There is no closure, Sarah Douglas’ mother said Wednesday surrounded by family and a swarm of reporters outside the courtroom, but there will be peace. Peace, now, for a daughter brutally slain and for a family who relived the horror at her killer’s trial.
“I can go to my daughter’s grave. She can rest,” Trudie Werly said. “Now, my daughter can rest in peace.”
Orville “Moe” Fleming was convicted Wednesday of second-degree murder in the May 1, 2014, death of his girlfriend, Sarah Douglas, in a trial that laid bare the couple’s brief, stormy relationship and its deadly end. A Sacramento Superior Court jury returned the verdict against the onetime Cal Fire battalion chief who killed Douglas, 26, in the bedroom of their Elk Grove-area home.
Fleming hid for 16 days, ditching his Cal Fire-issue work truck and hiding from what became a statewide manhunt in south county underbrush not far from the scene of the crime. The scandal that ensued and revelations of alleged bad behavior led to dismissals, demotions and other discipline that continue to haunt the state’s fire agency.
Fleming, 56, in the somber dark suit that was his uniform at trial, listened without emotion as the verdict was read. Jurors also found true an allegation that he used a knife to kill Douglas. From a seat at the front of the gallery and flanked by rows of family members, Werly let out a loud sob as jurors announced their verdict. Sentencing will be July 31 before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Sharon A. Lueras.
Fleming faces 15 years to life in prison, said Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Noah Phillips.
Fleming, a career firefighter who as a fire academy instructor taught countless recruits how to safeguard lives, had brutally taken one. A woman for whom he left his wife of 30 years, whom he met on an online escort site, whom he testified he loved and planned to marry, was dead on the bedroom floor.
Douglas was stabbed 14 times, including the fatal wound, and strangled with a bedsheet, prosecutors said. His attorney Peter Kmeto argued for a manslaughter verdict, saying Fleming killed Douglas in the heat of passion.
Phillips said in his opening statement that the pair “were looking for a fairytale life together,” but jealousy and distrust, screaming fights and battles for power and control defined their relationship. Their final fight, after Douglas had returned home from a casino trip to an angry Fleming, lasted just 12 minutes and ended with Fleming straddling, then stabbing and finally strangling Douglas.
Fleming was in a “zombie” state, he would say on the witness stand, walking into the kitchen amid a barrage of insults from Douglas before returning to the bedroom with a kitchen knife to kill her. Kmeto, argued forcefully that Fleming suffered “dissociative amnesia” during the attack, blocking out some memories of the killing and that he was provoked by a volatile Douglas and finally pushed over the edge to violence. He never planned to kill Douglas, Kmeto said.
Phillips, the prosecutor, said a need for power and control led Fleming to kill.
He was a “first-responder who turned wicked,” Phillips said, flipping his firefighter’s calling on its head, rejecting life for murder.
“We hold people responsible for the terrible choices they made,” Phillips said in his closing argument. “We talk about his career, his marriage. He had everything our world offers to people and he threw it all away. He had a hole in him that he just couldn’t fill.”
After stabbing Douglas, Fleming’s anger turned to desperation. He testified he fled his home for the railroad tracks, where he waited for a speeding train to end his life. He backtracked home where he had stuffed his garage doors with blankets and turned on the gas to asphyxiate himself. He said he slit his wrist.
Finally, he said, he headed back for the brush and bushes, venturing out only for bits of food, water and a change of clothes as helicopters buzzed overhead. Cal Fire firefighters joined a search for their battalion chief that stretched from Canada to Mexico before a plainclothed Sacramento County sheriff’s detective arrested Fleming at a community college’s bus stop with a simple question:
“Are you Moe?”