Orville “Moe” Fleming was mired in midlife crisis, a career firefighter with a wife and grown children. He thought Sarah Douglas was his remedy, an attractive woman half his age whose credo she wore as a tattoo, “All Good Things Are Wild and Free.”
Fleming, 56, was a bystander to his own narrative Monday as his murder trial began in Sacramento Superior Court before Judge Sharon A. Lueras.
The ex-California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection academy instructor is accused of stabbing and strangling his girlfriend, Douglas, 26, in the bedroom of his Elk Grove-area home in May 2014, then leading authorities on a nearly two-week manhunt before he was captured in south Sacramento County.
Douglas’ death and Fleming’s arrest in her killing unspooled a scandal, including allegations of a sex tape filmed at Cal Fire’s Ione facility and other allegations of bad behavior that has led to resignations, firings, demotions, suspensions and pay cuts for other agency employees.
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“He’s got a good wife, the kids are gone, but he says, ‘I need more. I need a spark.’ He found one in Sarah Douglas,” Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Noah Phillips told the jury in his opening statement. Fleming and Douglas “were looking for a fairy-tale life together, but he was married and she was in a lifestyle he couldn’t accept,” Phillips said.
It all ended six months after it began May 1, 2014, with Douglas’ bloodied body on the carpet beside the bed they shared.
Stephanie Douglas testified she was the first to find her sister’s body.
“I saw my sister on the ground beside the bed, pillows and sheets wrapped around her, and there was blood everywhere,” she testified. “I ran over to her and grabbed her legs. Her legs were cold. I ran out of the house.”
Jurors would later watch investigators’ crime-scene video showing a sleeping bag tied to a gas line in the home’s garage, the doors stuffed with blankets and tarps, raising the possibility that Fleming was considering suicide.
Fleming defense counsel Peter Kmeto acknowledged his client killed Douglas, but said it was manslaughter, not murder.
Fleming “admitted right off the bat that he killed her. He confessed to killing Sarah with a knife,” Kmeto said. “What he confessed to is what is considered manslaughter. He killed in the heat of passion. That passion was carried by Sarah.”
Prosecutor Phillips and Kmeto outlined Fleming and Douglas’ brief, volatile and ultimately deadly relationship in unsparing terms, ending the night Douglas returned home after a trip with her mother and sister to Red Hawk Casino near Placerville.
He was controlling and prone to anger. She was isolated in their south county neighborhood, Phillips said. Fleming “found it difficult to be in a relationship with a woman half his age who wasn’t as submissive as his wife,” his reality “shaped by jealousy and distrust,” Phillips said.
Douglas was a drug user and alcohol abuser prone to volatile mood swings, Kmeto countered, an escort on the online site MyRedbook, who “wanted to change her life.” Douglas quit the site, Kmeto said. Fleming divorced his wife.
“This case is about two imperfect human beings and their oh-so-brief relationship and its tragic ending,” Kmeto said.
Stephanie Douglas recalled her sister’s final night. It had been a fun night at the casino, but Sarah was eager to see Fleming.
At home, Fleming was becoming more and more angry, leaving phone and text messages that went unanswered, Phillips said. Douglas’ cellphone died; she wouldn’t be able to retrieve her messages until she returned home.
Douglas arrived to find Fleming’s Cal Fire service truck gone. He headed up Highway 50 to Red Hawk, Phillips said.
Sarah Douglas was upset that Fleming was not home, Stephanie testified. Her anger grew when she smelled gas from the stove, her birds in their cages nearby, and saw the home in disarray. When Sarah Douglas vented to her sister in a midnight phone call, Stephanie Douglas said, her sister sounded startled. It was Fleming. There were heated words, then shouting, over the phone, then one more sound.
“What was the last thing you heard from your sister?” Phillips asked Stephanie Douglas.