SANTA CRUZ, Calif.—Neighbors said they heard an unusual noise from John Clauer's studio apartment on April 7, 2011.
It was the sound of his girlfriend, Heather Stearns, 30, calling quietly for help, her normally loud voice hushed and gasping.
Santa Cruz Police detective Elizabeth Butler told Judge Ariadne Symons that neighbors David Zentner and his girlfriend Louann Siurop often heard sounds of struggles and screaming from apartment number 7, with which they shared a wall.
But this was the only time they heard a call for help. However, they did nothing about it but turn up the television on this night at about 6 p.m. When Butler questioned the couple almost three weeks later, they told a shocking tale of what they heard through the adjoining wall.
"He said he definitely recognized her voice," the detective said of Mr. Zentner. "He heard Heather and she said, 'No, get off me. No. Leave me alone. Stop. Stop. Stop it. Get off me, John.'
"The last thing he heard was Heather saying very faintly, 'Help' in a low, faint tone of voice. It was weird, strange, unusual. Not the way Heather spoke."
Then, the detective continued, the couple heard six or seven loud stomps, strong enough to shake the whole second floor and what felt like the whole building at 1104 East Cliff Dr.
Prosecutors Jason Gill and Jeff Rosell contend those noises were the blows that killed Stearns, who was found with a serious of serious injuries including a broken chestbone, major trauma to the head and strangulation.
Defense attorney Zachariah Schwartzbach argued that Stearns died from a possibly fatal blood alcohol level of .35, more than four times the legal limit and an amount that medical examiner Dr. Richard Mason said was at the low end of the spectrum for a fatal amount of alcohol.
Judge Symons threw out that argument saying that the fact that Clauer, 63, kept the body in his apartment and didn't report the death did not support a claim of innocence.
She set an arraignment date for May 9 for one of the most gruesome cases in recent Santa Cruz memory.
Disturbing details of violence, alcohol abuse and neglect came out during the one-day hearing.
Neighbors in the 10-unit apartment building, which is right on a heavily-trafficked curve on East Cliff between the view of the Beach Boardwalk and Seabright, complained about a horrid smell, but it took nearly three weeks to track it down.
"It was a rancid smell," said Santa Cruz Police officer Matthew Mulvihill, who was called to the scene April 26 by neighbors complaining about the smell. "It smelled like a dead body."
Mulvihill tracked the smell to Apartment 7 and knocked on the door. No one answered, but he said that Clauer, who had passed him downstairs, finally came up and opened the door.
When he asked Clauer what the smell was, Clauer told him, "Something went foul."
The officer said he looked around the apartment, including in the bathroom, before he spotted a badly decomposed body on the bed, lying on its left side, facing the wall. He said he couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman and the skin had turned black.
Stearns and Clauer had been together for a year, the judge was told, and Stearns lived in the apartment but never had a key for it. Both had extensive criminal records of alcohol and drug abuse.
Neighbors said that every three days or so they heard Stearns yell "stop" and "get off me" and what sounded like loud struggles in the apartment, according to detective Butler. They said that Stearns was often yelling and ordering Clauer around.
But Siurop told Butler she was afraid to ask Clauer about the noises on April 7 because she was afraid of him.