PHOENIX – A landscaper made a discovery four years ago at a Phoenix home that provided a big break in a missing-persons case: A plywood box buried in the backyard that contained the mummified corpses of a couple.
Prosecutors say Alan Mathew Champagne fatally shot Philmon Tapaha and choked Brandi Nicole Hoffner to death at his apartment, put their bodies in the box, poured in lime to help with decomposition and buried it a half-mile away at his mother's home.
Jury selection for Champagne's trial in the 2011 deaths is set to start Monday, with opening statements planned for April 17.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the second time Champagne has been charged with murder. He previously served 14 years in prison for killing a man in 1991 while high on alcohol, LSD and paint fumes.
Prosecutors say he returned to his violent ways in 2011, setting off a bizarre chain of events.
Police pulled over Champagne shortly after the killings and found a bag that reeked of rotting flesh, a bag of lime and one of the dead women's Social Security cards, but they didn't yet know about the slayings. He was arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant.
Eight months later, Champagne barricaded himself in his mother's home and opened fire on officers who went to arrest him on an unrelated aggravated assault warrant, police said. He surrendered after he ran out of ammunition. No one was injured.
Champagne was questioned afterward about the disappearance of Tapaha and Hoffner. It's unclear when police began to suspect that the bodies were buried, though investigators say Champagne acknowledged burying them during a later conversation with an undercover officer.
Authorities had learned that Champagne, while jailed in the barricade case, wanted to post bond so he could move the bodies. They sent the officer posing as a private investigator into the jail in the hopes of getting information out of Champagne.
A Champagne associate cooperating with authorities had described the undercover officer as a dirty private detective with a criminal past who might be willing to commit crimes. The officer agreed to help Champagne arrange bond. But Champagne's source of money never materialized.
The undercover officer spoke with Champagne at the jail seven times in 2012 and 2013. In one conversation, Champagne gave the officer a copy of a police report about Tapaha and Hoffner's disappearance and said, "This is my problem, know what I mean."
The real break in the case came when a new owner began remodeling the home where Champagne's mother used to live, and a landscaper found the bodies.
Maria Schaffer, one of Champagne's attorneys, declined to comment on the defense that will be offered at trial. Prosecutors also declined to comment.
No clear motive has emerged, but police say Champagne had been smoking methamphetamine an hour before the killings and was feuding with Tapaha, 32, over a relationship. After Tapaha was shot in the face, Champagne is accused of strangling Hoffner, 26, with an electrical cable while was she puffing on a glass bong.
Police say his girlfriend, Elise Garcia, was at the apartment during the killings. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison last fall after pleading guilty to murder in Hoffner's death and is expected to testify against Champagne.
Besides the gruesome details, the case has raised constitutional questions about the undercover officer's involvement, with Champagne's attorneys trying to bar the conversations from trial.
They argued that the officer improperly portrayed himself as a lawyer's investigator as a way to try to gather incriminating evidence. A judge has decided that jurors can hear six of the seven conversations.
Champagne, 46, is already serving 700 years in prison for attempted-murder convictions in the barricade case.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud .