Las Vegas Sun

June 17, 2024

Tonga native guilty of first-degree murder in cop killing

RENO, Nev. - A jury could begin considering the death penalty this week for a man convicted of first-degree murder in the hatchet slaying of a campus police officer at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The jury deliberated less than two hours before returning the guilty verdict Monday for Siaosi Vanisi, 29, a native of Tonga who arrived in Reno from Salt Lake City just weeks before the killing.

Vanisi's first trial ended in a mistrial nine months ago after it was discovered that a key word had been transcribed incorrectly in police records.

Witnesses testified that he repeatedly told them he wanted to kill a cop in the days before the hacking death of UNR Sgt. George Sullivan, a 19-year veteran of the force who left behind five children and a widow, Carolyn, who watched the trial.

"The evidence was very clear," Mrs. Sullivan said afterwards.

"Now every citizen in this community knows what I have known for a year and a half - that Siaosi Vanisi brutally and savagely killed my husband," she said.

Vanisi told the judge Monday that the trial was a joke and that he had wanted to defend himself.

Vanisi's public defenders offered no opening statements or closing arguments. They cross-examined only a few witnesses and declined to comment on the verdict.

Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer said the sentencing would begin as early as Wednesday.

Witnesses testified that Vanisi stalked Sullivan after repeatedly telling friends and relatives that he wanted to kill a cop. Afterwards, he told a cousin about the murder and disposed of a $7 camping hatchet with traces of Sullivan's blood.

Sullivan was struck with more than 20 blows from the hatchet while he sat doing paperwork in his squad car shortly before 1 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1998. Gruesome autopsy photographs were shown to the jury.

"It is not pleasant to look at, there's no question about that," Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick said in his closing arguments on Monday.

Vanisi also was found guilty of two armed robberies the next day with Sullivan's .45-caliber service revolver.

The killing on the UNR campus, where a monument now memorializes Sullivan, touched off an intense manhunt. Vanisi was arrested two days later after a shoot-out with police during a standoff at a cousin's apartment in Salt Lake City.

"It strikes home," Gammick, a former police officer, said after the verdict Monday. "It's impossible to deal with these folks who have had their lives torn apart and work with them closely like we do and not get involved personally."

The public defenders had requested to be dismissed from the case. But Judge Steinheimer refused and the Nevada Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.

The attorneys said before the trial they couldn't ethically continue to represent him because they couldn't agree on a defense strategy. They have declined to provide details, citing their inability to disclose lawyer-client communications.

Gammick said he has seen past cases where lawyers offered no opening or closing statements only to vigorously defend their client in the sentencing phase. Still, he said he's confident that Vanisi will get the death penalty.

"If they feel there is a really strong case during the guilty phase they take the posture of not losing their credibility with the jury and saving their fight for the penalty phase," Gammick said. "I've seen this tactic before. It doesn't cause me any special concern."