Man goes on trial in murder of popular Palm Desert High School math teacher

Michael John Franco faces life in prison

INDIO, Calif. - Jury selection began Thursday for the trial of a convicted felon accused of killing his 41-year-old girlfriend and dumping the educator's body at an Indio golf course.

Michael John Franco, 46, of Indio, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of killing Jill Grant, a Palm Desert High School math teacher whose body was found at the Golf Club at Terra Lago in the
early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2013.

In addition to murder, Franco faces one felony count each of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and carrying a loaded firearm, sentence-enhancing allegations of using a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony and special circumstance allegations of inflicting torture and committing the murder in the commission of a kidnapping.

In August 2015, prosecutors decided against pursuing capital punishment, leaving life without parole as the only potential sentence should Franco be convicted.

Publicity surrounding the case led defense attorney Dante Gomez to file motions for the prohibition of any media filming during the trial. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos agreed, and also granted a defense motion for a modified juror questionnaire, which asks prospective
panelists whether they have any prior knowledge of the case through news reports.

Grant's body was found by golf course employees, who told Indio police that a vehicle sped off, leaving tire marks along the course.

Recently released court documents allege that Franco told a fellow inmate in 2014 that he and Grant had gotten into an argument, leading him to slit her throat with a box cutter. He then allegedly wrapped her throat with a towel and drove to the golf course to dump her body, but ``explained that the human body is resilient and then stated she got up and took off running, at which point he ran her over with the car,'' according to a prosecutor's trial brief.

Shortly after Grant's body was found, a man who ``strongly resembled'' the defendant was seen on surveillance footage driving Grant's Prius to an am/pm gas station convenience store in Indio, according to the brief. While there, the man used Grant's credit card to withdraw $400, spent considerable time inspecting the car's front bumper and removed a ``large stick/brush'' from the bumper area, according to the prosecution.

Detectives would later find shrubbery and grass in the car's front grill and under the wheel well, according to the brief.

Prosecutors allege a longtime friend of Franco's told police that he received a recorded message on his phone from Franco's phone at 12:26 a.m. Dec. 23. He heard what sounded like ``a female begging for her life'' on the call, which he thought had been made inadvertently.

In the recording, Grant appears to be telling Franco that they should call police and report that she was attacked by someone else, according to the court document.

Read: New Details released in the murder of popular Palm Desert High School teacher Jill Grant

He allegedly responded that he would take her to the hospital and call 911, at which point  Grant responds by saying, ``Wait until I can think of another idea. What if I drive the car someplace and call myself and say I was
attacked? Would that work (inaudible).''

Grant was later reported missing by her brother, Michael Thompson, after he and others were unable to get hold of her.

Grant and Franco were scheduled to host a Christmas party at their home on Dec. 23, which he abruptly canceled, telling a friend that Grant had left angry the previous night following an argument.

Investigators said a search conducted the following day at the residence in the 84-400 block of Onda Drive in Indio revealed blood on several items throughout the house and shoe prints consistent with impressions found at the crime scene, according to court records.

Franco was arrested on Dec. 24, 2013, in Palm Desert. Police said in court documents that Franco had to be Tased following ``a short scuffle'' in which he allegedly reached for a gun.

According to a declaration in support of increased bail, Franco ``made statements that he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory'' and ``stated the police should have shot him in the head because he had emptied his bank account and was going to flee to Mexico.''

According to the criminal complaint, he was convicted of felony robbery in Alameda County in June 1990, but has no felony convictions in Riverside County.

Franco is being held in lieu of $5 million bail.

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