Sarah Jo Pender, then 21, was a graduate from Lawrence Central High School in 1997, she later attended Purdue University but dropped out of her course. She worked as a secretary at Carl E. Most and Sons. Richard Hull, her boyfriend, worked as a bouncer at a bar. He had a criminal history that included six misdemeanors and two felony convictions for auto theft and for residential entry. Andrew Cataldi, 24, and Tricia Nordman, 25, were both fugitives from a Nevada Correctional Facility where Nordman served time on a forgery conviction and Cataldi on a possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine conviction. According to the police, Richard Hull and Andrew Cataldi reportedly sold drugs from their place, a fact confirmed by Hull himself.
According to neighbor Jana Frederick, tensions had been growing for three weeks between the couples, as Richard Hull and Andrew Cataldi had frequent arguments. At some point prior to the murders, Hull, who could not legally purchase firearms due to his criminal record, sought to purchase a weapon from the son of Frederick's boyfriend. He was unsuccessful in this attempt, but was later able to convince Sarah Pender to purchase a weapon for him. In the morning of October 24, 2000, Hull drove Pender to a local Wal-mart to purchase a 12-gauge shotgun, a soda and condoms. The clerk who handled the sale of the weapon later reported seeing Hull select the ammunition and bring it to the counter, where Pender then paid for it. The couple then went for an outing with Pender's parents and returned home around 11 p.m. Shortly after returning, Pender left the building to take a walk.
According to Hull, while Pender was away, an argument broke out between him and Cataldi regarding money his sister, Tabitha, owed to Cataldi. Cataldi, who knew about the recently-purchased shotgun, went into Hull's room to attempt to retrieve the weapon. Richard Hull later told detectives Cataldi "said he was going to kill my f---ing family." Hull attempted to prevent Cataldi's actions, which resulted in a physical struggle between the two men. The incident ended with Hull shooting Cataldi in the chest and shooting Nordman in the head and chest.
When Pender returned, both victims were dead and Hull had already placed one of their bodies in the back of a truck owned by his friend Ronnie Herron. Hull had borrowed the truck on October 23 to assist with removing items from the basement of the building as part of a plan shared with Cataldi that involved the creation of a methamphetamine lab in collaboration with a chemist from Las Vegas. Hull and Pender then drove a few blocks away and placed the bodies in a dumpster, where they were later found by Steve Stultz.
On October 25, Pender went to work while Hull borrowed equipment from neighbor Jana Frederick to clean up the blood in the house. On October 26, the couple went to Noblesville to return the truck to owner Ronnie Herron. Hull then used Herron's home to burn several blood-stained items. On the same day detectives, who had now identified the victims, searched Hull and Pender's home, in which they found traces of blood and observed that attempts had been made to conceal the murders. Hull was arrested in Noblesville on October 27, and confessed to both murders. On October 28, Pender gave the police a pair of blood-stained pants belonging to Hull. DNA tests confirmed that the blood was that of Tricia Nordman and Andrew Cataldi. No DNA evidence was found that linked Pender to the murders for which both she and her boyfriend were charged. Pender stated later that "after he committed these murders, I did not call the police, but instead stayed with him out of love, fear, loyalty and sheer stupidity."
Sarah Pender's trial was held at Marion Superior Court in July 2002, with James Nave as the defending attorney, Larry Sells as the prosecuting attorney, and presiding judge Jane Magnus-Stinson. Sells was known for his recently failed campaign to be Hamilton County Prosecutor, in which he highlighted his success with convicting murderers and violent offenders.
Neither Pender nor Hull testified at the trial.
Citing the fact that Pender had bought the murder weapon on the morning of the murders and that she later helped Hull in disposing of the bodies, Sells told the jury that she had planned the murders and had manipulated Hull into committing them. According to Indianapolis Star journalist Vic Ryckaert, Sells "likened her influence over Hull to the control Manson had over his followers, who committed a string of murders in 1969." The "female Charles Manson" tag has stuck to Pender ever since. To prove Pender's guilt, Sells relied chiefly on a letter allegedly sent to Hull by Pender in May 2001 and on the testimony of inmate Floyd Pennington. In the letter she allegedly wrote to her former boyfriend, the woman took responsibility for the murder. "I wish I could go back and change the events of that night," said the letter. "Drew was so mean that night. I just snapped. I didn't mean to kill them. It must have been the acid.[…]"When you said you would try to take the blame, I knew then that you loved me deeply. At first I thought you would tell, but you stuck to your promise." the letter ended with a postscript: "Destroy this." Forensic Document Examiner Lee Ann Harmless testified the letter had been written by Pender. Defense attorney James Nave said the letter was a fake. He said that Sarah Pender was no "clever criminal mastermind" and that the murder "was not a cleverly planned criminal act. It was an act of the moment." He argued that Richard Hull had shot Cataldi and Nordman because they were about to cut him out of a big drug deal. Another piece of evidence presented to the jury was the testimony of fellow inmate Floyd Pennington, who had a pen relationship with Sarah Pender for several months. He testified that Pender had admitted to him her responsibility in the double homicide during a meeting they had arranged on September 22, 2001 at Wishard Hospital.
