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Lassen woman sentenced to 25 years to life for murder of police-officer husband

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Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity.

A Lassen County judge sentenced Joanna Lynn McElrath to 25 years to life in prison Friday for the first-degree murder of her husband, Susanville Police Officer Robert McElrath.

Joanna McElrath, 39, pleaded guilty in March to the 2011 New Year’s Day slaying, which was allegedly committed with the help of her romantic partner at the time, 49-year-old Robin Glen James.

In exchange for the plea and waiving her right to appeal the conviction, Lassen County District Attorney Robert M. Burns dropped special allegations against McElrath that would have precluded the possibility of parole. He also dismissed a charge of conspiracy to commit murder.

Robert McElrath, 37, was drugged with a prescription narcotic before he was driven in his own car to a railroad trestle over the Susan River 7 miles west of Susanville. There, though off-duty at the time, he was shot with his service weapon, and his body was later dumped off the bridge.

In handing down his sentence, Superior Court Judge John T. Ball denied Joanna McElrath probation and ordered her to pay $8,913 in restitution to cover the costs of her husband’s funeral. The judge imposed the mandatory sentence but awarded McElrath credit for the 1,233 days she has spent in custody.

When she is released from state prison is now up to the parole board and her own behavior, he said.

The judge continued the case against James to July 11. He faces premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit murder and special allegations that the murder involved lying in wait and use of a firearm.

Robert McElrath’s murder changed the life of his 18-year-old adopted daughter, Samantha McElrath, a product of Joanna’s previous marriage. “I lost both my dad and my mom … Thanks to my mom I’ll never have a normal day in my life,” she said in court Friday, leaving the witness stand in tears.

Tish Beckett, McElrath’s mother, described her daughter’s years of promiscuity and stubborn resistance to getting treatment for depression and mental instability. In a courtroom packed with relatives of both Joanna and Robert McElrath, Beckett asked the McElrath family to forgive the Beckett family.

And she called for both families to make the McElraths’ four children, two of them from Joanna’s previous marriage, their first priority. “They need each and every one of us,” she said.

Dorene Perez, Robert McElrath’s mother, spoke directly to Joanna McElrath, who sat impassive and handcuffed in a blue prison jumpsuit throughout the 90-minute hearing. “Most mothers put their children first. You didn’t,” Perez said.

In her statement to the court, McElrath briefly apologized for her crimes. But she focused on the difficulty of having been in custody for more than three years, describing it as “far from an easy time.”

“And I know that (Robert) loves me still,” she said, prompting several family members to leave the courtroom.

Burns, the district attorney, reacted to McElrath’s statement with an angry response. “The sentiment I heard today doesn’t even scratch the surface,” he said. “We hope (McElrath’s) discomfort continues.”