Trial begins for man accused of killing Cowley College student

WINFIELD, Kan. | An Arkansas City man accused of raping and killing a Cowley College student two years ago had spied on the woman since she was 9 years old, a friend testified Monday.

The testimony from Justin Swartzel came as the trial began for Justin Thurber, who is charged with kidnapping, raping and murdering 19-year-old Jodi Sanderholm in January 2007. Thurber, 25, could face the death penalty if convicted of killing Sanderholm, who was a member of the Cowley College dance team.

Sanderholm’s body was found in the Kaw Wildlife Area several days after she went missing.

Swartzel testified that Thurber told him that he began spying on Sanderholm when he was 13, watching her as she swam in her backyard pool and through a window as she dressed.

A former girlfriend who dated Thurber for three years said he began wanting her to participate in violent sexual behavior before she broke up with him a month before Sanderholm’s death.

She also testified that Thurber told her that the Kaw Wildlife Area would be a good place to get rid of a body “because it would just wash away.” Thurber went to the area at least three times a week, she said.

The Associated Press is not naming the woman because she testified about possible sexual abuse.

In his opening statement earlier Monday, prosecutor Vic Braden told jurors that the evidence will show that Thurber’s stalking habits and aggressive sexual behavior led to Sanderholm’s rape and murder. Braden spent 90 minutes on his opening statement, painting a picture of the days leading up to Sanderholm’s disappearance as well as the last hours of her life.

Braden said Sanderholm was dragged about 30 feet from the car to where she was found. The autopsy showed that strangulation was the cause of death

“The person who took Jodi to that place, bruised and battered her body and violated her is in the courtroom,” he said. “His name is Justin Thurber.”

Defense attorney Ron Evans’ opening remarks lasted just three minutes. He asked the jury to spare Thurber’s life if they decide to hold him accountable in the death.