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Sheriff's official: Nunez's leg burn was likely linchpin

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Cristian Nunez. (Mike Longaecker photograph)2 / 3
During closing arguments Michael Nieskes held up a picture of Courtney Bradford. (Mike Longaecker photograph)3 / 3

HUDSON — More than 15 months after a New Richmond mom and her daughter were found dead in their burned home, the suspect in the case was convicted in their slayings.

A St. Croix County jury convicted Cristian Daniel Nunez Tuesday on all five counts he faced after about four hours of deliberation following the six-day trial.

Nunez, 38, stood silent and motionless as St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham read the verdict, which was returned just before 10 a.m. The jury also found Nunez guilty of arson, auto theft and identity theft. He was accused of stabbing Courtney Bradford, 30, and 10-year-old Jasmine Bradford to death Sept. 1, 2015, at their New Richmond home. Prosecutors said he then set the house on fire before fleeing Wisconsin for El Paso.

St. Croix County Deputy District Attorney Michael Nieskes said it was Nunez's flight to the El Paso — on the U.S.-Mexico border — that proved pivotal in reaching the convictions.

"The flight and how it occurred was the key determination," he said after the verdict was returned.

St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Cathy Borgschatz said that put investigators on a race against time, and about 1,500 miles between them and their suspect.

“If he’d made it 1,502, we wouldn’t have been able to get him into custody,” she said.

Nieskes said he will argue for the maximum sentence in the case — life in prison — and for the sentences to run concurrently. The judge will have discretion over whether Nunez would be eligible for parole after 20 years, Nieskes said.

He said sentencing will likely occur in late February or early March.

The jury of eight women and four men received the case at 5 p.m. Monday and broke for the night at 7 p.m., before resuming at about 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Jurors sent St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham a request to review schematics of the Hallewood Boulevard home where the killings occurred, as well as accounts of text messages sent by Nunez. The jury also requested to see shoes prosecutors say belonged to Nunez.

“I think the jury followed the evidence and followed the law,” Nieskes said.

The case represented a joint investigation including New Richmond police, St. Croix County sheriff’s investigators and the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation.

New Richmond Police Chief Craig Yehlik, who served as a detective at the time of the homicides, expressed a sense of relief after the verdict was returned.

“We feel that justice has been served today,” he said.

Relatives of the Bradfords didn’t speak to members of the media Tuesday. Authorities said the convictions were an emotional moment for the family.

“This is part of a new chapter for them,” Yehlik said.

He and Borgschatz both said the case came down to the swift, cooperative police work done in the hours after the bodies were discovered. That put local authorities in touch with police in Des Moines, Iowa — where Nunez caught a flight to Texas — and officers in El Paso, where he was arrested Sept. 2, 2015.

“I think it’s one of the greatest investigations I’ve ever been a part of,” Borgschatz said.

She said the sheriff’s office had a solid relationship with New Richmond police coming into the case, which served both agencies well when it came to teaming up to find the Bradfords’ killer.

“Everyone elevates their commitment,” Borgschatz said.

Jurors were shown scores of evidence and hours of testimony during the trial. Borgschatz said she believed the most important piece of evidence were burns found on Nunez’s leg after he was arrested and examined by a doctor in El Paso.

Prosecutors alleged those were vapor burns Nunez received from gasoline.

“That meant that he had to start the fire,” Borgschatz said.
The jury was also shown shoes discovered discarded in a dumpster behind the Hudson Regency Inn where Nunez stayed before the killings. One of those shoes was found to contain Courtney Bradford’s blood.
“It’s as close as we came to a bloody knife or a smoking gun,” Borgschatz said.

Closing statements

The jury began deliberating after about three hours of closing statements concluding the six-day trial, where the state argued Nunez should be found guilty based on the totality of the evidence, while defense contended the trial didn’t turn up proof connecting the 38-year-old to the crime.

Nunez was charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide, one count of arson, along with auto and identity theft.

Defense attorney Brian Smestad told the jury that no DNA, blood, hair or fingerprints were ever discovered during the investigation that directly connected Nunez to the crime.

“There’s not one spec of forensic evidence that links my client to what happened here,” he said.

Smestad’s contention, which also took aim at the handling of evidence by law enforcement, ran counter to Nieskes’ argument that Nunez didn’t just kill the Bradfords, but went to lengths to cover up the crime.

Nieskes told the jury Nunez poured gasoline on and around the victims, then lit a fire in the house in the hopes of destroying the evidence and slowing the investigation.

“Fire is as destructive as it gets,” the prosecutor said.

He said Nunez then fled to El Paso, Texas, which borders Mexico. While at a hotel in El Paso a day after the slayings, Nunez used the inn’s WiFi network to look up the nearest border crossing site, busing routes in Mexico and the currency exchange rate, according to Nieskes.

Nunez also allegedly looked up the New Richmond News website.

“There’s not a reasonable hypothesis here, other than his guilt,” Nieskes said.

Not so, argued Smestad.

He painted a picture for the jury of an investigation that zeroed in early on Nunez as the lone suspect. After that, Smestad said, law enforcement officers didn’t pursue anything that didn’t build their case for anyone but Nunez.

Rather, he challenged the jury to consider a different story behind the case — one that finds Nunez innocent.

Smestad said investigators didn’t test for fingerprints or DNA on things like lighters found in the house or a digital recorder allegedly stashed in a shoe authorities say belonged to Nunez.

“The fact that that was never done is incomprehensible,” Smestad said.

“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” Smestad told the jury.

During his rebuttal statement, Nieskes said Smestad’s suggestion that there’s a story proving innocence is an elusive notion.

“And just guess what’s over there?” he said. “That’s the same thing magicians do.”

Closing arguments followed five full days of testimony that continued into Monday, when prosecution rested its case. Defense rested its case after calling just a few witnesses.

Nunez waived his right to testify.

Presiding Judge Scott Needham ran through a battery of questions for Nunez to ensure he was making an informed decision. The question-and-answer format represented the first time in months Nunez spoke openly in court.

The questioning revealed Nunez’s education ended in 10th grade as a student in Mexico.

Asked by Needham if he had any difficulty understanding proceedings, Nunez — who has been receiving Spanish translation through headphones — replied in English, “No, your honor.”

Needham asked Nunez if he understood that it was his legal right to testify on his own behalf.

“Yes, your honor,” he replied.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

(651) 301-7867