On August 22, 2002, Sarah Pender was found guilty and sentenced to 110 years in prison. Richard Hull pleaded guilty to avoid trial. His line of defense was that he had been influenced by Sarah Pender at the time of the murder, which was considered at the time by the court as a mitigating factor. He received two 45 year sentences.
The only hard piece of evidence presented at Pender's trial as proof of her guilt was the letter that she allegedly wrote on May 16, 2001 and sent to Hull. Hull gave this letter to his attorney who passed it on to Indianapolis detective Kenneth Martinez between September and October 2001. Pender, her lawyers and her supporters have always said that it was manufactured evidence against her by Hull to shift the responsibility of the murder on her. Several elements support this claim.
- Richard Hull himself, in a signed affidavit, has recanted and admitted the letter was a forgery. In it, he has explained that while he was detained at Marion County Jail, he showed samples of Pender's handwritting to fellow inmate Steve Logan and asked him to write the letter for him, since Logan wrote more like a female. The deal was that Richard Hull would provide protection for Steve Logan, who was a small white guy on the cell block. By producing the forged letter, Hull's goal was to get a shorter sentence and walk home. However, On May 4, 2004, when he appeared for re-sentencing, the court found as an aggravating factor the notarized affidavit in which he admitted the forgery, since it contradicted his earlier testimonies. The court found “an additional aggravating factor, which [arose since the original sentencing], which, actually, is very serious. [Hull] appears to have committed perjury in an effort to help his co-defendant manipulate her way out of a criminal conviction for [the] very serious offenses of murder.” While admitting the May 16 letter was a forgery resulted in a heavier sentence for Hull, it was of no benefit to Sarah Pender.
- Fingerprints from both Hull and Steve Logan were found on the letter, but not those of Sarah Pender.
- Detective Kenneth Martinez could not find a sealed envelope to match the letter.
- Most of the eighty letters sent by Pender to Hull were in cursive writing. The alleged self-incriminating letter was printed, which was less common.
- While Steve Logan has always stopped short of admitting he wrote the May 16, 2001 letter, he has testified that Hull showed him letters written by Pender and also asked him to write some sort of letter as a way to reduce his charges or sentences, which Logan claims he didn't. On another occasion, according to Pender, Steve Logan also admitted to a private investigator hired by Pender that Richard Hull had requested that the forged letter be written.
- Between the alleged time of redaction of Pender's alleged self-incriminating letter, May 16, 2001, and the moment it was given to him by Hull's attorney, September–October 2001, pursuant to a search warrant, Detective Kenneth Martinez ceased jail correspondence between Hull and Pender on July 17, 2001. He did not find the May 16 letter, even though Hull's had allegedly kept it during all that time. Supporters of Pender say this is because the forged letter had not yet been written.
At the beginning of September 2001, Floyd Pennington was a habitual offender and violent felon awaiting sentencing on a robbery conviction. He also had a previous record for child molestation, a crime for which he received a five-year sentence in 1989. On September 20, 2001, he met with detective Kenneth Martinez, saying he could arrange a meeting and have Pender admit to him her responsibility for the murders. He had been involved in a correspondence with Pender which totaled at the time 75 letters. This had evolved into a long-distance relationship. After his meeting with detective Kenneth Martinez, he wrote to Sarah Pender on which date she should fake being sick to be sent to Wishard Hospital. On September 22, he faked having a kidney problem and both met as planned at the hospital. On September 28, 2010, Pennington gave a statement according to which he had been able to discuss during three to four hours with Pender. He told that they were left alone for half an hour during which Pender admitted to planning the murder, coercing Hull to kill both Cataldi and Nordman and being present in the house at the time of the murders.
Floyd Pennington was sentenced eleven days after he agreed to testify against Sarah Pender. He was released in 2008 and committed a rape within months. In 2006, Detective Martinez moved to Idaho where he worked for the Ketchum Police Department. In 2008, he had to hand over his resignation following an evidence mishandling scandal.
In 2009, while helping journalist Steve Miller with research on the Sarah Pender case, former prosecutor Larry Sells became aware of the existence of a snitch list written by Floyd Pennington and given to Detective Ken Martinez. On that list, Pennington, who was waiting for sentencing, offered to provide information against 17 different persons besides Pender. He wrote "I will help to make buys, wear wire, talk on phone taps or whatever I have to do to make busts on all these crimes". The list, an indication that Pennington was willing to testify against any number of people to get a deal, seriously undermined Pennington's credibility and undermined the prosecution's theory about Pender's guilt. It was not given to either the defense or the prosecution at the time of Pender's trial. This discovery led Larry Sells to believe that Sarah Pender did not get a fair trial. In an interview to the Indianapolis Star, he explained : "If I'd have seen that I never would have put Floyd Pennington on the witness stand." In May 2012, he contacted Bonnie Prosser, Sarah Pender's mother, and promised to help her set things right.
