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Guilty or Innocent: The Case Against Sarah Jo Pender



 

            In late October 2000, Indianapolis detectives had two bodies on their hands.  On October 25th, the bodies of a man and woman were found in a dumpster in downtown Indianapolis. The bodies were clearly the result of murder: the man had been shot in the chest and the woman shot in both the chest and head. The bodies had tattoos which were used to identify them as twenty-six-year-old Tricia Nordman and twenty-five-year-old Andrew Cataldi. The two were both fugitives from the State of Nevada. How did two fugitives from Nevada end up murdered in a dumpster in Indiana?

            Tricia Nordman was born September 19th, 1974.Tricia was tall, five foot eleven inches, and had blond hair and blue eyes. A pretty girl, Tricia had three children: a daughter and two sons. She was known as a kind, loving person. However, she struggled with drug abuse that found her in and out of trouble. Her children’s father left early in their lives. Tricia struggled and was arrested and placed in the Nevada Department of Corrections for a forgery charge. There, she met Andrew Cataldi. Andrew Cataldi was born August 19th, 1975. He was incarcerated in Nevada for dealing methamphetamine when he escaped with Tricia Nordman.

            In the fall of 2000, Andrew Cataldi and Trisha Nordman had found respite in a friend’s home in Indiana. That friend, Richard Hull, was born and raised in Noblesville, Indiana. He had previously been a star football player, but by the year 2000 was an ex-con who was selling methamphetamines. Richard met twenty-two-year-old Sarah Jo Pender at a Phish concert.

Sarah Jo Pender was born in May of 1979. She had been a good student her entire life and had no history of criminal behavior. Sarah had a scholarship to Purdue University. Sarah Jo Pender dropped out of Purdue University after her first year of college, reportedly because she could not afford to go. She had been studying physics, hoping to have a career in biochemistry. Instead, Sarah started working for a construction company as a secretary. Before long, the smart young woman was reading blueprints and looking at returning to school for drafting. Her life seemed to be moving in the right direction, until she met Richard Hull in July of 2000.



            In the summer of 2000, Sarah and Richard began a whirlwind romance. They began to live together, but soon Sarah realized that Richard Hull had some bad habits. He was selling drugs out of the house that Sarah rented and paid for. Sarah was in love, however, and decided to ignore the red flags. Soon, Richard asked for Andrew Cataldi and Tricia Nordman to move in, stating they were friends who fell on hard times. Sarah agreed, but allegedly told her boyfriend and house guests that they were not allowed to sell out of her house. However, the illegal activity continued, and Sarah even participated in consumption of drugs in her home.

            Tensions began to build in the home, however, as Andrew and Richard had frequent arguments and Sarah became frustrated. Sarah was the only one working, legally, and had grown irritated with her house guests. Depending on what story you believe, Sarah may have told Richard that she wanted the house guests gone. On October 24th, 2000, Sarah and Richard went to Wal-Mart. Richard, having a criminal history, was unable to purchase the gun he wanted, so Sarah purchased it instead. The clerk at Wal-Mart stated that Hull chose the ammunition that Sarah purchased.

            Later that evening, Sarah and Richard spent the evening with her family. They returned home around 11 pm where an argument started between Richard Hull and Andrew Cataldi. Richard and Andrew had been building a meth lab in the basement at the time. Sarah said she got irritated with the situation and went for a walk. According to Sarah, she returned home to find two dead bodies: Andrew Cataldi and Tricia Nordman. According to Sarah, the scene was grisly, and she was afraid of being killed by Hull.

            For that reason, Sarah claims, she assisted Richard with wrapping the bodies up in linens and disposing of them in a nearby dumpster. She also assisted him in cleaning up the murder scene. The next day, October 25th, Sarah went to work as usual. Her co-workers said she was happy and upbeat that day. She did not appear to be in any distress or in fear. She did not report the murders to anyone.

            The same day, the bodies were found. The bodies were killed with a shot gun and ammo designed to hunt deer. The bodies were very badly damaged by the wounds, making identification difficult. The tattoos of Tricia and Andrew were used to identify them. Soon, they learned the couple was living with Richard Hull and Sarah Pender. When police went to the home, Richard and Sarah were no where to be found. A search of the home showed large amounts of blood evidence. The home was the murder scene. Authorities were eager to find Richard Hull and Sarah Pender.

            On October 27th, 2000, officers picked up Richard Hull and Sarah Pender. Sarah was very cooperative and admitted to helping Richard Hull dispose of the bodies and clean the scene. However, she stated that she was not part of the actual murder and only participated in the clean up out of fear that Hull would harm her. Richard Hull was arrested that day, but Sarah was allowed to leave. The next day, authorities confirmed that Sarah had purchased the murder weapon. With that, Sarah was arrested and charged with the murders on October 28th, 2000.



            While being held pending trial, Sarah’s case grew more bizarre. Richard Hull gave prosecutors a letter he alleged Sarah had written him while they were both in jail. In the letter, Sarah confesses to the murders, stating she just snapped. She blames the deaths on her tripping acid. A handwriting expert for the State of Indiana concluded that the letter was, in fact, written by Sarah Pender. Sarah denied being the author of the letter and maintained her innocence. Sarah and her defense pointed out that all correspondence between the two of them was confiscated shortly before this letter suddenly appeared in Hull’s possession, suggesting this proved it was fake.

            While awaiting trial, Sarah struck up a romantic pen-pal relationship with another inmate in the Indiana Department of Corrections. This man, Floyd Pennington, was a career criminal including child molestation, burglary, theft, and illegal handgun charges. The two conspired together to fake illnesses, both leaving their respective jails and meeting up while in the same hospital for care. Floyd Pennington soon became a witness for the prosecution, claiming that Sarah admitted while they were in the hospital together that she had coerced Richard Hull into killing her former roommates.

            Prosecutor Larry Sells told the media that Sarah Pender was “a female Charles Manson”. She was described as intelligent and manipulative. The prosecution theorized that Sarah was sick of her roommates, so she coerced Richard Hull into committing the murders. The confession letter and testimony of Floyd Pennington were key to the prosecution’s case. In 2002, Sarah Pender was convicted of both murders and sentenced to 110 years in prison for her crimes. Richard Hull, who went on trial second, pleaded guilty to the murders and was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison.

            While appealing her case, Sarah asked Richard Hull to sign an affidavit. He agreed, now claiming that he had acted alone in the crimes and the letter that helped convict Sarah Pender was a forgery. Hull stated he had another inmate forge the letter after studying samples of Sarah’s writings from her actual letters. A handwriting expert for the defense pointed out that the letter was in print, whereas Sarah typically writes in cursive. The inmate that Richard Hull implicated matched a set of fingerprints on the letter. The only other fingerprints belonged to Richard Hull.



            Sarah and her defense team believed they had sufficient evidence to reverse her conviction. Sarah filed appeal after appeal, all of which were denied. Meanwhile, Floyd Pennington served time for robbery and, upon release, raped a woman, for which he was sentenced to thirty years. Pennington was paroled in September of 2023. Richard Hull also

appealed his sentencing and won his appeal. However, at the resentencing hearing, the judge was given the affidavit showing Hull forged evidence. He was resentenced to ninety years in prison, extending his sentence by fifteen years.

            In the meantime, Sarah Pender was considered a model prisoner. She worked and helped other inmates with their appeal cases. She made many friends. She soon began a contraband ring, recruiting a friend who had been released and prison guard Scott Spitler to help her traffic antihistamines into the prison for sale. Sarah admitted to this in later interviews, stating she was saving money for her appeals. When her appeals failed however, Sarah decided to use the money for her escape instead. She continued selling drugs from inside the prison while planning her escape.



            Sarah Pender had been having a sexual relationship with guard Scott Spitler at the Rockville Correctional Center in Indiana. Scott smuggled a phone into Sarah, allowing her to further plan her escape. He was also helping her smuggle in drugs for Sarah to sell to other inmates. On August 4th, 2008, Sarah Jo Pender escaped from the Rockville Correctional Center. Scott Spitler had given her street clothes to change into and told her what door to go out of, knowing which would be alarmed and which would not. Sarah then hid under the seat of a corrections van driven by Spitler. He drove her off the prison property, dropping Sarah off at a nearby parking lot where she met a former prisoner whom Sarah had befriended, Jamie Long. From there, Jamie brought Sarah to a house she owned to hide out.

            Meanwhile, Rockville Correctional Center realized that Sarah Pender was missing after a headcount. The media went crazy with stories of an escaped prisoner from a maximum-security prison. Sarah Pender’s face was all over the media. Sarah cut and dyed her hair and worked hard to gather enough money to get away from Indiana. She met up with a series of ex-cons she had met while serving time in prison. Each helped her and moved her along to the next. She was desperate for money, so a friend set her up with a “sugar daddy” to make some quick cash.

            The date went great, but the “sugar daddy” soon realized the girl he knew as Ashley was on television as a wanted woman. In fact, Sarah Pender had become America’s most wanted woman and on the FBIs top fifteen most wanted list. He confronted Sarah and he discovered her true identity; however, he believed Sarah when she professed her innocence to the murders. She painted the story of a victim of Richard Hull and the Indiana justice system. This man helped her move to Chicago, setting “Ashley” up with a place to live and even a job that paid “under the table”.

            On December 22nd, 2008, America’s Most Wanted aired an episode that included the story of Sarah Pender, America’s most wanted female. A man in the north side of Chicago recognized Sarah Pender as a tenant in the same building. He said he knew this person as Ashley Thompson. That night, Sarah Jo Pender was apprehended by US Marshals. She was sent back to an Indiana prison and placed in solitary confinement. Sarah remained in solitary confinement for the next five years. She was returned to the general population at Rockville Correctional Center in 2014.



            Scott Spitler was terminated from the Indiana Department of Corrections and charged with aiding an escape. He was sentenced to seven years in prison but was paroled in 2011. His wife divorced him after learning of the affair and criminal escape, starting over with her children. Jamie Long was also charged and sentenced to seven years in prison. She was released in 2013.

            While still in solitary confinement, Sarah Pender was interviewed by Trevor McDonald for a documentary. She describes her escape, smirking. She admits to having a sexual relationship with Spitler, but claims he was helping her for the money. She continued to maintain her innocence in the murder charges. She claims that the prison told her mother that “Sarah was too smart for their prison” and that is why she was held in solitary confinement so long.

            In 2009, prosecutor Larry Sells was assisting an author in writing a book about Sarah Pender. When reviewing detectives’ records, Sells found a “snitch list” from key witness Floyd Pennington. The list contained seventeen names that Pennington said he could help convict in exchange for a lighter sentence. One of those names was Sarah Pender. Larry Sells had prosecuted Sarah and said he had never been shown this letter. Therefore, the defense hadn’t seen it either. The prosecutor is now advocating for Sarah’s conviction to be overturned.

Since Sarah has been back in prison, she has earned multiple college degrees. She continues to help others with their appeals now that she is out of solitary confinement. She works in the prison library. She married another woman in prison in 2022. Her wife is currently free from prison but is fighting terminal cancer. Sarah hopes to win her freedom and move with her wife to Washington State to continue her education and be near family.

            Sarah Pender is continuing to fight for her freedom, now with the support of the prosecutor that put her behind bars for one hundred years. Larry Sells states that Sarah did not receive a fair trial and he would not have presented Floyd Pennington as a witness had he known about the “snitch list”. He also stresses that another major piece of evidence, Sarah’s “confession letter”, was proven to be a fake. In 2023, students at Georgetown University accepted Sarah Pender’s case for a project called “Making an Exoneree”. They hope to fight for Sarah’s freedom and prove her innocence.



            Do you believe that Sarah Pender was falsely convicted? Many key pieces of evidence have been determined to be unreliable. However, Sarah admits to purchasing the weapon, disposing of the bodies, and cleaning the scene. What are the odds that she “went for a walk” very late at night and her boyfriend just happens to commit a double murder during the time she is gone? Sarah has proven to be manipulative, coercing Scott Spitler and so many others into assisting her in her escape. She is intelligent and cunning. While I am not sure she received a fair trial, I am not convinced of her innocence either.

 

REFERENCES

Indiana’s Most Dangerous Women’s Prison Documentary with Sir Trevor Macdonald- available on YouTube

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