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A series examining nearly 100 unsolved murders in the region

Without a trace

by Vickie Taylor
Daily Times-Call
2001 Times-Call Publishing Co.

   GREELEY A 23-year-old Greeley woman feared her estranged husband, and told her best friend that she was afraid he might kill her.

   That was a few days before Kristina "Tina" Tournai Sandoval vanished.

   Five years later, Weld County District Attorney Al Dominguez says there is simply not enough evidence to prosecute John Sandoval for his wife's murder.

   Tina remains a name and a face catalogued in Weld County's missing-persons files.

   Her parents Michael and Mary Ellen Tournai of Windsor and eight siblings have given up hope that she'll knock on their door someday.

   "We definitely feel that she is dead. There's just no question now," Mary Ellen Tournai said.

   "It just strains everything," Michael Tournai added.

   According to police reports, Tina Sandoval was reported missing Oct. 19, 1995.

   She told five people including friends, co-workers and her sister that she was going to talk to her estranged husband when she got off work at 7 a.m. from her night nursing job at Greeley's North Colorado Medical Center.

   Police know that Tina headed back to her apartment to change clothes because they found her uniform, shoes and stethoscope there, her mother said.

   But no other trace of Tina Sandoval has surfaced in the past five years.

   Her parents said it was not her character to leave without a trace. She was very responsible and never would have vanished without keeping in touch.

   Hours after Tina was reported missing, police caught her 33-year-old husband, John, shirtless as he jumped out a rear window of his Greeley home and fled on foot.

   His upper body was covered with fresh scratches. In his car, police found a handgun, a wet shovel, a muddy bucket and a flashlight hanging on a rope.

   Two blocks from his home, they found Tina's car.

   Inside the house, Tina's mom discovered her daughter's jacket.

   Wedded bliss had turned to dreadful unhappiness. The Tournais had a front-row view as their daughter's happiness faded and her marriage crumbled.

   John and Tina were married on Jan. 1, 1992. Five months later, John was arrested for stalking a woman, a stranger who resembled Tina.

   While John spent five weeks in the county jail, the Tournais learned of his criminal history in California. He had served two years in prison on a burglary charge. He had stalked a female co-worker, taken her house key, copied it and used it to get into her home.

   He was paroled to Greeley, where he started taking radiology classes at Aims Community College. That's where Tina and John met, the Tournais said.

   According to the Tournais, Tina knew about John's criminal history and that he had served time in prison, but John told her he had been wrongly accused a case of mistaken identity.

   Tina remained with John for two more years before she hinted to her family that married life was not going well.

   Mary Ellen Tournai said that around Christmas of 1994, Tina said she wanted to get her nursing degree and find work out of state without John.

   "All she would say is they had differences," Mary Ellen said.

   Tina was devoted to her education. She finished her classes at Aims, then transferred to the University of Northern Colorado on a scholarship. She worked nights and weekends to pay for school. She graduated with top grades from UNC as a registered nurse in May 1995, her father said.

   Three months later, she separated from John and moved into her own apartment, her mother said.

   She told her best friends that she feared that John would kill her if she tried to divorce him, police reports stated.

   She begged John to help her resolve the marriage amicably, without attorneys, Mary Ellen said. She even filled out the paperwork for the divorce, then gave it to him to complete, the Tournais said.

   Tina soon discovered that John had filled in the papers with erroneous information like the wrong birth date, Mary Ellen said.

   In October, the week before Tina disappeared, Tina told her mother why she wanted out of the marriage. "She said, 'Because he's lied to me from the very first about people and places.' She said she couldn't live her life like that," Mary Ellen said.

   The night before she was reported missing, Tina visited her sister, who encouraged Tina not to see Sandoval alone.

   Tina told her sister that if she did not return at a certain time, then she should start looking for her, Mary Ellen said.

   With the help of more than 125 volunteers, the family organized weekend searches and spent the next three weeks tromping through farmland in northern Weld County, hoping to find clues to Tina's disappearance.

   They enlarged Weld County maps, closing in on 3-mile areas to search one at a time.

   When the search parties failed to find anything, the Tournai family continued searching for another 18 months, every Saturday and Sunday.

   They checked fields, abandoned houses and factories, under bridges, in culverts and irrigation ditches. Friends searched as far north as the Pawnee National Grasslands.

   Eleven different psychics offered 11 different insights. All were fruitless.

   In the first hours after Tina's disappearance, two bloodhounds picked up Tina and John's scent together and led investigators as far as Colorado Highway 14, north of Greeley.

   But their efforts were hampered by a major snowstorm that blew into the area and cleansed the air, throwing the dogs off the trail.

   The family posted 1,300 fliers throughout Northern Colorado and mailed letters to farmers pleading with them to check their farmland for anything suspicious.

   "We just couldn't find anything anywhere," Michael said. "Today and every time I drive out anywhere, I look and look. I have no idea where to go now."

   "We would just love to see something happen," Mary Ellen added.

   Greeley police Sgt. John Gates said he, too, would like closure.

   He said Sandoval remains the prime suspect and the only suspect in Tina's disappearance. "He was clearly the last person with her," Gates said.

   Weld District Attorney Al Dominguez said hunches and suspicions are not good enough. "We have to have evidence and facts to go into a court not people's gut feelings, assumptions, suspicions and things that we can't prove."

   Dominguez said a tough part of cases such as Sandoval's is that his prosecution team would have to first prove Tina is dead. "There is no one who saw her dead. How do I prove she's dead?

   "That's an assumption. It works great on TV, but in the courts, it doesn't work," he said.

   Dominguez said he holds firm to his belief: "It's better to let 100 guilty guys go free than to convict one innocent guy."

   He added that in cases other than murders, he will take a chance if he believes his odds are 55 to 45 in his favor. "On a murder case, I'd rather wait and gamble that something's going to break, as opposed to taking it to court and losing it forever."

   And so the Tournai family waits.

   John Sandoval, now 38, was released from the Colorado Department of Corrections on Dec. 6, 1999, after serving four years on a burglary charge. He will spend the next two years on parole in Las Vegas.

   Gates said he is confident that it is just a matter of time before Sandoval returns to his old tricks in Nevada.

   As for the Weld County case, the more time that passes, the more difficult the case will be to prove, Gates said.