According to Joel Schumm, a criminal law professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of law, "If Pennington's testimony was important in convicting her and this list seriously undermined his credibility, a judge may well order a new trial because the verdict would no longer be worthy of confidence."
Pender escaped from Rockville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison 50 miles west of Indianapolis, on August 4, 2008, with the aid of prison guard Scott Spitler Sr., and former cellmate Jamie Long.
At the time of Pender's evasion, Scott Spitler had been a corrections officer at Rockville Correctional Facility for 5 years. The previous month, he had been placed in a pre-trial diversion program for a misdemeanor charge of battery. Although he was married and had children, he was also engaged in an on-going sexual relationship with Sarah Pender behind bars.
Jamie Long was an older married woman. She had a criminal history of two felonies and 12 to 15 other convictions. Both women had met in 2007 while they were inmates at Marion County Jail. They formed an intimate relationship and Long referred to Pender as her "wife" while they served time at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. After her release, Long frequently visited Pender.
In April 2007, Pender submitted a petition for writ of Habeas Corpus. On September 5, 2008, in a closing judgment, her petition was dismissed. She later wrote: "Once my appeals were exhausted [sic], I had no hope left and I chose to create my own justice. I served the equivalent of 21 years of my sentence and I felt that was enough. I escape because I felt justified in doing so."
Pender reportedly planned her escape in the days or weeks before it happened with a cell-phone provided to her by prison guard Scott Spitler. Pender and Scott Spitler had agreed he would be paid $15000 to help her escape. On August 4, 2008, Pender went to the facility's gymnasium where she changed clothes, hiding her prison uniform above the ceiling's tiling and putting on civilian clothes that Spitler also had given to her. She then walked toward the fueling area where they had agreed to meet. Spitler told her to get in the van and hide under the seat, which she did. He then drove to the prison's gate where he knew, out of experience, that the guard would not search his vehicle. Spitler dropped off Pender at one of the facility's parking lot, where Jamie Long picked her up, gave her $140 and drove her to Indianapolis. After an inmate count, it appeared that Pender was missing. The Prison was put on maximum security lock down.
After viewing video surveillance tapes and consulting the guard shack log, investigators identified Spitler as Pender's accomplice. He was arrested on August 5, 2008 and charged with assisting a criminal, official misconduct, sexual misconduct and trafficking with an inmate. In February 2009, he was sentenced to 8 years in jail. Jamie Long was arrested on August 7, 2008 after Spitler denounced her to investigators as the person who had picked up Pender. She was charged with aiding an escape, a class C felony, and sentenced to 7 years in jail.
In September 2008, TV show America's Most Wanted began to run a feature on Sarah Pender. In October 2008, Pender was added to the US Marshals 15 most wanted fugitives list. She was the only woman on the list at the time.
In the meantime, Pender had settled in a North Side Chicago neighborhood where she went under the name Ashley Thompson. She found a job as an estimator for a contractor.
On December 22, 2008, two hours after a rerun of America's Most Wanted, her neighbor identified her and called the Chicago police, which arrested her at her apartment. Although she denied being Sarah Pender for a little while, she did not resist arrest.
Pender was held in solitary confinement at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis from December 2008 up to January 30, 2014, for a total of 1,870 days. Her current release date from jail is April 4, 2054 when she will be eligible for parole. At that time she will be 75.
All summer 16, Cara Wieneke, Sarah Pender's lawyer, filed a motion with the Marion County prosecutors office, requesting a deal that would free Sarah Pender. If granted, Pender would plead guilty of a class C felony of assisting a criminal, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 8 years. The request was based on the new evidence that had surfaced: Floyd Pennington's snitch list. Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry refused to sign off on a reduced sentence. Citing the new evidence, he explained "If she believes this information justifies a new trial, then their remedy is to file a new post-conviction relief petition.
In October 2013, Cara Wieneke filed a request for a new trial on Pender's behalf. The request was based on Pennington Snitch list as well as new evidence: a newly discovered second snitch list by Pennington and testimony from a forensic linguist. On February 17, 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeal denied the request explaining that the "petitioner has failed to establish a reasonable possibility that he is entitled to post conviction relief." Controversy arose when information surfaced that a judge sitting on the reviewing panel was Cale J. Bradford. Bradford had been judge during both of Richard Hull's 2000 and 2005 appeals, raising questions about the court's impartiality in reviewing the request.
