A federal jury in Alexandria returned a verdict Sept. 26 imposing the death penalty on a Las Vegas, Nevada, man for the kidnap and murder of a 12-year-old-girl, according to U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley.
The federal jury decided that Thomas Sanders, 57, should be put to death for the brutal kidnapping and murder of Lexis Roberts in the fall of 2010. During the penalty phase of the trial, the jury heard from a total of 18 witnesses called by the United States and by the defense. The jury determined that a sentence of death was appropriate for Sanders after deliberating for approximately seven hours. United States District Judge Dee D. Drell presided over the trial. This case represents the first time that the death penalty has been imposed in federal court in the Western District of Louisiana.
The penalty phase of the trial began on September 16, 2014, after the same jury found Sanders guilty of one count of kidnapping resulting in death and one count of using a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in death. Jury selection lasted eight days. Then the guilt phase began on Wednesday, September 3, and ended on Monday, September 8. The jury returned a guilty verdict after deliberating for about an hour.
During the penalty phase, jurors were asked to decide whether Sanders should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. Evidence admitted during trial established that Sanders met Suellen Roberts, 31, in the summer of 2010 when Roberts rented a storage unit at a warehouse in Las Vegas where Sanders worked. Roberts and Sanders began dating, and approximately two months later Roberts agreed that she and her 12-year-old daughter, Lexis, would go on a trip with Sanders over the Labor Day weekend to a wildlife park near the Grand Canyon. As they were returning to Nevada after three days of traveling, Sanders pulled off Interstate 40 in a remote location in the Arizona desert and fatally shot Suellen Roberts in the head and forced Lexis Roberts into the car, keeping her captive.
Sanders drove several days across the country before he murdered Lexis Roberts in a wooded area in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. Evidence at trial established that Sanders shot Lexis Roberts four times, cut her throat, and left her body in the woods where a hunter found her body on October 8, 2010. A nation-wide manhunt ensued and Sanders was arrested on November 14, 2010, at a truck stop in Gulfport, Mississippi, by FBI agents and a Harrison County Sheriff's Deputy.
During the guilt phase of the trial, jurors heard from 16 witnesses who described Suellen Roberts’ relationship with Sanders, the sequence of events that led up to the murder, and how law enforcement established Sanders as the killer. Jurors also heard a recorded confession from Sanders in which Sanders admitted killing the mother and daughter. Evidence considered by the jury established that Sanders shot Lexis Roberts four times, cut her throat, and left her body in the woods. A forensic analysis determined that Sanders slashed Lexis Roberts’ throat with such force and violence that the knife left cut marks on her cervical vertebra.
Members of Roberts’ family testified at trial, including her grandmother, grandfather, and great-aunt. Testimony from family members shared with the jurors that Lexis was vulnerable and explained the devastating impact that the crime has had on their family. Her great-aunt testified that Lexis vacationed at her New Hampshire home every summer, with the most recent trip just weeks before Lexis was kidnapped and murdered by Sanders. Her aunt testified that during Lexis’ last trip to New Hampshire, she encouraged Lexis to write in two journals. Pages from the journals were introduced during the penalty phase and were considered by the jury. The journals helped establish that Lexis was trusting, and in one journal she wrote that she believed that nothing bad would ever happen to her.
Lexis Roberts’ grandfather testified that he encouraged Suellen and Lexis Roberts to move from New Hampshire to Las Vegas so that Suellen could find better employment. He told jurors that based on what happened to his daughter and granddaughter, he now suffers from guilt for encouraging them to move.
The penalty phase of the trial further established that Sanders’ crime was the result of substantial planning and premeditation and that Lexis Roberts was a vulnerable victim. Testimony included that of two of Lexis’ sixth grade teachers from Charles Silvestri Junior High in Las Vegas. Her math teacher told jurors that Lexis was extremely shy but very hard working. Her English teacher testified that Lexis was sweet and vulnerable. When asked to describe Lexis in one word, she replied “innocent.”
“These types of cases are never easy, but today we remember the victims, their families and their loved ones. The nature of the crime and the level of violence involved are something that we never get used to no matter how long we have done this. The severity of the sentence imposed against Sanders underscores the senseless brutality of his acts against an innocent 12-year-old girl,” Finley stated. “Lexis Roberts was needlessly taken from a family that loved her, and she was denied the most fundamental right of life, and they were denied the joy of knowing what that life could have been. Still, we do not lose sight of the fact that this trial and sentencing also represent the right of due process that was extended to Sanders, and a jury of his peers has rendered justice. Nothing, no trial or sentence, can ever bring Lexis or her mother back, but we hope that the verdict brings some measure of closure to Lexis’ family. The prosecutors and the law enforcement agencies that assisted in this case are to be commended for their hard work. The importance of their collective efforts cannot be overstated.”
“This is a heartbreaking case,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell. “A young girl witnessed the murder of her mother, was held captive for days, and had her life cut tragically short by a senseless, brutal murder. We hope today’s verdict will help Lexis’ family as they continue to struggle with the loss of their loved ones.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Anderson added, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the victims who have endured unimaginable grief while awaiting the just verdict and sentence for such horrific crimes.”
The FBI, Central Louisiana Safe Streets Task Force, Catahoula Parish Sheriff’s Office, Harrison County Sheriff’s Office, Yavapai County Arizona Sheriff’s Office, Coconino County Arizona Sheriff’s Office, and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department conducted the investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney William J. Flanagan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon B. Brown, and Trial Attorney Julie Mosley of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Capital Case Section prosecuted the case.