Murder trial ends with death of suspect
Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini hopes to have toxicology reports confirming the cause of murder defendant Thomas Soria Sr.’s death early next week.
Soria Sr., 40, died of apparent natural causes relating to a heart defect early Sunday. His trial on charges of murdering, kidnaping and sexually assaulting 9-year-old Krystal Steadman had started Friday.
Douglas County jail personnel summoned paramedics around 5 a.m. Sunday when Soria Sr. was found not breathing in his cell. He was pronounced dead and taken to Reno for an autopsy.
Pierini said Monday Soria Sr. had a heart condition and had been seen by medical personnel during his stay at the jail. He declined to say what medications Soria Sr. was taking.
John Springgate, one of Soria Sr.’s attorneys, said Soria was taking a sleeping aid but hadn’t complained of any other illness.
He said Soria Sr. had not expressed any suicidal thoughts as the trial began.
“If we had thought anything was out of the ordinary, we would have alerted the jail staff,” said Springgate.
Prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty if Soria Sr. was convicted. They said Soria Sr. fantasized about assaulting and killing a slender, blond girl, then carried out his plan on Krystal, a South Lake Tahoe 4th grader who happened to be visiting the Stateline apartment complex where Soria lived. Her battered body was found March 20, a day later, off Highway 50.
Defense attorneys said Soria’s son, Thomas Jr., committed the murder, then blamed his father. Soria Jr. pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping for his part in Krystal’s death and had agreed to testify against his father.
The jury was dismissed Monday morning. Soria Jr., who was being held at the jail, was informed of his father’s death and returned to prison custody to continue serving his life sentence.
Pierini said Soria Sr. was breathing when jail deputies checked him late Saturday. Soria was being held in a medical cell, because of his condition and for security reasons.
Pierini said inmates who take medications are monitored, but wouldn’t rule out the possibility Soria stockpiled medicine and overdosed.
“We’re not ruling out anything until the investigation’s done,” he said. “Nothing is foolproof, but the officers are to make sure to the best of their ability that medication is swallowed.”
Krystal’s family reacted with elation at the news of Soria Sr.’s death.
“It’s unbelievable. Miracles do happen,” said her older sister, Sonya Klempner.
“I personally believe it was a sign from God,” said her grandfather, Leslie Bucknell, wiping away tears. “It’s over, and we can all start rebuilding our lives. All things considered, justice has been done.”
Washoe County is assisting with the investigation of Soria Sr.’s death. When the toxicology report is complete, Pierini said he will issue a report to District Attorney Scott Doyle, who will categorize the death as one of natural causes, accident, suicide or by criminal agency.
If Doyle can’t categorize the death, he can submit the case to a district judge for a ruling or call for a coroner’s inquest, in which a civilian jury would review the circumstances surrounding the death and issue a finding.
Doyle said he won’t make a decision until the investigation is finished. He estimated the process will take several weeks.
Douglas County had budgeted $350,000 for what was expected to be a six-week trial. Pierini said less than $100,000 had been spent.
He said his investigators, some of whom had focused entirely on the case, are preparing for other assignments.
“I think they’re relieved,” he said. “We feel very comfortable we had the right suspect. It’s not an issue of whether we had to have a conviction. We felt confident we would get that.”
Investigators initially arrested Soria Jr., who had been seen playing with Krystal and other children the day of her disappearance. His father was arrested a week later.
Investigators found a computer file written by Soria Sr. that detailed fantasies of raping, torturing and killing women and girls. The file was quoted extensively as prosecutors outlined their case during opening arguments.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Perkins, who led the prosecution, called the evidence against Soria Sr. “overwhelming.”
“The murder of Krystal Steadman put a gaping hole in humanity,” he said. “We’re relieved we don’t have to go through this trial.”