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PHOENIX – Alan Mathew Champagne employed a wrench nearly six years ago to crank up the tension of the noose around the neck of 26-year-old Brandi Nicole Hoffner, who was forced to smoke methamphetamine moments after witnessing Champagne shoot her boyfriend dead with a shot to the face, prosecutor Ellen Dahl told jurors in opening arguments Monday.
Champagne approached Hoffner from behind as she puffed the drug from a bong and wrapped the cable around her neck, Dahl said.
"The noose got smaller and smaller and smaller," Dahl said.
The cable and wrench were found around Hoffner's neck 20 months later when a landscaper discovered the bodies of Hoffner and her boyfriend, 32-year-old Philmon Tapaha, buried in a plywood box in the yard of a Phoenix home where Champagne's mother had lived.
Champagne killed Tapaha and Hoffner at his Phoenix apartment in June 2011, had a neighbor build the plywood box, poured lime inside it to help the bodies decompose and buried it a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) away at the home, prosecutors said.
They are seeking the death penalty against Champagne, who is already serving a 700-year sentence for attempted-murder convictions after barricading himself at his mother's home and opening fire on officers who went to arrest him in March 2012 on an aggravated assault warrant. He surrendered after he ran out of ammunition. No one was injured.
Champagne, 46, has pleaded not guilty to the murder charges.
He previously served 14 years in prison after pleading no-contest to killing a man in 1991 while high on alcohol, LSD and paint fumes.
Defense attorney Maria Schaffer told jurors that Garcia's girlfriend, who is expected to testify against her client later in the trial, isn't a credible witness because she was given a lenient prison sentence for her role in the deaths.
"The only evidence that leads to my client, Alan Champagne, to the commission of these murders is the word of Elise Garcia, who bought and sold her testimony for 16 years in prison," Schaffer said.
Garcia was at the apartment during the killings and would not let Hoffner leave after Tapaha had been shot, police have said.
Garcia was sentenced to 16 years in prison last fall after pleading guilty to murder in Hoffner's death.
Champagne looked squarely at the jury and swiveled in his chair as the prosecutor laid out her case to jurors.
Dahl said Champagne rented equipment to make the shallow grave where the plywood box was buried and returned there to pour soap on the ground to try to control the foul odor of the corpses.
Police pulled over Champagne days after the killings and found a bag that reeked of rotting flesh, a bag of lime and Tapaha's Social Security cards, but they didn't yet know about the slayings. He was arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant.
Eight months later, while in custody on yet another unrelated case, Champagne was questioned about the disappearance of Tapaha and Hoffner. Investigators had learned about the killings through an anonymous tip.
It's unclear when police began to suspect that the bodies were buried, though investigators have said Champagne acknowledged burying them during a later conversation with an undercover officer.
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 break in the case came in March 2013 when the new owner of the home where Champagne's mother once lived began remodeling and a landscaper using a hoe found the plywood box buried underneath four inches of dirt.
No clear motive has emerged, but police have said Champagne was feuding with Tapaha, 32, about a relationship.