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Death-penalty defendant lashes out at victim’s family in court before deputies remove him

In handcuffs and chained around the waist, accused killer Jonathan Sander lashed out Monday at the elderly father and husband of the victims, forcing deputies to pull Sander out of court.

On the first day of testimony in his trial, Sander loudly interrupted Salvatore Mazzella on the witness stand as Mazzella tearfully recalled his wife dying of shotgun wounds.

“You’re telling me I blasted through the door five times?” Sander yelled. “You killed your family, and you’re going down for it!”

Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley instructed jurors to disregard the outburst and, outside their presence, warned Sander that he had one more chance to be civil or he would be watching his trial from a holding cell.

Prosecutors said Monday that Sander shot his next-door neighbor and business partner, along with the partner’s wife and mother, out of small disputes that snowballed into rage, telling investigators, “I wanted to kill him so that his family would be hurt like my family was.”

The death penalty case began against Sander, who was 52 at the time of the triple slaying in 2016, with a description of the steady disintegration of his friendship with Sandy Mazzella, 47, with whom he operated a landscaping and lawn care business near Wake Forest.

Mazzella, his wife, Stephanie, and his 76-year-old mother, Elaine, died from shotgun blasts in their home on Clearsprings Drive.

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Jonathan Sander is subdued by deputies as he shouts at the Salvatore Mazzella, father and husband of victims. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Sander and the Mazzellas were close enough that their families briefly lived in the same house and took vacations together, Assistant District Attorney Stacy Newton said.

But the friendship began to sour over petty disagreements such as who watched the children while they were vacationing in Gatlinburg, Tenn., grew larger when the Mazzellas’ poor finances strained the business and other members of their family got added into the landscaping mix, and finally erupted once a member of the Mazzella family, a minor, accused Sander of inappropriately touching her, Sander’s attorney Thomas Manning said.

“Police kept getting called,” he said. “It went on and on.”

Manning said his client denied killing the Mazzellas but noted events in which “there were epithets hurled” and “the temperature went up on the internet.”

Both sides noted that Sandy Mazzella and his father “Sal” tried to obtain permanent restraining orders against Sander — cases that a district court judge dismissed on the day before the shootings.

Police responded to a dispute between the families on the morning of the shootings, issuing Sander’s wife a citation for blocking a driveway. Later, Newton said, Sander went to a Buffalo Brothers in Wake Forest where he was a regular customer, telling a bartender that served him his customary Shock Top beer that he “would see him on the news the next day.”

Sander shot his way into the house, shot Sandy Mazzella three times, his wife two times and his mother twice, Newton said. He spoke to deputies afterward, having been read his rights, and told them he wanted to cause the Mazzella family similar pain, Newton said.

“He told police, ‘When I shot Sandy, I felt like I got my revenge,’ “ Newton said.

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Jonathan Sander shouts at Salvatore Mazzella in court Monday.

Salvatore Mazzella said he was afraid of Sander prior to the shooting, and on the day it happened, he encouraged a family member to stop arguing with him in the yard outside. Later, inside the house, he heard shots and a warning from his son to take cover. Then, he said, he saw Sander point a gun at his wife.

“I tried to go back in the dining room to hit him over the head,” Mazzella testified. “But I didn’t have a chance. My wife said three words. She said three words: ‘Oh my God.’ And she perished. So my son says, ‘Run, Dad, Run!’ and that’s what I did. I ran through the woods.”

Monday’s trial marks the second time Wake County has sought the death penalty this year, an increasingly rare punishment in North Carolina. The state has not executed a prisoner since 2006, and juries more often opt for life in prison.

Earlier in March, a jury sentenced Seaga Gillard to death for two murders that stemmed from a string of robberies involving sex workers at Raleigh motels.

District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has said her office reserves capital punishment for a small percentage of the most egregious cases, but the nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation has called her an “outlier” for bucking the statewide trend.

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