JACKSON, Miss. - Federal prosecutors have until Aug. 1 to decide if they'll seek the death penalty against a man who was declared dead in Mississippi in 1994 and surfaced years later as a suspect in the deaths of his Las Vegas girlfriend and her daughter.
Thomas Steven Sanders is charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, La., with kidnapping resulting in the death of 12-year-old Lexis Roberts. Her body was found by hunters in October 2010 in Catahoula Parish, La. The body of her mother, Suellen Roberts, was found the next month in Yavapai County, Ariz.
Sanders is charged in Louisiana with kidnapping resulting in death and using a gun during a crime that resulted in death. Both charges carry possible death sentences. There had been a July 2 deadline to decide on the death penalty, but a judge extended it at the request of prosecutors in April.
Court records say the Justice Department is reviewing the matter.
Authorities involved in the case did not respond to questions about whether a decision had been made. Sanders' lawyers didn't respond to messages.
Authorities say Sanders confessed to killing the mother and daughter. Court documents that detail his conversations with investigators include graphic and chilling details, including that the child watched as her mother was shot in the head.
Sanders walked away from his family in Mississippi in 1987 and they didn't hear from him for years. His parents, brother and former wife petitioned a Pike County, Miss., court in July 1994 to have him declared dead. Despite the death certificate, Sanders was able to move about easily and undetected even though he was arrested over the years.
He ended up in Las Vegas and was living at a storage facility, where he was when he met Suellen Roberts. A relationship developed and they planned to take her daughter on a trip to Bearizona, a wildlife park in Arizona near the Grand Canyon, for the Labor Day weekend in 2010, according to court documents.
They spent the night in a hotel and played in the swimming pool. On their way back to Nevada, Sanders pulled over in the desert "ostensibly so Suellen could shoot his .22 rifle" but instead he shot her in the head, according to a court records based on Sanders' alleged confession.
"Sanders then loaded Lexis, who was in hysterics over seeing her mother murdered, into the car and traveled to Louisiana. He took Lexis to a wooded area and shot her in the back of the head and, when she didn't die, he shot her twice more in the head. When she still didn't die, he tried to shoot her through the heart. When she still didn't die, he cut her throat, killing her," according to a judge's review of Sanders' confession.
Sanders' lawyers fought to have the confession suppressed. U.S. Magistrate James Kirk weighed arguments on the confession and in March wrote a lengthy recommendation that it be allowed at trial. U.S. District Judge Dee Drell ruled the following month that the prosecutors can present the confession to jurors during the trial, which is scheduled for Jan. 14.
Authorities in Louisiana and Arizona have said Sanders is likely to face state charges at some point. They are working with federal investigators on the case.