(ABC) — Sandra “Sandy” Melgar is currently sitting in a Texas state prison, convicted of murdering her husband of 32 years and accused of staging the crime scene to make it look like a home invasion in 2012.
But yet, even now, her conviction remains controversial.
Sandy Melgar, now 59, was found two days before Christmas 2012 tied up inside a closet in her Houston area home with a chair jamming the door closed. Her husband Jaime “Jim” Melgar, 52, was found in a separate closet dead from blunt force trauma and multiple stab wounds from a kitchen knife.
Authorities believe that they have Jim Melgar’s killer behind bars, but Sandy Melgar, her family and her supporters believe that she was wrongfully convicted and that the real killer is still out there.
“I know that she did not do this,” the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth “Lizz” Melgar Rose, told “20/20.” “I’m going to continue to fight until we can prove that.”
Jim Melgar was born in Guatemala but immigrated to the U.S. when he was 3 years old. His family settled in Houston, where Sandy Melgar, then Sandy McCulloch, lived. The two ended up becoming high school sweethearts.
A few years after high school, the couple got married and started careers — Jim Melgar became an I.T. specialist and Sandy, a nurse. The two had a daughter, Lizz, now 32. They also joined Jehovah’s Witnesses, an austere Christian sect that demands adherence to strict rules of behavior.
“We were a very close-knit family,” Lizz Melgar Rose said.
But Sandy Melgar suffered from a few medical conditions. She had lupus, epilepsy and hypothyroidism, and she had also had hip replacements. Rose said she saw her mother have violent seizures multiple times.
“She had epilepsy [that began] before I was born, and the lupus didn’t come until I was about 3,” Rose said. “I remember that because she had to seek treatment for about six weeks. She had gone paralyzed on one side of her body. She was in a wheelchair. She was having a really hard time.”
Stephanie Davies, a family friend of the Melgars, said she noticed Jim Melgar was spending more and more time as his wife’s caretaker.
“Jim was very involved with all aspects, researching her condition, trying to find any kind of possible treatments, cures, whatever he could do,” Davies said. “There were times that she didn’t feel safe driving. She was afraid that her seizures might come on … so she depended on him for a lot of day-to-day activities.”
On Dec. 22, 2012, Sandy and Jim Melgar wanted to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Rose said her mother told her they were going out to dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant, and then she said Sandra told her, “They stopped by a local CVS just to grab some drink mixers on their way back home. They got home. They started getting drinks ready. They got into the Jacuzzi in their bathroom. Spent a few hours in there.”
Rose said her mother told her that the family’s four dogs then suddenly started barking in the backyard, so her father went to investigate while her mother stayed and soaked in the Jacuzzi.
“I think he took a few minutes, so she decided to get out of the Jacuzzi,” Rose said. “She went to her closet, sat on her chair that she has in her closet and started putting lotion on.”
The Melgars had planned a family get-together for the following day, Dec. 23, 2012. Jim Melgar’s brother, Herman Melgar, and his family arrived at the house at 4:30 p.m.
Herman Melgar said they knocked on the door, but no one answered. He noticed one of the garage doors was open so, he said, he went through the garage, entered the house and unlocked the front door for the others. They called out for Sandy and Jim Melgar but still no one answered.
“I was telling my Dad. … I remember clearly telling him, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’” said Herman Melgar’s daughter, Marissa Campos.
Herman Melgar said he then heard Sandy Melgar calling for help. He raced to the master bathroom and said he found a chair blocking the bathroom walk-in closet door and moved it. When he opened the door, he said, he saw Sandy Melgar lying there, with her arms and legs tied up.
He struggled to untie Sandy Melgar and she told him to grab a pair of scissors to cut her loose.
Jim Melgar was then found nude, beaten and stabbed to death in a closet in the master bedroom about 30 feet away from the closet where Sandy was found. His legs were tied with a telephone cord and a rope was tied loosely around his chest.
In total, authorities said, Jim Melgar had more than 50 stab, cutting and blunt-force wounds and injuries.
“He’s got a lot of defensive wounds on both hands, which means he was trying to either disarm the attacker or block the assault,” said Celestina Rossi, a blood pattern and crime reconstruction expert who testified for the prosecution.
Rossi said, in her opinion, that Jim Melgar and his assailant were locked in hand-to-hand combat in the bedroom closet and that he was killed there.
“Aside from the 31 cuts and stabs, Jim was badly beaten in the face and head, causing serious damage to his skull, brain and facial bones,” she said.
Authorities noted that drawers had been pulled open, jewelry boxes had been riffled through, and a wallet and a purse had been overturned on the bed. Police found a white blouse and a kitchen knife in the Jacuzzi tub near the master bathroom where Sandy Melgar was found. But police also found a loaded gun hidden from view in the bedroom closet where Jim Melgar was found and a locked safe.
Sandy Melgar, the only surviving witness of the attack, had trouble recalling what had happened.
During her police interview, Sandy Melgar told detectives that she and Jim had gone to dinner at the Mexican restaurant and stopped at a CVS to buy drink mixers. She said she remembered a mysterious car trailing them after they left the CVS parking lot but that it had turned a different direction at some point.
After arriving home, she said, she and Jim undressed and got into the Jacuzzi. Sometime around midnight, she said, her husband heard the dogs barking and went to go let them into the house.
“He just was taking a while so I got out and was going to get dressed, or change in my closet. I went in there and I started to change and that’s all I remember until I woke up,” Sandy Melgar told the detectives.
She said she never heard or saw her husband being attacked. She told police that she had blacked out after either hitting her head or being struck, and may have had an epileptic seizure.
“I couldn’t move because I had had a seizure and so I usually can’t move anyway. I hurt all over and my head hurts,” she said.
But it appeared that police were suspicious of her story. Detectives indicated they just couldn’t understand how she could have been unaware of her husband’s being murdered in the next room.
“I know how it looks. I was also tied up,” she said in the police interview.
Sandy Melgar’s family said that in quick succession she went from being a wife to becoming a widow and then a suspect in the brutal murder of her husband.
Campos, Herman Melgar’s daughter, said she got the feeling detectives were already looking at her aunt the night the crime was discovered. She said her family doesn’t believe that after 32 years of an apparently happy marriage she would suddenly stab her husband to death.
Mac Secrest, Sandy Melgar’s defense attorney, said: “This idea that something must have happened, and then she went crazy and subjected him to over 50 blunt-force and sharp-force injuries is just — impossible.”
Suspicions surrounding Sandy Melgar started with her questioning by detectives, who indicated they just couldn’t understand how she could have been unaware of her husband being murdered in the next room.
“I know how it looks. I was also tied up,” she said in the police interview.
Lizz Melgar Rose said the thought that her mother could have murdered her father had crossed her mind: “I tried to look at the evidence. … I tried to be unbiased about it, which is difficult because these are my parents.”
“In the end, I still want justice for my dad. I want to know who did this, and it was not my mother,” Rose said.
Sandy Melgar wasn’t arrested at that time. A year and a half went by and she moved on with her life.
But then in the summer of 2014, Rose learned that her mother had been indicted in her father’s murder.
“I found out … there was a warrant out for her arrest,” Rose said. “We called the lawyer and we had her turn herself in.”
It took an additional three years, but the case finally went to trial in 2017.
In court, prosecutor Colleen Barnett argued a possible motive was that Sandy Melgar wanted a divorce, but feared being shunned by her fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Sandy’s attorneys presented the picture of a happily married couple in court.
Barnett told the jury that Sandy Melgar had lured Jim Melgar into letting her tie up his legs with telephone cord — perhaps as some sort of sex game — and then taken him by surprise, using a large kitchen knife to stab him to death.
