On March 24, Salvatore Mazzella sat in the witness chair of a fifth-floor Wake County courtroom where he and his son, Sandy, were seeking a permanent restraining order against Jonathan Sander, their next-door neighbor and Sandy’s former employer.
In a halting, gravelly voice, Salvatore Mazzella, a 73-year-old New Jersey transplant who moved to Raleigh more than a decade ago with his wife, Elaine, told Wake County District Court Judge Ned Mangum, “I want the court to know that I fear for my life, and I fear for my family’s life, because of this monster I see in front of my eye.”
Sandy Mazzella used the same description of Sander when he was asked how his life had changed in recent months.
“What’s changed is because of a monster,” he said. “He’s a monster.”
Mangum dismissed the Mazzellas’ petition. He ruled that the father and son had “failed to prove grounds for issuance of a no-contact order,” which would have been in effect for one year, according to court documents filed after the hearing.
The next day, on March 25, terrified and stunned members of the Mazzella family called 911 just after 6 p.m. They reported that Sander, armed with a shotgun, had burst through the front door of Sandy Mazzella’s North Raleigh home and fatally shot Sandy Mazzella, 47, his wife, Stephanie Ann, 43, and his mother, Elaine, who was 76 and had accompanied him in court the day before.
Sander was quickly arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Sheriff’s deputies recovered 10 shotgun shells from the Mazzellas’ home and a Mossberg shotgun from Sander’s home after the shootings, according to search warrants made public Wednesday. The investigator who requested the warrants wrote that Sander had confessed to killing the Mazzellas.
Mangum declined to comment on his decision to dismiss the Mazzellas’ petition to make permanent a temporary restraining order that had been issued in February. Audio recordings of the March 24 hearing indicate that the Mazzellas faced a considerable challenge when they arrived in court without an attorney.
“You guys have the burden of proving, by the greater weight of the evidence,” that Sander had committed an unlawful act – “in this case, stalking” – Mangum told the Mazzellas.
The Mazzellas had scant knowledge of basic courtroom procedure and had difficulty proving that their lives were in danger as a consequence of Sander’s actions. They also failed to present specific instances that showed a pattern of Sander stalking them.
Sander’s attorney, Chris Detwiler, repeatedly objected when Sandy Mazzella tried to read text messages from his mobile phone to show that Sander had been stalking and threatening him.
“I guess I cannot ask you to read the texts, can I?” an apparently flustered Mazzella asked Mangum at one point.
Mangum accepted the text messages between Sander and Sandy Mazzella as evidence. After he reviewed them, he concluded their dispute was “over a truck and two other things. How is that stalking you?”
The judge asked Sandy Mazzella several times for specific instances that showed a pattern of stalking. “Details,” he said. “Tell me when and where.”
Sandy Mazzella alluded to daily verbal and mental abuse. The only specific incident he cited during the hearing occurred in September or October when Sander walked onto his property with a gun in front of Mazzella’s children, threatening to kill his dog.
“I don’t know how to explain it, your honor,” Sandy Mazzella said. “I apologize.”
Families had been close
Not long before they faced off in court last month, the Mazzella and Sander families had been close. They were next-door neighbors on Clearsprings Road, in a neighborhood of single-family houses with large front yards. The two families shared Christmas dinner and vacationed together this past winter.
Sandy Mazzella worked for Sander’s landscaping business. Their children attended the same schools. Sander called Sandy Mazzella “my little brother,” Detwiler said during the hearing.
But things soured between the two men in recent months. Detwiler suggested in court that Stephanie Ann Mazzella had engaged in a sexual encounter with Sander and his wife.
On Feb. 25, Sandy Mazzella petitioned the court to issue a Chapter 50C civil order that would bar Sander from contacting his family. Mazzella accused Sander of harassing him with “threatening texts, phone calls” and “in person threats,” according to a copy of the affidavit filed at the Wake County Clerk of Courts Office. A temporary restraining order against Sander was issued, and the purpose of the March 24 hearing was to determine whether the order should be made permanent.
One day after Sandy Mazzella obtained the temporary restraining order, his father filed for a similar order, accusing Sander of calling his phone and leaving a threatening message.
“My son filed a no contact order yesterday and [Sander] has violated that order last night,” Salvatore Mazzella wrote on Feb. 26. “The sheriff tried 2 times to arrest him & he was violent at the front window & refused to come out both times. This morning they arrested him.”
Sander, 52, was charged Feb. 26 with communicating threats. He was released after posting a $2,000 bond and ordered “not to threaten, assault or harass” Sandy Mazzella, according to the magistrate’s order. He was scheduled to appear in court April 1. These charges were dismissed after Sander was charged in the deaths of the three Mazzellas.
The Mazzellas had sought the protection of a 50C no-contact order, which allows a person to seek relief from a neighbor, co-worker or stranger who may place someone in “reasonable fear” for their safety or the safety of their immediate family or close associates. That reasonable fear includes “substantial emotional distress by placing that person in fear of death, bodily injury, or continued harassment,” according to state law.
A 50C order carries less weight than the more common 50B domestic violence protective order, used by people involved in a personal relationship with the accused person. A domestic protective order not only orders the accused person to stay away but also requires him or her to surrender any firearms.
If Mangum had ruled in favor of the Mazzellas’ petition for a permanent no-contact order, he could have ordered Sander to “not visit, assault, molest, or otherwise interfere” with the Mazzellas, according to state law.
Mangum also could have ordered Sander to cease stalking the Mazzellas and ordered him not to contact them by “telephone, written communication, or electronic means.” The District Court judge also could have barred Sander from “entering or remaining present at the Mazzellas’ home, workplace, school or other places when they might be present.
If Sander had violated the 50C order, he could have been found in contempt of court and might have been ordered to pay a fine or face jail time, according to state law.
Testifying in March before Judge Mangum, Salvatore Mazzella said he no longer went to his son’s home, for fear of his life. He said he and his wife, Elaine, were confronted by Sander at a restaurant in February and that Sander told him he was going to send the police to his house “to put you in jail.”
“Stuff like that,” Mazzella testified. “I want to move my son because I fear this, I won’t call him a gentleman. He’s a monster.”
Salvatore explained that he had received a threatening telephone message from a man who must have gotten his number from Jonathan Sander. Mangum asked what the message had to do with Sander.
“This has to have some relevance to the claim of stalking,” Mangum said.
Detwiler moved to dismiss the cases. He said that, save for one “vague remark about [Sandy Mazzella’s] pit bull attacking Jon Sander’s dog,” there was no evidence of threats or stalking.
Detwiler said Sander had been “incredibly polite” and, though he was insulted, he “certainly did not rush to the level of insult.” He told the court that Sander protecting his dog did not rise to the level of threats and stalking.
Before he rejected the request for a permanent restraining order, Mangum asked Sandy Mazzella what else he could share with the court to prove that he had been a victim of stalking.
“I don’t know, your honor,” Mazzella answered.
By 7 p.m. the next day, Sandy, Stephanie and Elaine Mazzella were dead.
Sandy’s terrified 14-year-old daughter screamed and cried while reporting the shootings to a 911 dispatcher. Another relative who was out walking the family dogs found the slain family members. Salvatore Mazzella, unharmed by the gunfire, stood in the middle of Clearsprings Road after the shootings, flagging down motorists for help.
“You killed my wife. You killed my wife,” he repeated over and over again to Sander’s wife and children after sheriff’s deputies arrived. Salvatore Mazzella was later hospitalized.
Detwiler, asked this week if he knew the relationship between the former friends and neighbors had deteriorated so badly, answered in a single word.
“No,” he said.