In 2002, during her trial, Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Larry Sells likened Sarah Pender to a "Female Charles Manson" to describe her alleged influence over Richard Hull. At the time, this comparison was relayed by the media on several occasions and it has regularly resurfaced since in the online media. Supporters of Sarah Pender claim that this comparison is inappropriate because Sarah Pender did not plan, commit or pressure Richard Hull into murdering Tricia Nordman and Andrew Cataldi. They claim that even if Sarah Pender had been involved in planning the murders, the comparison would be grossly exaggerated; Charles Manson was a guru with a juvenile offender record and a psychiatric history who led several members of his sect to commit several murders on several occasions over a period of several months.
In 2008 and during his trial, Scott Spitler explained that he had been manipulated by Sarah Pender. At the time of the escape, Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Edwin Buss told the media that Pender had "Manipulated him to the point where [he had planned his day] to get a vehicle inside the facility and take her outside the facility." Detectives said that she had first seduced, then coerced, Spitler into helping her to escape. Interviewed by America's Most Wanted, Larry Sells said one more time about Pender that "Lurking within is a dark evil demon […] she has the ability to seduce people into committing atrocious acts […] she has a Charles Manson-like ability to manipulate people." The America's Most Wanted website made a particularly dramatic depiction of Sarah Pender, labeling her a "cunning and dangerous fugitive" and asking viewers to call "before she has the opportunity to kill again." It said that "Pender used her body to get what she desired most -- Freedom" The show talked about "her manipulative ways". In a controversial book about Sarah Pender, journalist Steve Miller also compared her to an evil, supernatural being and wrote : "Vampires, as the lore has it, exist on the essence of others. Sarah Pender was a vampire in the emotional and mental sense.".
Sarah Pender has written that "the media, including "America's Most Wanted", has selectively used facts in order to manipulate the viewers to believe I am a degenerate, dangerous criminal in return for sensational story and higher ratings under the guise of bringing justice." Supporters of Sarah Pender claim that Scott Spitler was aware of the media depiction of Sarah Pender and used it to minimize his responsibility. They point out that Spitler did not act out of a misguided love for a femme fatale when he helped Sarah Pender to escape Rockville Correctional Facility: he was expecting a $15,000 payment for his services, a fact that the media did not report, neither during Pender's escape, nor before or during or after Spitler's trial. Sarah Pender's supporters further point out that the relationship between Pender and Spitler was not an exception at Rockville. Two months after her escape, in October 2008, Roger Heitzman, another correctional officer at Rockville, was arrested by the state police for trafficking and engaging in sex acts with at least one female inmate. Because the case was not high profile, no one claimed Heitzman was a victim manipulated by the inmate involved. Supporters of Sarah Pender finally claim that the Department of Correction had also an interest in exaggerating Pender's abilities in order to minimize media damage and their own responsibilities. The Rockville Correctional Facility's hiring policy had already gotten bad media publicity in February 2008 when it was revealed that mass murderer Steven Kazmierczak had been hired there in 2007 to work as a correctional officer. The fact that the guard posted at the gate did not search Spitler's vehicle on the day of the escape as he should have, Scott Spitler's behaviour, Roger Heitzman's arrest, the hiring of psychopath Steven Kazmierczak are elements that clearly pointed out problems within the institution which, when considered, had little to do with Pender's personality. Supporters of Sarah Pender point out that she committed no violence of any kind in planning or executing her escape.
Supporters of Sarah Pender claim that if anything, far from being manipulative, Sarah Pender has often been used by a variety of people as a convenient scapegoat to elude their own responsibilities in crimes or errors they committed.
A book on her escape, Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender, was released June 7, 2011. The book, written by Steve Miller, has been criticized as inaccurate and deliberately quoting key documents in a misleading way. Steve Miller's investigation, however, brought to light Floyd Pennington's Snitch list. According to former prosecutor Larry Sells, reading the book led him to reconsider his position on the fairness of Sarah Jo Pender's 2002 trial.
In April 2011, a Mail-Art Project "Send us YOUR Hand" has been launched by Sarah, her family and friends under the organization "Art for Humanity" to raise support and help Pender, who has been in solitary confinement since 2008, to remain connected to the outside world.
On April 1, 2012, her case was profiled on an episode of the Oxygen TV Series "Snapped". The TV show features interviews of Sarah Jo Pender and her relatives, as well as those of many persons involved in the case.
Lifetime movie produced a movie based on the Pender case called, "She Made them Do It" starring Jenna Dewan Tatum. The movie sparked interest for the Pender case ; the Wikipedia page about Sarah Jo Pender was visited 100,000 times within 3 days of the movie's premiere on the lifetime Network, on December 29, 2012.
On September 22, 2013, the case was featured on the Investigation Discovery show "Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall"
On September 26, 2013, she was interviewed on the British documentary Women Behind Bars with Trevor McDonald.