The former girlfriend of a man accused of killing two people then burying them in the backyard of his mother’s home will be the key witness against him, a prosecutor told a jury Monday during opening statements in a double-murder trial.
Maricopa County Deputy Attorney Ellen Dahl said Alan Champagne shot and killed Philman Tapaha, 32, then strangled his girlfriend, Brandi Hoffner. 26, while they were in his apartment in 2011.
He then methodically took steps to hide the bodies, even going so far as to ask someone to build a box in which to bury them, Dahl said.
Dahl said Champagne, then 40, and his girlfriend at the time, Elise Garcia, 26, were in his apartment when Tapaha, who was the uncle of Champagne’s son, came over with Hoffner.
Dahl said jurors will hear Garcia testify that she only heard the gunshot that killed Tapaha, but witnessed Hoffman’s killing afterward.
“He wasn’t going to let her have a quick death,” Dahl said, in describing Hoffman’s murder for the jury.
Garcia recalls seeing two people’s reflections in a mirror after they had entered the apartment, Dahl said. After hearing the gunshot, she recalls then seeing Tapaha shot in the hand and head, Dahl said.
She will testify about hearing Hoffner sob and beg for her life, Dahl said. Champagne, after telling the woman to calm down, then allegedly used a black electrical cord and a wrench to make a noose, strangling her from behind, Dahl said.
The couple then wrapped the bodies in a rug and went to stay at Champagne’s mother’s house, the prosecutor said. Champagne asked a neighbor to build a box that was later used to bury the bodies in his other’s yard, she told jurors.
Garcia is serving 16 years in prison after she pleaded guilty last fall to her role in Hoffman’s killing and agreeing to testify against Champagne.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Champagne in what marks the second time he has been charged with murder. He previously served 14 years in prison for killing a man in 1991 at a block party while high on alcohol, LSD and paint fumes.
A break in the case came when a new owner began remodeling the home where Champagne’s mother used to live before being evicted. A landscaper found the bodies of Tapaha and Hoffner.
Campagne’s attorney, Maria Schaffer, in her opening statement, used a Las Vegas analogy to describe how prosecutors came upon the evidence used against Champagne, saying the state either “got lucky” or “cheated.”
Schaffer argued prosecutors “got lucky by buying” by getting Garcia to testify, adding that aside from that, there is no evidence linking Champagne to the murders.
Schaffer said Garcia had multiple chances to tell police about the killings, including after a run-in with police in 2011, but never admitted to the killings until last year.
She cast doubt on Garcia’s credibility for jurors, claiming the woman “has a drug problem.”
Schaffer also told jurors an undercover police officer posed as a private investigator and visited Champagne when he was in prison in an attempt to get information out of him.
The state “played a dirty game” with Champagne, leading him to believe the undercover detective was “helping him,” Schaffer said.
She argued the state “was desperate to find the bodies” and used Champagne’s criminal history or “reputation” as a pretext to incriminate him, even though no evidence exists showing Champagne “killed or was involved in the murders of the individuals.”
Champagne is already currently serving a 700-year sentence for his convictions on 24 attempted murder charges, after he barricaded himself in his mother’s home and opened fire on officers who went there to arrest him on an unrelated aggravated assault warrant, according to police.
That incident occurred eight months after the killings.
It was while he was in prison for that incident that police began investigating him in connection with the killings, which is when the undercover officer visited Champagne, who made statements indicating his involvement in the two missing people.
However, it wasn’t until the bodies were found that officials connected him to the murders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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