Joseph Nissensohn was convicted in 2013 of the 1981 murders of Tammy Jarschke, 13, and Tanya Jones, 14, along with the 1989 murder of a South Lake Tahoe girl, 15-year-old Kathy Graves.
On Sept. 9, 1981, a team of woodcutters found Tanya’s decomposed body tied with electrical wire to a tree about a mile off Tassajara Road on Chews Ridge, Monterey County, California. Sheriff’s deputies combing the area for evidence found Tammy’s remains nearby.
Nine years later, Nissensohn’s estranged wife, Cheryl Rose, showed up in a Florida battered women’s shelter. She told police her husband had killed a woman in Tacoma, Wash. She agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. The next year, Nissensohn was convicted of killing Sally Jo Tsaggaris, 46, during drug-fueled, bondage-style sex in a van.
Rose testified that she believed Nissensohn was responsible for many earlier murders, including two in Oklahoma and one in Nevada. She described the disappearance of Kathy Graves in South Lake Tahoe three months after the Tacoma murder.
Rose also told investigators about a killing that matched details of the Chews Ridge slayings. Nissensohn was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the Tacoma murder, but in 2008, after serving 15 years, he was about to be let out with credits for good behavior.
Monterey and South Lake Tahoe’s El Dorado County filed charges and combined all three murders to be tried at the same time. Authorities found Jessie Prieto, Nissensohn’s best friend. Prieto agreed to cooperate and said he and his friend were with Tammy and Tanya on June 25, 1981, and that Nissensohn told him he wanted to take the girls to Chews Ridge and rape them. But Prieto died before the case ever made it to trial. Cheryl Rose, who was in poor health, was barely able to testify in a 2010 preliminary hearing, and died five months later. However, prosecutor Dale Gomes was able to submit Rose’s testimony transcript as evidence at trial. A jailhouse informant informant testified that Nissensohn confessed to killing Tammy and Tanya.
Just before Nissensohn was sentenced in 1991, he contacted police, and told them in an interview that he did not kill Sally Jo Tsaggaris or Kathy Graves, claiming that his wife, Cheryl Rose, killed them, and he just hid the body of Tsaggaris. The long interview, which was taped, was played for the jury. Nissensohn told two offices that he was a scapegoat for Rose, who had killed Sally. He only helped get rid of the body, he said. The first murder trial was a conspiracy against him, he said, involving Rose, who testified in exchange for immunity, and his defense counsel, who offered no defense and simply rested their case without so much as calling a witness. Because he was about to be sentenced and likely extradited to California for the murder of Graves, he wanted to strike a deal himself. Nissensohn said on the tape that he met Rose in a motel and of their wild life of drugs and sex, with Rose bringing home “beautiful women” to “party” with and play “sexual games,” while he brought in drugs. One day, he came back from getting drugs to find Tsaggaris stabbed to death, but didn’t go to the police. Instead, he helped get rid of the body. “I know Cheryl did it,” Nissensohn said on the tape. “I came back to that van and that girl was dead. Cheryl did it. I had nothing to worry about … I sat there and heard it for a day and a half after my lawyer stuck it to me by going, ‘Defense rests.’ Guilty of second-degree murder. And all I did was help get rid of the body. Guilty of second-degree murder. I didn’t do it.
The defense called a witness who testified that her ex-husband killed Tammy and Tanya.
The defense called Brian Jarvis of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to the stand. Jarvis, now retired, was part of interviews with Rose, which were played via audio and shown on video. Though the interviews from 1990 were nearly unintelligible, the jury was provided a transcript, and Jarvis was questioned after each segment.
The defense asked questions concerning answers Rose had given, showing she changed answers over time. Between the 1990 interviews and a 2007 interview, she changed her story of the last time she saw Kathy Graves, a South Lake Tahoe teenager Nissensohn is accused of killing. First, she said she saw the girl leaving to hitchhike to find a job; then, she last saw the girl as Nissensohn led her into the hills of the forest, after they had stopped their van. Nissensohn allegedly wanted sex, and when denied by the girl, killed her.
She also changed her story of what Nissensohn had carried into the woods. Originally, she said it was a quilt. Then, she changed her story to a bag of sex toys that also had a kitchen knife — what she said Nissensohn used to kill Graves and Tsaggaris.