FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence at an upcoming trial that they say shows a U.S. Air Force airman charged in the death of Mennonite woman had disdain for the religious group, a judge ruled Friday.
The evidence includes text message exchanges between defendant Mark Gooch and his brothers where he talked about surveilling Mennonite churches in metropolitan Phoenix and praising one for ticketing a Mennonite during a traffic stop.
Gooch is charged in the shooting death of Sasha Krause, who lived in a Mennonite community outside Farmington, New Mexico. Krause disappeared while gathering materials for a Sunday school course in January 2020, and her body was found outside Flagstaff more than a month later.
Jury selection begins Sept. 21 for the three-week trial. Gooch faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and other charges.
Coconino County Superior Court Judge Cathleen Brown Nichols wrapped up a two-day hearing Friday on requests to refine the evidence. She said the text messages sent before and after Krause's death point to motive and are more relevant than prejudicial.
“It's for the jury to decide if the defendant had some sort of religious bias toward Mennonites,” she said.
Brown Nichols also allowed evidence from cell phone data that prosecutors say showed Gooch returned to the forested area where Krause's body was left before authorities discovered it.
“The court is persuaded by the state's argument that this purported evidence does connect him to the scene of the murder,” the judge said.
Gooch attended the hearing virtually from jail.
Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, had argued that the text message exchanges were among thousands that Gooch sent and received, and were the only two that mentioned Mennonites. Gooch didn't initiate the exchange with the brother who was a state trooper in Virginia, he said. He simply responded in a boisterous, pile-on fashion, well after Krause's death, Griffen argued.
Gooch used words like “surveillance” in the exchange with another brother because he has a military background, Griffen said. And Gooch's text that the older people he saw weren't like the Mennonites he grew up with means Gooch is a young guy, and that's not his crowd, Griffen said.
“The state is reading so much more into that,” Griffen argued.
Gooch told authorities he drove to the churches because he was looking for fellowship, according to public records. But the prosecutor, Ammon Barker, said neither of the text exchanges suggest Gooch was looking for a nice, Mennonite church.
“The state is not saying because he's surveilling people, he's a murderer or has a character trait for being a murderer," Barker said. “It shows motive.”
Gooch and Krause didn't know each other but both grew up in large families who were part of the Mennonite church. Gooch never became a church member. Krause became part of a group of conservative Mennonites where women wear head coverings and long dresses or skirts, and men were plain clothing, her community has said.
Brown Nichols earlier rejected a request to admit evidence that Gooch might have targeted Mennonites in burglaries as a teenager in Wisconsin. A childhood friend of Gooch testified Thursday that he didn't recall Gooch saying that he disliked Mennonites.
Brown Nichols has yet to rule on a defense request to determine whether statements that Gooch made to a detective during an interview at Luke Air Force Base where he was stationed in metropolitan Phoenix were lawfully obtained.