An Indio man who slashed his girlfriend’s throat with a box cutter, then ran the 41-year-old high school teacher over with her Toyota Prius after the initial attack failed to kill her, was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Michael John Franco, 46, was convicted of murder in April for the slaying of Jill Grant, whose body was found at the Golf Club at Terra Lago by employees in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2013.
Jurors — who deliberated about four hours over two days — found true special circumstance allegations of torture and committing the murder during the commission of a kidnapping.
Prosecutors previously decided against seeking capital punishment for the defendant, who maintained he was less than fully conscious due to methamphetamine intoxication and had no memory of killing Grant.
Franco tearfully told Grant’s family and friends in attendance at his sentencing hearing that he was “so sorry for your loss” and said he’d found religion during the nearly four years he’s been in custody.
“Everyone who knew Jill, even if you hate me, please feel free to write me and ask me anything. If I can help ease your pain, I am willing to answer your questions,” Franco said.
He maintained that “the truth was never sought in this conviction.”
Franco, who testified on his own behalf during the trial, claimed that after shooting up meth at the couple’s home in the 84-400 block of Onda Drive, he received a text message from a friend who wanted his drug dealer’s phone number.
He said the query prompted a violent, night-long argument between the couple. Franco said the text message angered Grant because they had an agreement for him to only use meth in the house, due to his history of addiction. He also maintained that Grant not only sanctioned his drug use, but supplied him with the meth he took the night before she died.
Deputy District Attorney Kristi Kirk told the jury that no such arrangement existed and the defendant’s continued drug use was a strain on the couple’s relationship, with Grant pushing Franco to attend rehab and regularly drug-testing him at their home.
Five hours after Grant’s throat was cut, he drove her out of the Terra Lago gated community under the pretense of getting her medical attention, but actually intended to dump her in a canal near the golf course, the prosecutor said.
After noticing that Franco was driving in the opposite direction of the hospital, Grant ran from the car, prompting him to run her over with the Prius, Kirk said.
Shortly after her body was discovered, surveillance footage from an Indio gas station captured a man strongly resembling Franco removing brush from the front of the car and wiping something off one of the front wheels. Franco conceded the man in the footage looked like him, but said he does not remember being there. He testified that after taking the meth, his memory was “fuzzy” for a period of nearly 24 hours.
Franco was arrested on Dec. 24, 2013, at a home in Palm Desert. Kirk said he was Tasered after he reached for a gun inside Grant’s Prius and told arresting officers that he had planned to flee to Mexico after cleaning out his bank accounts. Franco was seen on surveillance footage withdrawing about $400 from an ATM, using Grant’s credit card.
Speaking at the sentencing hearing, Grant’s brother, Michael Thomas, characterized Franco as a “predator.” He said the defendant preyed on his sister’s compassionate nature, which she used to bring joy to family members, friends and her students at her alma mater Palm Desert High School, as well as Palm Springs High School and Palm Desert Middle School.
“Unfortunately, this loving, nurturing personality — these are good traits — is ultimately what gave an individual the ability to take advantage of her,” Thomas said.
Despite Franco’s criminal history and drug addiction, despite paying his bills and him stealing money from her, “she still wanted to help him,” her brother said.
“When she finally had enough, she realized he was a lost cause, which is something that would have been really difficult for my sister to accept. There are no lost causes in her classroom. There are no lost causes among her friends.”
Thomas said he was “relieved” that Franco’s sentencing had finally come to pass, calling the trial process “very, very hard on my family.”
Thomas’ father died before the trial began and his mother, who was too ill to attend the trial, died about a month after Franco was convicted.
Thomas noted he was not allowed to sit in during the trial because he appeared as a witness, meaning “none of my family was allowed to fully be recognized and participate as victims and understand what happened to Jill.”
Kirk called Franco’s conduct “nothing short of monstrous” and said he was still refusing to take responsibility for his actions by blaming “a poor childhood, poor choices, (being) on drugs” and Grant herself.
The defendant blurted out, “That’s not true!”, prompting Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos to threaten to have Franco removed from the courtroom or gagged upon any further outbursts.
“He took a woman out of this world that did nothing but try to make him a better person,” Kirk said.
Grant grew up in the Santa Rosa Mountains above Palm Springs and attended Palm Desert Middle School and Palm Desert High School, graduating in 1990. She attended College of the Desert, then transferred to Cal State San Bernardino, where she majored in mathematics.
She taught math at Palm Springs High School for three years, starting in 1995, then began teaching at her alma mater in 1998.
–City News Service