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Judge rules Pahrump teens accused of killing mother can go to trial

Updated September 6, 2018 - 8:00 pm

When Nye County Deputy Eric Anderson pulled up to the desert area, he smelled the odor of a decomposing body.

“As we began digging, the foul odor became even stronger,” he testified Thursday in a Pahrump courtroom.

He and other members of the Nye County Sheriff’s Office were led by 17-year-old Michael Wilson to the shallow grave the morning of Aug. 1, according to arrest reports and testimony from witnesses, and Wilson confessed to deputies to beating and stabbing his adoptive mother, Dawn Liebig, 46.

After Wilson’s confession, Liebig’s biological son of the same age, Dakota Saldivar, also admitted to the killing, according to the reports and testimony.

Justice of the Peace Kent Jasperson ruled Thursday that prosecutors have enough evidence to present the case to a jury.

Throughout the preliminary hearing, which began Aug. 30 and was spread over three days, eight winesses testified, and defense attorneys argued over body camera footage that showed the teens’ confessions.

In the videos, Wilson told officers that their mother, who was reported missing nearly two weeks earlier, was asleep on a couch in the family’s living room just before the July attack.

Wilson stabbed his mother in the neck, waking her up, he told deputies. He stabbed her about five more times, he said.

Saldivar told deputies that he hit her in the had with a hammer about 20 times in a nearly half-hour attack.

On Thursday, the teens listened silently in the courtroom, hanging their heads as their attorneys argued that the body found in the desert was not tested for DNA.

“Other than their statements, we have no evidence that the person, that the body, at that gravesite is Dawn Liebig,” Wilson’s attorney, Carl Joerger, said.

The defense also argued that there was no evidence, other than the confessions, that the killing described by the teens occurred.

“You have to have more than just confessions. In this, that’s what you have,” said Saldivar’s attorney, Harry Gensler. “You have the confession of Mr. Wilson, which is basically the entire case. If you do not have the confession of Mr. Wilson, you don’t have the confession of Mr. Saldivar, you don’t have the recovery of the body, you don’t have anything else.”

Gensler presented another theory: The person could have been dead already and mutilated afterward.

“We don’t have any cause of death, again, except that these kids said that they killed their mother,” he said. “The state’s theory is that because these guys said it, then they stabbed their mother to death.”

Deputy District Attorney Michael Vieta-Kabell argued that the state had met the burden of proof with a “mountain” of evidence.

He noted last week’s testimony of Liebig’s mother, Donna, who said her daughter regularly visited and abruptly stopped visiting around July 20.

“A decomposed body is found wrapped in linens and buried in a shallow grave, with evidence that she had been stabbed multiple times and hit in the head,” Vieta-Kabell said.

He also noted the testimony from other witnesses: a deputy who said weapons and cleaning products were buried about 175 yards from the grave; a detective who found evidence of blood and cleaning supplies in the family’s home; and detectives’ testimony that it would take more than one person to drag the body to the gravesite.

Jasperson agreed with prosecutors, adding that they didn’t have to prove a cause of death, just that a criminal death occurred.

“The testimony by the grandmother was pretty overwhelming,” the judge said. “There was even testimony on one of the video cameras that when they went out and started to stab her, the first thing she said was, ‘No, no, stop,’ so we know she was alive.”

The teens are charged murder with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder, destroying evidence, conspiracy to destroy evidence and two counts of being an accessory to murder. They are charged as adults and face a maximum sentence of life with the possibility of parole.

They are to appear Sept. 28 in District Court.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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