysis was inconclusive after he had attempted to replicate the state expert’s findings.

Sides of the story

Attorneys on both sides went over the evidence one final time on Friday before the jury was sent to deliberate for about two-and-a-half hours. The jury returned to deliberate Wednesday morning at 9 p.m. and delivered the verdict around noon.

Defense attorney Bruce Griffen said he respected the jury’s decision and suspects it was based on the overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence.

“We thought we raised legitimate, powerful arguments of reasonable doubt,” Griffen said. “The battle in this case was between the lack of objective evidence, and the substantial amount of circumstantial evidence, and that was the jury's task to deal with.”

Coconino County Attorney Bill Ring said his office will “seek swift justice” upon Gooch. He thanked the jury for its service.

“The jury drew this conclusion from the facts and the evidence presented by the Coconino County Attorney's Office and Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “Through some hard work, the community will be a safer place tonight.”

Throughout the trial, more than a dozen witnesses took the stand, including sheriff’s investigators, phone experts and Mennonite community members who lived with Krause in Farmington, including the general manager of the publishing ministry where she worked. Paul Kaufman said Wednesday his heart goes out to both families, and the community doesn't want to be vindictive toward Gooch.

“We desire his complete repentance, that he would turn from darkness to light,” Kaufman said.

Gooch’s father was called to testify by the defense and spoke to his son’s peaceful character. He told the jury that, as far as he knew, Gooch had never officially joined the faith after being raised in a Mennonite community in Wisconsin where he worked on his family's dairy farm and went to school through eighth grade.

“To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t of a converted heart,” Jim Gooch said.

Gooch later rejected the religion and joined the U.S. Air Force. Sean Clements, a spokesman for the air base, said proceedings would begin soon to discharge Gooch from the Air Force following his conviction.

“All military members must adhere to the highest standards of character and behavior, both on and off duty,” Clements said.

Prosecutor Ammon Barker said in his closing argument that Gooch “relished in the suffering” of churchgoers like Krause. Gooch’s resentment was displayed to the jury through text messages that were sent between him and his brothers.

There is no evidence suggesting Krause and Gooch knew each other before her disappearance. Barker argued the lack of a personal connection only served to make the case “even more terrifying.”

Updated for correction at 1:12 p.m. on Oct. 14. 

Felicia Fonseca with the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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