INDIANAPOLIS — Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Larry Sells gave Sarah Jo Pender the nickname “female Charles Manson” back in 2002 when he persuaded a jury that the young Purdue University dropout was guilty of murdering two people.
After years of reflecting on this case, Sells, now retired, believes he was wrong.
"I’ve come to the conclusion that there definitely exists a reasonable doubt as to Sarah’s culpability in the case," Sells told WRTV in a telephone interview.
"I believe there’s reasonable doubt, if you look at the evidence.”
Sells knows the evidence well.
He led the team that put Pender in prison for 110 years.
Two decades later, Sells is now convinced he unwittingly built that murder case on a lie and a forged letter.
“I never had anything like this happen in any case I ever prosecuted before,” Sells said. “It took a long time for me to come to the conclusion I’ve come to now.”
Pender, 43, is in the Rockville Correctional Facility serving a 110-year sentence in the October 2000 shotgun murders of her roommates Andrew Cataldi and Tricia Nordman.
Pender’s then-boyfriend, a hulking former Noblesville High School football player named Richard Hull, was convicted in a separate trial and is serving 90 years for the killings.
There’s no doubt in Sells’ mind that Hull pulled the trigger and killed Cataldi and Nordman. In 2003, Hull signed an affidavit admitting that he acted alone.
But back in the early 2000s Sells believed that Pender was the manipulative mastermind who orchestrated those killings with persuasion, brains and sex appeal.
Hull pulled the trigger, Sells told the jury, but Pender pulled the strings.
Pender has been locked up for 22 years for the murders, but she hasn’t been quietly serving that time.
In 2008, she convinced a prison guard and an ex-prisoner to help her escape. She was on the run for nearly five months before she was captured in Chicago on Aug. 4, 2008.
The escape made her something of a celebrity. Her story and the “female Charles Manson” nickname made headlines across the country. She was featured on America’s Most Wanted and had a spot on the U.S. Marshals 15 Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Lifetime Television made a biopic called "She Made Them Do It” in 2013. Jenna Dewan, then the wife of Channing Tatum, played Pender while 1970s Hollywood icon Mackenzie Phillips played the role of the cellmate who aided her escape.
There was never any direct evidence that Pender participated in the murders. However, some of the things she did at the time gave Sells and others reason to imagine her as a cold, calculating killer.
Pender was a 21-year-old a Lawrence Central High School graduate who dropped out of Purdue University after her freshman year. She met Hull at a Phish concert and quickly fell in love.
In 2000, Pender, Hull and Hull’s friends Cataldi and Nordman lived together in a two-bedroom home on the near-southside in the 900 block of Meikel Street.
On Oct. 24, 2000, records show Pender bought a shotgun at an Indianapolis Walmart. Pender has said that Hull and Cataldi got into an argument that same night, so she left the house.
Pender says she returned to find Hull loading the bodies into a pickup truck. She went with Hull as he dumped Cataldi and Nordman in a trash bin in the 800 block of South Meridian Street.
"When I came in, Richard was standing over a body. It must have been Trisha's body," Pender told WRTV in an interview at the Rockville Correctional Facility.
Pender said she was terrified. This man she loved had just killed two people. She said she was certain she was next.
"I just called his name and when he turned around, I remember thinking very clearly, in my own voice, I heard 'Oh, I'm about to die,'" Pender said.
Pender went to work the next day, court records say. She did not leave Hull, even when she had the chance and she did not call police.
Pender insists that she believed Hull would have killed her if she had done anything else.
Days later, police arrested Hull and Pender for the killings.
While in jail, Pender got around the rules against corresponding with inmates and wrote letters to Hull. She sent the letters to a friend who forwarded them.
Watch the story that aired on WRTV in 2000 below.
A forged confession
Months after jail deputies found more than 70 letters in Hull’s cell, he gave his lawyer one he claimed they had missed in which Pender confesses to the killings.
“Drew was so mean that night,” that letter read. “I just snapped, I didn’t mean to kill them, it must’ve been the acid.”
At her trial, an expert testified that the letter appeared to match Pender’s handwriting.
It now appears the expert was wrong. In a 2003 affidavit, Hull admitted he had a fellow inmate forge the letter using other letters from Pender as a guide.
The inmate who wrote the letter, Steve Logan, signed an affidavit in 2019 admitting that he faked the document.
"I believe I was bullied, manipulated and coerced into writing this letter," Logan wrote in the affidavit. "I am deeply remorseful for my stupidity."
The “snitch list”
Prosecutors learned that Pender had another jailhouse pen pal, a convicted child molester she met during a church service.
Jail officials seized dozens of letters she sent to that inmate, Floyd Pennington. She was not aware that Pennington had told police he would do "whatever I have to do to make busts” in order to avoid a possible 56-year prison sentence.
Through letters, Pennington and Pender agreed to fake an illness on the same day so they could meet at the hospital.
Soon after the meeting, Pennington turned on Pender.
Pennington testified at her trial that she had confessed while they were together and the guards were busy with a rowdy inmate.
"She didn't pull the trigger but, you know, she had pretty much coerced Rick to pull the trigger," Pennington testified.
Sells said he now believes Pennington lied.
Sells found a document in 2009 he called a “snitch list” that had been hand-written and signed by Pennington. Two pages long, it listed a host of people Pennington claimed he knew were selling dope or committing other crimes.
“I will help to make buys, wear wires, talk on phone taps or whatever I have to do to make busts on all of these crimes,” Pennington wrote in the document.
Sells never saw this snitch list before Pender’s trial. Neither did Pender’s lawyer, who could have used it in her defense.
Sells said this document shows that Pennington would do anything, including lie under oath, to get a plea deal. Pennington, in later media interviews, has maintained he told the truth.
Change of heart
The problems discovered after trial bothered the longtime prosecutor for years after the case was over.
The snitch list, Pennington’s lack of credibility, the forged letter and other issues in the case make it clear now, Sells said, that the woman he once called the “female Charles Manson” deserves a chance a freedom.
"I have learned things since Sarah Pender’s trial and conviction in 2002 that convince me that important evidence presented at her trial was tainted and that her murder convictions should be set aside," Sells said.
"Justice is long overdue for Sarah Pender. Unfortunately, the legal system has to date failed her, but that grievous error can and should be corrected."
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.
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