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Preliminary transcript reveals details of gruesome murder

Trial set to begin in June
By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein Gold Country New Service
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Rage, jealousy, revenge — those are just a few of the storylines likely to emerge at the upcoming trial of Stephanie Nicole Erends, according to court transcripts of the Roseville woman’s preliminary hearing. Erends, 26, is charged with the first-degree murder of her longtime friend, 24-year-old Alicia Ernst, in a March 2008 killing on the outskirts of Roseville. Erends is scheduled to answer to the charge at her trial this June. Erends at first denied responsibility for killing Ernst, who worked alongside her mother as a nurse’s aide at Siena Care in Auburn for nearly two years. But in transcripts of a preliminary hearing not previously reported, details of a confession emerge in which Erends admits to killing Ernst with a wall-papering scraper she had stashed in her car. The recorded interview with an investigator took place three days after the March 8 killing, and just hours after officers arrested Erends. In it, she reportedly told investigators how she acquired the scraper as well as a gallon of ammonia — tools she anticipated using to harm Ernst. Erends has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutor Garen Horst said the Placer County District Attorney’s Office will not seek the death penalty, despite a special circumstance allegation of lying in wait. “We have a death penalty review committee where we meet and discuss whether or not in a death penalty case it is appropriate to seek it,” he said. In this case, they opted not to, he said. Details of the homicide emerge in a 60-page transcript of a preliminary hearing held in November. Placer County Superior Court Judge Colleen Nichols presided over the hearing, the purpose of which was to determine whether enough evidence existed to go to trial, not to assign guilt or innocence or present a coherent prosecution or defense theory. What’s clear, however, is the gruesome nature of the killing. A county road worker discovered Ernst at 8:20 a.m. March 8 in the east shoulder of a dirt access road near Walerga and Old Walerga roads off Baseline Road just outside Roseville. In the transcript, Placer County Sheriff’s Detective Don Murchison testifies that Ernst was covered in trash. He said the road worker at first thought he had found a discarded mannequin. “He gently removed an item of the garbage off the back, and it exposed a little heart-shaped tattoo which led him to believe that it was a person and not a mannequin,” Murchison told the court, according to the transcript. When authorities arrived, they discovered the badly cut body of Ernst, clad in white Reeboks, blue jeans, a black spaghetti-strap top and a red Fresno State Bulldogs sweatshirt. Ernst had wounds all over her face, neck and hands — the latter likely “defense wounds,” according to a coroner’s report discussed in court transcripts. Furthermore, the coroner believed that the pads of Ernst’s fingers had been cut as a result of “post-mortem wounds after her death,” Murchison testified. But the main cause of death was a neck gash that severed the carotid artery. Ernst died within minutes. The two women were longtime friends Erends and Ernst were reportedly longtime friends; the pair met in high school, according to testimony at the hearing, but in recent years the relationship had soured over drug use and other issues. Ernst worked at Siena Care in Auburn while Erends had been employed by a Kirby vacuum sales company in Roseville. In the transcript, Detective Murchison relates how investigators were led to Erends, as well as her initial story of where she was the night of Ernst’s death. It was during a police canvass of the neighborhood surrounding the crime scene that officials learned someone had picked up a woman named Stephanie and given her a ride to a home in central Roseville. She was described as having blood on her hands, and had told the driver that she had been attacked on Walerga Road, according to the transcript. At the central Roseville home, officers found a car registered to Stephanie Erends. A substance believed to be blood was found on the steering wheel, front passenger’s seat, and driver’s side door, according to court documents. When authorities questioned Erends, who was living at the residence, she claimed she left Ernst at about 9:30 p.m. after going bar hopping with her the night of her death. Under questioning, Erends claimed she hit a few more bars and then, on the way back home on Walerga Road, was forced off by an unknown vehicle. She told investigators her car became stuck in an embankment, and after getting out, she was attacked from behind by an unknown individual — just yards from where Ernst’s body was found. Authorities were skeptical. “What I told her was that I felt it was highly unlikely that she would leave her friend at 9:30 p.m. … yet seven hours later they would end up in the same location and that Alicia would be murdered,” Murchison said, according to the transcript. Shortly after, Erends was placed under arrest. Erends’ story changes For reasons that are still unclear, Erends changed her story, according to investigators. In her third interview with investigators several hours after being arrested, she told them she purchased a wallpaper removal scraper and a jug of ammonia with the intent to harm Ernst, according to testimony contained in the preliminary hearing transcript. When they were together, Erends told Ernst she had to change her pants and got into the back seat of Erends’ car. That’s where she had planted the scraper; she then attacked Ernst from behind, according to investigators’ characterizations of the interview. If Erends in fact killed Ernst, it’s unclear why she might have done it. Erends reportedly told investigators it was revenge over an incident seven months before in which she claimed Ernst poured acid in her mouth while she was asleep in her car. But in testimony, the issue of jealousy emerged, particularly whether Erends’ boyfriend was cheating on her with another woman. In a note Erends’ boyfriend intended to deliver to her in jail that was intercepted and read in court, he wrote: “Tell me you don’t do that because you still think I was messing around with her. I never even met her in my life. You killed her for nothing.” Erends herself potentially sheds light on her thinking in a letter she intended to be mailed that was intercepted by jail staff. “I have to face my consequences for any hate that found its way out of me,” she wrote, according to the letter read during the preliminary hearing. “Now I’ve lost a … longtime friend because of it. I hope we meet again. I have dreams of her.” At the end of the preliminary hearing, Judge Nichols ruled there was enough evidence to hold Erends for a trial. Jury selection is set for June 1. Erends remains in Placer County Jail without bail. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of lying in wait. She faces up to life in prison. Prosecutor Garen Horst this week declined to discuss specifics about the case, prosecution theories or potential witnesses. Public Defender John Richter did not return phone calls. Nathan Donato-Weinstein can be reached at nathandw@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment.