DA: Man Murdered Girlfriend and Then Slept in Bed With Her for Two Weeks

John Clauer, then 63, of Santa Cruz, goes on trial for the April, 2011 murder of his 30-year-old girlfriend.

John Clauer glares at photographers in the courtroom. Photo by Brad Kava
John Clauer glares at photographers in the courtroom. Photo by Brad Kava
—Written by Brad Kava

John Clauer not only brutally murdered his 30-year-old alcoholic girlfriend in the bed they shared near the Beach Boardwalk, but he slept with her decomposing dead body in the studio apartment for two and a half weeks, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Jeff  Rosell said Clauer, 63, told police that the bad smell coming from his apartment was rotting garbage, but it was actually the body of Heather Stearns, who had been killed in the bed and was still there.

"Something went foul," Rosell said Clauer told police who were investigating the smell. "But it was not trash. It was a person. It was a human being. It was a 30-year-old woman who liked to sing Patsy Cline songs."

Rosell told the eight-woman, four-man jury that the evidence would show that Clauer strangled Stearns so hard that he broke a bone in her neck, and he punched her so hard that he injured her sternum and her heart. He asked them to find him guilty of first-degree murder, for which the maximum penalty is life in prison.

Defense attorney Zach Schwarzbach argued in his opening statement that the district attorney had the wrong man. He said DNA under Stearns's fingernails could be traced to another person, not Clauer. He also said that Clauer owned a recreational vehicle that he could have been sleeping in and was also seen sleeping outside, not in the smelly room.

"You will learn from the evidence, not from the word of lower Ocean Street drug addicted prostitutes," said Zach Schwarzbach, who is joined on defense by attorney Mandy Tovar.

The jury is expected to hear from as many as 50 witnesses over four to six weeks, according to District Attorney Bob Lee. 

During the gruesome opening statement, Clauer sat shaking his head and looking defiant. As news photographers walked into the courtroom to get permission from Judge John Salazar to photograph the proceedings, Clauer greeted them saying, "I want copies of all your work."

Both attorneys acknowledged that Stearns was an alcoholic whose life centered around getting more alcohol. Rosell said she traded sex with Clauer for a room and drinks. Clauer, who lived on a veteran's pension, kept the alcohol flowing. He also had a business buying and selling cars.

"It was a triad of dysfunction," said Rossel. "Alcohol and a place to stay, in exchange for sex."

Schwarzbach claimed that the couple had a relationship and that they provided comfort for each other. So, he said, Clauer had no motive to kill Stearns. 

However, Rosell painted a very different picture, saying Clauer had beaten Stearns with a hammer in 2007, sending her to Dominican Hospital. Neighbors said they often fought and he locked her out of the small studio and made her sleep on the porch. 

Two weeks before the murder, Clauer had choked and fought with a prostitute in the same bed when she wouldn't have sex with him, said Rossel.

Two of the main witnesses Rossel promised lived next door. This couple could hear the arguments, which were a regular occurrence, Rosell said. Their bed was pushed up against the adjoining wall. On the night of the murder they heard Stearns screaming "Get off me" and then let out a choked call for help. Then, they heard pounding that shook their apartment.

They didn't do anything for two weeks, when they smelled something horrible. First, they thought it was in their apartment and they searched an armoire. Then, they realized it was coming from Clauer's apartment and they asked the landlord for a key to look inside. 

When they went in, they saw Stearns's body in the bed, Rosell said, and they called police, who arrived at the same time as Clauer. That's when Clauer told them the smell was just garbage.

The apartment complex is on the 1100 block of East Cliff Drive, at the top of the first hill of the Wharf to Wharf race, Rosell said, humanizing the crime and the victim. "She went to area schools. She had friends and family. She liked to sing."

There is a Facebook page devoted to Stearns here. 

Rosell said Clauer liked to be in control and abused women. He said he was angry with Stearns because she allowed one of his cars to be towed by Watsonville Police and he told friends he would give them $100 if they found her so he could kill her.

He also focused on the smell that Clauer lived with for more than two weeks, which he said would be corroborated by the medical examiner.

"You will learn what the smell of a decomposing body is like, how it pervades your soul, your body; how it clings to you."

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Lynley Kerr Hogan January 09, 2014 at 11:52 AM
Ethan Harmer January 09, 2014 at 12:26 PM


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