Wednesday, 12 June 2024

REGIONAL: Man who murdered disabled woman and set her home on fire sentenced to life in prison

SANTA ROSA – A man who shot a disabled woman to death before setting her home on fire will spend the rest of his life in prison.

John Michael Wayne, 35, of Sonoma, was sentenced on Tuesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years to life, plus eight years, for the 2006 slaying of April Denton, a disabled Santa Rosa woman, according to Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua.

On March 8 a jury found Wayne guilty of first-degree murder and also found true two special circumstances of murder during the commission of robbery and murder during the commission of burglary and that Wayne used a firearm during the crime which caused death, Passalacqua reported.

“This killing exemplifies the tragic consequences of drug use and greed,” Passalacqua said. “I am very pleased that this man will never be free to prey on our community again.”

Denton, 52, lived at a semi-rural property located off of Santa Rosa Avenue, just outside the limits of the City of Santa Rosa, with her two dogs Athena and Britney.

According to the district attorney's report, she sustained a serious and debilitating back injury in an ice-skating accident a number of years before her death.

As a result of the injury she suffered chronic back pain, was unable to work and was prescribed large quantities of pain medications. Denton supplemented her limited disability income by selling, illegally, a small percentage of her pain medications.

On Jan. 22, 2006, firefighters responded to her home which was engulfed in flames. Denton was reportedly found in her bedroom, deceased, and badly burned over most of her body. Her two dogs were found dead inside the enclosed porch area of the residence having died as a result of heat and fire related injuries.

Denton's death originally was thought to be from smoke inhalation caused as a result of an accidental fire, according to the report.

It wasn’t until the autopsy on Jan. 23, 2006, when the cause of death was determined to be the result of a single gunshot wound to the right side of her neck, that law enforcement suspected this was a homicide.

Arson investigators examined the scene and concluded that the fire was arson and was set with the use of gasoline being deposited in several locations within the residence. A quantity of pain pills and cash were also found to be missing from her home, officials reported.

Wayne, who reportedly had a serious and longstanding addiction to pain medications, was a friend of Denton’s son, Benjamin. Wayne had purchased pain killers from April Denton on several occasions and on the evening of Jan. 21, 2006, he is alleged to have desperately wanted more pain medications.

The prosecution alleged that Wayne called a friend, Steven King, to go with him to Denton’s rural Santa Rosa home. At the time, Wayne lived at his parents’ home in the city of Sonoma; and Steven King was living with friends on a property located near Tolay Creek, next to San Pablo Bay.

Wayne drove King and another friend, Johanna Persi, to Santa Rosa, stopping near April Denton’s house. Neither Steven King nor Johanna Persi knew April Denton nor had they ever met her and neither had ever been to her house before.

According to the report, Wayne stopped his Suburban and walked away from the vehicle toward April Denton’s house which was down a dark driveway. King, who got into the driver’s seat and drove away from the area, had arranged with Wayne to return to the area in a few minutes and believed Wayne was going to a residence in the area to obtain drugs.

However, King drove back to his residence near Tolay Creek and shortly after arriving home, King received a phone call from Wayne asking King to come pick him up.

King and Persi drove back to Santa Rosa and picked up Wayne who admitted to killing April Denton. Wayne also was seen in possession of a quantity of prescription pills. Wayne said that they needed to burn down the residence in order to conceal his crime. They allegedly drove to a nearby rural location and Wayne and King syphoned gas into bottles.

It's alleged that Wayne drove back to the area and stopped near April Denton’s house, where he got out and took the gasoline bottles with him. King drove off with an understanding that he was to return in a few minutes to a predesignated spot to pick Wayne up. Wayne then disappeared from view. Wayne made his way to April Denton’s house, entered and set the house on fire for the purpose of concealing his crime.

Wayne, King and Persi then returned to Kings Tolay Creek residence. King allegedly took the gun and a knife from Wayne and threw the items into the San Pablo Bay which was just behind King’s house. Wayne burned his clothes in a burn barrel, before getting into his Suburban and driving away by himself. Both King and Persi testified at Wayne’s trial.

Steven King previously pleaded guilty to felony charges of arson and being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to eight years in state prison.

The District Attorney’s Office and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office worked closely during this investigation and in presenting this case to the jury. Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner was the assigned prosecutor and Dave Pederson the lead sheriff’s investigator.

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