ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A self-proclaimed witch who had programmed the number of her victim in her cellphone under “Sacrifice” pleaded no contest Friday – albeit haltingly – to the second-degree murder of the man she stabbed to death in the Sandia foothills with a dagger.
The case made headlines because of the bizarre nature of the crime – Angela Sanford had met the victim at a casino less than a week earlier and asked him to meet her in the Sandias for a “Wiccan rite of spring.”
There, she stabbed him more than a dozen times with a dagger used in Wiccan rituals called an athame.
The first-degree murder case against Sanford had been pending for well over a year, during which she was jailed without bond.
The plea to second-degree murder contains aggravating factors that increase the potential 15-year sentence by five years, meaning Sanford faces up to 20 years when she is sentenced in October. On cases categorized as serious violent offenses, defendants must serve at least 85 percent of their time before becoming eligible for release.
But attention from the crowd in the courtroom Friday threatened to derail the deal.
Dozens of family and friends of Joel Leyva, as well as camera-wielding media, were on hand for Sanford’s scheduled plea. When her case initially was called, Sanford’s defense attorney Marcus Cameron said she was “a little overwhelmed” by all the activity in the courtroom and needed more time – perhaps a couple of months.
But stern words from 2nd Judicial District Judge Charles Brown and an impromptu recess to talk with Cameron helped motivate Sanford, 31, to proceed with her scheduled no contest plea to the second-degree murder of Leyva.
Sanford met Leyva, 52, at a casino the week before his murder in March 2010 and had been “socializing” with him when she asked him to meet her near the trailhead of the Sandia Foothills Open Space, police said.
Wiccans have disavowed Sanford’s actions and said adherents of the religion do not practice blood sacrifice. The athame is not used in any type of sacrifice, but as a consecrated item in their rituals.
At the outdoor site, Sanford had Leyva remove his clothes and took off most of hers, straddled him and stabbed him more than a dozen times, according to the police investigation.
She told police who found her hiding behind a boulder after the death that Leyva had made inappropriate sexual advances, but police cited multiple inconsistencies in her version of events. Some of those inconsistencies formed the basis for the first-degree murder charge and were incorporated into the factual basis for the plea.
Among aggravating factors in the case was Sanford’s cellphone programming, listing Leyva’s number under “Sacrifice” instead of his name.
Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Ibarra also cited in the written agreement “the number of stab wounds” Leyva suffered – 13 in the head and neck and several in the stomach – with a dagger intended for rituals.
Prosecutors cited examples of premeditation, including commission of the crime in an area where it was “nearly impossible to be seen from the outside,” bringing a dagger to the scheduled meeting, “inaccuracies regarding the ‘Wiccan’ ceremony she claimed to be performing” and “the appearance of ritualistic style in committing the homicide.”
Sanford seemed to be smiling as she stood before Brown for the plea hearing and as other cases were called Friday morning. Brown noted the case had already been pending for a year and a half, and Ibarra said he would have to consult with supervisors before deciding whether the plea offer would remain on the table beyond Friday.
After taking more pleas, Brown returned to Sanford’s case, and this time she took the offer.
Matt Leyva, the victim’s son, spoke outside the courtroom flanked by the 30 or 40 people who came to watch the plea. He said his father’s church funeral drew an overflow crowd of 1,500 people.
“This is first-degree murder,” he said. He said the state’s sentencing laws are “awful.”
Ibarra said after the hearing that because there is no mandatory sentence for second-degree murder, defendants who are convicted face from probation to 15 years in prison.
Matt Leyva said nothing had changed in the time Sanford has been in custody for killing his father.
“She’s up there smirking and smiling,” he said. “If it’s one year or 100, it’s not going to bring Dad back. She needs to be put away.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal