Sarah Priess spent her last hours alive locked in a chaotic cycle that came to define her relationship with the man accused of killing her: highs and lows that, in an instant, could turn violent.
On March 25, Priess and her boyfriend, William Hendrickson, were celebrating in the Citrus Heights home they shared.
He had landed a job as a computer technician after months of searching for employment. He brought home a box of wine for them to share. About 1:45 a.m., Priess, 32, was found dead in her bedroom, her body mangled by what police have described as a violent assault.
About an hour later, Hendrickson, 32, called the police. He said he wanted to surrender. Hendrickson is now in the Sacramento County jail.
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In the month since, families on both sides have been left to wonder what went so horribly wrong.
“I wish we could have done more for her,” Priess’ father, Tom Rhodes, told The Bee. “I keep thinking what could I have done? Could I have done anything more, anything better?”
Remembered by those who knew her as smart, vivacious and fiercely – sometimes caustically – independent, Priess had been planning to move out of the duplex on Cook Avenue that she shared with Hendrickson and his mother. Her family said she was also trying to leave Hendrickson and escape an unhealthy and controlling relationship. But Hendrickson’s mother, Elizabeth Diamond, said the relationship she watched unfold was tumultuous on both sides.
“They’d both get drunk and things would get bad,” she said. “I’ve seen her cold-cock him in front of me. She’s taken swords to him. I don’t know how many times the police had to come out here.”
According to their records, Citrus Heights police had been to the house in the 7500 block of Cook Avenue 10 times this year. Several of those calls were domestic violence-related, though the police declined to say exactly how many. Both Priess and Hendrickson had been arrested before, though charges were never filed, family said.
In cases of domestic violence, Citrus Heights police spokesman Lt. Ryan Kinnan said, officers are required to make an arrest. The specifics of such incidents are then passed on to outreach workers at a local domestic violence prevention organization, A Community For Peace, who may try to help.
It’s not clear what happened in these cases, whether professional help was offered and declined, or the incidents were allowed to continue without any intervention. But Rhodes said he had offered his daughter help finding a place to live after he saw bruises on her arm. She refused.
Hendrickson and Priess had a long history. They met in high school.
Diamond said she remembers chasing a young Priess away from her son with a broom. Rhodes said he remembers his daughter hanging around Hendrickson because he had a car.
They went in different directions after graduation. Both married other people. Priess, who worked as a registered nurse at the UC Davis Medical Center, had four children with her husband Kyle Priess.
“She had this perfect life,” said her cousin Heidi Jansson. “She had everything.”
Then, in May of 2012, Priess lost her mother to brain cancer. All at once, her family said, her life began to crumble. She became depressed and lost her job. She and her husband became estranged.
“She never quite recovered from the death of her mother,” her father said. “They were very close. Her mother was her confidant, her rescuer, her enabler. She didn’t do well after we lost her.”
Sometime later, she and Hendrickson reconnected online. They lived together in an apartment, then moved in with his mother. Her children, ages 3 through 12, lived with their father.
“She loved her kids,” Kyle Priess recalled. “She was funny and bubbly. She saw them as much as she could, maybe four times a week. She didn’t have to live with them to be a good mom.”
Fights between Hendrickson and Priess would blow in like thunderstorms, loud and violent but with little warning, Diamond said. Hendrickson, his mother said, has been diagnosed as bipolar.
He is ineligible for bail because of the murder charge against him. His lawyer, Clyde Blackmon, said he’s “distraught.”
“These folks had known each other for some time and they had been living together for the better part of a year before this happened,” Blackmon said. “He’s distraught and he has remorse about the entire situation, as you can imagine.”
The impact of Priess’ death hasn’t lessened in the month since.
Diamond said she can’t go near the room where Priess died without feeling ill and heartbroken. She was home the night Priess died but didn’t hear anything unusual. Rhodes said he’s plagued with violent images of his daughter’s death when he closes his eyes at night to sleep.
When Kyle Priess recently asked his youngest daughter about the best and worst parts of her day – a ritual he does with all of his kids – she said simply, “Mommy’s still dead.”
“My 5-year-old is a lot more weepy; she’s quick to cry, very emotional, kind of wears her emotions on her sleeve,” Kyle Priess said. “My 9-year-old has been very stoic. I think he’s trying to distract himself from thinking too much about it. My oldest daughter, the 12-year-old, she’s just real angry.”
Family and friends of Priess have set up a GoFundMe page to help the family pay for funeral services and raise money for the woman’s four children. As of late Friday, the fund had raised nearly $3,400 of its $4,000 goal. A memorial service will be held Saturday at Faith Legacy Church in Sacramento.
Hendrickson, who has not entered a plea in the case against him, is scheduled to appear next before a judge on May 1. A trial, his attorney said, is likely still a long way off, as he’s still waiting on evidence and discovery from the prosecution.
But Rhodes said he’ll be watching every twist and turn of the case.
“I don’t know that there’s any such thing as justice here,” he said. “She’s dead and there’s nothing anyone can do to bring her back. I hope if nothing else, this story can bring awareness of mental health issues and domestic violence issues, so people who need help can get out there and get help. So people won’t end up in a situation like this. It hurts my heart how much this didn’t have to happen.”
Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.
Sarah Priess memorial service
Faith Legacy Church, 3532 Whitney Ave, Sacramento
Saturdayat 1:00 p.m.
To donate to Priess’ memorial fund, go to http://www.gofundme.com/sarahpriess
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233)
A Community for Peace crisis line, 916-728-7210