INDIO, Calif. - A 55-year-old transient was sentenced today to 56 years to life in prison for fatally stabbing a homeless woman in Palm Springs, but the judge in the case agreed to give the defense until Dec. 8 to file a possible motion for a new trial.
Verne Raymond Orlop Jr. was convicted in August of first-degree murder for killing of 48-year-old Denee Salisbury days after claiming that she had threatened him and other members of the Palm Springs homeless community.
The victim's body was found on the night of Feb. 21, 2015, in a lot northwest of East Mesquite Road and South Palm Canyon Drive. She had been stabbed once in the chest and once in the throat. Police found Orlop the following morning near the scene of the killing with two knives and a garrote.
After officers briefly mentioned that they were investigating a stabbing, Orlop admitted killing Salisbury and provided details that only the killer would know, including the number and locations of the stab wounds she suffered, according to Deputy District Attorney Jacob Silva.
Orlop called a Palm Springs police dispatcher about two weeks prior to Salisbury's death and said that if police did not take her off the streets, he would kill her, the prosecutor said. Silva said Orlop was "fixated'' on ridding himself of Salisbury, who he said had threatened and robbed him, his girlfriend and other homeless people in Palm Springs.
"After the 911 call didn't accomplish his goal, he took matters into his own hands,'' Silva told jurors in his closing argument.
Orlop's attorney, Dennette McIntyre described Salisbury as "extremely violent'' and frequently under the influence. Toxicology tests showed she had a 0.25 blood-alcohol content at the time of her death, the defense attorney said.
Both attorneys agreed that Salisbury and Orlop each suffered from mental illnesses and addiction.
McIntyre maintained that her client had valid reasons to be afraid for his safety, citing past assaults on Orlop with knives and rocks, robberies and verbal threats.
"All these contributed to his legitimate fear of Ms. Salisbury,'' said McIntyre, who characterized Orlop's 911 call as more of a plea for help then a threat toward Salisbury.
Silva countered that Orlop changed his story at trial with "convenient'' new facts to try to sway jurors toward the lesser charge of manslaughter. Orlop testified that Salisbury reached into a bag for what he thought might be a screwdriver or a knife, and also said that he intended to stab her in the leg, but his knees buckled, causing him to fall and inadvertently plunge the knife into her chest.
McIntyre said Orlop was always upfront with police in saying that he felt threatened by Salisbury.
"This isn't a plot to kill,'' McIntyre said. "This is a man who is afraid.''
The sentence handed down Friday morning by Riverside County Superior Court Judge James Hawkins was doubled due to Orlop's 2012 guilty plea to threatening customers with a knife at the Palm Canyon Roadhouse in Palm Springs. But Hawkins said he would allow McIntyre until Dec. 8 to file defense motions, including a possible motion for a new trial, after she expressed concerns regarding an apparent switch in Orlop's medication mid-trial that she believes may have affected his testimony on the stabbing.
Salisbury's family members who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they were aware she had issues but said her killing robbed her of any chance at putting her life back together.
"You took away any chance she had to get the help she needed and you absolutely had no right,'' her sister Erin told Orlop. "That night you took my sister's life, you took a part of me with her.''
But nearly three years after her death, Salisbury's family expressed more than anything that they wished to move past the anger and pain.
"In time, I hope I can forgive Verne Orlop, but never, ever, will I forget what he did to her and how he took her life,'' her sister said.
Salisbury's daughter Chanel said, "Part of me should be mad at you, Verne, but I'm not angry with you. My mom would not have wanted that. Denee will live on every day through me and she's a part of my heart and no one can change that. That's why I will not let you have that part of me. Losing her only made me stronger and I will not live with the burden of being angry with
you, because I already live with having to miss my mother all the time.''
The victim's father Dan noted that he and his daughter shared the same birthday. He said she"had a heart of gold'' and endured despite the way her life turned out.
On one of the last birthdays they shared, he said she gave him a Bible, which she signed "Happy birthday, Daddy. Thank you for bringing me into the world. It's been a beautiful journey. All my love, your daughter, Denee.''
He said there were ``so many people walking the streets who really need help'' and decried ``the system that failed to help people like her. I see Verne and Denee every day on the streets. It's so painful. I can't run from it.''