FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – An attorney for a U.S. Air Force aviator accused of killing a Mennonite woman grilled a ballistics expert who concluded that a bullet from the victim’s skull matched a rifle that the Airman owned.
Lisa Peloza, a gun inspector for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, was cross-examined before prosecutors closed her case. The defense then deployed their own weapons expert, who testified Thursday that he disagreed with Peloza.
Mark Gooch’s attorney Bruce Griffen only called one other defense witness at the trial. Final statements are scheduled for Friday in the Coconino County Superior Court.
Gooch is accused of driving several hours from Phoenix Air Force Base, where he was stationed in northwest New Mexico, kidnapping and killing Sasha Krause. He faces life imprisonment if convicted of first degree murder and other charges.
Krause, 27, was collecting materials for Sunday school in the Mennonite community where she was living when she disappeared on January 18, 2020. Her body was found face down, hands cuffed with duct tape more than a month later, on the outskirts of Flagstaff.
A coroner found that she died from a blunt violent trauma and a gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Griffen attempted to undermine Peloza by pointing out that she was reproducing a colleague’s ballistic work in a high profile case in metropolitan Phoenix that was undergoing rigorous scrutiny. Other ballistics experts came to different conclusions and the case of a series of highways shootings in 2015 was closed.
In Gooch’s case, Peloza testified that she found enough specific properties of Gooch’s .22 caliber and the bullet in Krause’s skull to say that that gun fired that bullet. She said it was not possible to use pictures to demonstrate how she came to the conclusion, also because of the quality of the photos taken by the microscope.
Defense expert Eric Warren said he tried to reproduce Peloza’s results but didn’t see what she saw. His presentation to the jury included photos of the bullets he tested from the rifle, the test fires from Peloza and the bullet from Krause’s skull.
Warren said he couldn’t conclusively associate the gun Gooch owned with the bullet from Krause’s skull.
“I could only find one or two things that went together. But it all seemed coincidental, ”he said.
Both experts said they rely on images under a microscope, not photographs, to analyze and compare items.
The firearms testimony was the most controversial of the process that will go before the jury on Friday. Arizona jurors are among those juries in some states who can ask questions to witnesses. On the ballistics alone, the jury put about a dozen questions in writing to Brown Nichols, who read them aloud.
A juror was fired on Wednesday due to a family emergency, leaving two deputies.
Gooch did not testify.
There is no evidence that he and Krause knew each other. But both grew up in the Mennonite faith – Gooch in Wisconsin and Krause in Texas, where she was a teacher. No eyewitnesses, DNA or fingerprints link Gooch to Krause’s disappearance and death, which makes the indictment against him largely cumbersome.
Authorities used cell phone data, financial records and video surveillance to determine that Gooch’s phone was traveling to Farmington, New Mexico on the day Krause went missing. Before returning to the air force base, the data showed a detour of about a mile from where Krause’s body was found. A video at the base showed that Gooch’s car returned early the next day.
Prosecutors allege Gooch generally despised Mennonites and tried to cover his tracks by clearing Google location history, providing detailed information about his car and asking a friend to keep a rifle.
Gooch told a sheriff’s detective that he took a drive the day Krause disappeared because he had time and was looking for Mennonite churches for fellowship. His times and the records don’t match. Gooch denied killing Krause.
He has been detained in Coconino County since his arrest in April 2020. Reports from the sheriff’s office show he has two disciplinary files, including a physical fight with an inmate in which he had a bloody nose and black eye. What led to this is not described in the report.
Growing up, he worked on his family’s farm in Wisconsin, attended Mennonite school through eighth grade, got his GED, and enlisted in the Air Force against his parents’ wishes, his father Jim Gooch retired Thursday. Mark Gooch never officially joined the Church, his father said.
“To the best of my knowledge, he was not of a converted heart,” he said. “And I don’t think he needed it at that point,” said Jim Gooch.
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