As for the appearance of a home invasion, Barnett argued that it was staged, pointing to crime-scene photos of drawers that were neatly arranged, not dumped. She argued that there was no sign of forced entry. And while Barnett claims that nothing was taken from the home, Melgar’s defense attorneys disagree, saying there were a number of items of value that were removed.
Officers had already recorded a demonstration of how Sandy Melgar could have used a small rug or pillow sham to slide the chair into place under the door knob, locking herself into the closet. Barnett showed the jury how Sandy could have tied her own hands behind her back.
Barnett also researched Sandy’s medical records, telling the jury that Sandy had not reported any seizures to her primary care physician for several years prior to her husband’s murder, and it was only well after he died that she recalled having a seizure that year.
However, for the defense, there was a question of Jim Melgar’s blood. Sandy Melgar’s attorneys argued that her hands were clean and that there was no sign anyone had cleaned up in the house. There were also no injuries on her hands and none of her nails was even chipped or broken.
Male and female DNA that investigators found around the house on dresser-drawer pulls, door handles and bathroom-door handles did not match anyone in the Melgar family. The defense says it came from unknown strangers.
The jury deliberated over the case for about eight hours over two days.
“We all talked about how this case… was the last thing you thought about when you went to bed at night, and first thing you thought about when you woke up in the morning,” jury foreman Tom Bush said. “That’s the gravity that we weighed this case with.”
At first, Bush says the jury was split down the middle. On the second day, however, it reached a verdict: Sandy Melgar was found guilty of murder.
“You know, I felt like … everything just got really quiet,” Lizz Melgar Rose said. “The room was just kind of spinning. Yeah, I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about it or hear other people talk about it.”
“I remember clearly just looking at the jurors, just staring at them, every single one of them, because I wanted to remember their faces and I wanted them to look at us and see … the pain that they were causing,” Campos said.
At her sentencing, Sandy Melgar was given 27 years in state prison. She is appealing her conviction.
One of her family members contacted Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and now host of a criminal investigation podcast called “Truth and Justice,” to plead for help.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty. I saw that the prosecution’s case didn’t have any meat to it. There were no bones behind why they convicted her,” Ruff said. “Can I see a scenario where this happened? Can I make this make sense? That Sandra Melgar killed her husband. In this case, I couldn’t see it so we jumped in.”
Ruff believes in the power of crowdsourcing, using the sleuthing powers of what he says are a quarter-million podcast listeners to re-examine the case.
The podcast host says assailants could have entered the house when Jim Melgar opened the back door to let the dogs in from the back yard or they may have already been inside the house when Jim went to get the dogs. Sandy has said she did not know if the back door had been left unlocked, as she had not used it that day.
“The offenders could have entered through the door causing the dogs to bark,” Ruff said on “Truth and Justice.” “Jim emerged from the master suite to check on the dogs. Jim locks the door behind him and turns around [to see the offenders] confronting him with some kind of weapon.”
Lizz Melgar Rose is hoping that Ruff’s novel approach of crowdsourcing his podcast investigations with his audience will help get her mother out of prison.
Ruff said one of his podcast listeners looked at the crime scene photo of the white blouse found in the tub and figured out from looking at the tag “that designer made that specific shirt exclusively for Costco.”
“Which is huge because Costco happens to be one of the only places where you have to have a membership card… for any item that you purchase,” he added.
Barnett, the prosecutor, is skeptical of Ruff’s methods.
“I think that people who aren’t in law enforcement and haven’t seen the evidence … have a question about it because she walked around with a cane. She’s a petite woman. They were married for 32 years. I understand the questions that they have,” Barnett said. “It’s unusual for sure. That we have a suspect that’s like Sandra. … But that doesn’t determine whether somebody commits a crime or not.”
As far as Rose is concerned, her father’s killer is still out there.
High-profile defense attorney Kathleen Zellner, who represented Steven Avery, the subject of a popular Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” among other well-known clients, has recently announced she will represent Melgar.