Sarah Gonzales-McLinn didn’t know what was in store for her when she moved into Hal Sasko’s house in Lawrence. This image was taken on the day she moved in. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Sarah Gonzales-McLinn regrets killing Hal Sasko.
She also regrets moving into his Lawrence home, where he repeatedly raped her until she channeled a lifetime of trauma into psychotic rupture.
On a January night in 2014, she drugged her captor, zip-tied his limbs and slit his throat.
“That is the moment that my pain and suffering spilled over onto many different people, even outside of us two,” she said in a phone interview from the women’s prison in Topeka. “So that moment, yes, I absolutely regret, and I would never do that again.”
A jury convicted Gonzales-McLinn of first-degree murder in 2015 without knowing about the months of abuse that preceded her grisly crime. Now, her advocates hope to get her out of prison by convincing the governor to grant her clemency — a longshot attempt to correct what they view as injustice.
The clemency application focuses on Sasko’s grooming of her from the age of 14, including the financial and psychological traps he used to keep her in bondage. New details include the revelation that Sasko, at age 52, had started grooming 16-year-old twin girls before his death.
Advocates hope her request for clemency will elevate public awareness of human trafficking cases so that women like Gonzales-McLinn may be better understood by family, friends, law enforcement and judges.
“How is it that she can be tried and convicted without a jury being fully aware of what was going on in that house? How is that not an injustice?” said Dave Ranney, a retired journalist who met Gonzales-McLinn as a volunteer for a writing program at the women’s prison. “The question isn’t whether she killed him, it’s why? And if you don’t know the answer to that, just ask anyone who counsels women who find themselves caught up in abusive relationships. They can tell you.”
Gonzales-McLinn was sentenced to a minimum of 50 years in prison. In 2021, newly elected Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez made a stunning deal. Gonzales-McLinn’s sentence was cut in half in exchange for giving up the right to appeal. But there is no guarantee a parole board will let her out of prison before she dies.
Valdez publicly defended the plea deal but secretly agreed Gonzales-McLinn should be freed.
Interviews, court records, confidential police documents, psychological reports, the clemency application and other materials obtained by Kansas Reflector provide insight into the events surrounding Sasko’s death and the legal proceedings that followed.
State corrections officials refused to allow an in-person interview with Gonzales-McLinn, citing inconvenience for prison staff and a state agency policy that only grants reporters access for stories on “appropriate” topics. Instead, corrections officials required Gonzales-McLinn to answer sensitive questions over the phone while surrounded by other inmates.
This was her first interview with a reporter, and she was nervous to tell her story.
“I’ve never talked about this with anyone outside of attorneys and psychologists — like, not even my family,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “But I just feel like it’s time, also. I feel like it has been just so hard to talk about because it does still hold a certain amount of power over me.”
Living with Sasko
Gonzales-McLinn welcomed the invitation from Sasko to move into his Lawrence home after she graduated a year early from Topeka High School. She was 17, and he was 50.
They met three years earlier, when she went to work for Sasko at his Cicis Pizza branch in Topeka. He stayed in touch as she moved on to other jobs.
Sasko knew about her troubled relationship with her parents. He knew she had been violently raped by a man who left her with scars from cigarette burns. She had attempted suicide and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Sasko promised to take care of her.
“When I moved into that house, I had no idea what was in store for me,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “I truly did think of him as a father figure to me. I just had no idea.”
The supposed sanctuary included unlimited access to marijuana and alcohol. Cocaine and ecstasy also were available.
Sasko charged her rent, and she bought her own food. He slowly gained control over “most everything that I did,” Gonzales-McLinn said.
After they had lived together for about six months, he told Gonzales-McLinn he loved her. She said she “shut it down,” but he continued to make unwanted advances. Eventually, he demanded sex as a condition for staying with him.
“I was very crushed the first time that happened, and I just felt completely helpless at that point,” Gonzales-McLinn said.
Sasko commandeered her paychecks, telling her she owed money for gas, her phone, car repairs and other expenses. He threatened to sue her if she left and told her he would wreck her credit rating so that she could never get an apartment or buy a car. She would be homeless, he warned.
Family and friends later told police that Sasko bragged about how “amazing” it was to “have an 18-year-old.” But he complained to Gonzales-McLinn that she wasn’t attractive enough.
He paid for her to get a nose job, then added the $6,000 cost to the bill she would have to repay before she could stop having sex with him.
He told her that men don’t like flat-chested women. She needed a curvier body. He wanted her to have breast augmentation surgery, but the doctor said she was too young. He arranged for her to have buttocks implants instead. She objected but felt she had no choice. He added the $10,000 cost to her bill.
Her last paycheck, from Bed Bath & Beyond, was for $265.56.
Gonzales-McLinn later told a psychologist that she would drink herself into a semi-conscious state when Sasko required sex. If she tried to resist, he held her arms.
“I would get as drunk as I could and just lay there,” she told the psychologist.
She estimated that he raped her two to three times per week for 10 months.
By late December 2013, Gonzales-McLinn had broken from reality. She searched Google for such phrases as: “Why do I think so differently?”
She texted her sister: “I feel like a caged animal right now, and it’s making me crazy.”
Greg Kelley told police he visited his uncle’s house a month or two before the murder and was alarmed to find a skinned rabbit in a bowl in the refrigerator.
Gonzales-McLinn had bought the rabbit at a local pet store, signed a waiver saying she would care for it, then used a knife to kill and skin the animal. She dug the rabbit’s fur out of the trash and demonstrated for Kelley how she stuck the knife through the rabbit’s neck. She had put thought into the technique.
She did this, she explained, to learn how to “self survive.”
The rabbit was marinating because she planned to cook and eat it the next day.
Kelley thought to himself: “This chick has problems.”
In clinical terms, Gonzales-McLinn was suffering from major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and dissociative identity disorder — formerly known as multiple personalities.
“To a reasonable degree of psychological certainty, Ms. Gonzales McLinn suffers from a number of serious mental illnesses,” wrote Marilyn Hutchinson, a psychologist who spent 17.5 hours evaluating Gonzales-McLinn after the murder.
Sharon Sullivan, a Washburn University professor and expert on human trafficking, said it is important to understand the neurological impact of sexual abuse. “Survival brain” takes over, Sullivan said, and the part of the brain that controls decision making goes offline.
In Gonzales-McLinn’s case, Sullivan said, her brain wasn’t even fully developed. She was trapped. She didn’t know there were options.
“I can’t even imagine having to deal with that at 18 years old, with so little experience of the world,” Sullivan said. “And this is someone who’s supposed to love her, called her his daughter. How f***ing creepy is that?”
Gonzales-McLinn said she couldn’t find a way to cope with the abuse in a way that made her feel better.
“There was a lot of drugs and alcohol in that house, and that was the only relief that I felt the whole time,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “That is kind of a dark road to go down.”
Hutchinson’s report said Gonzales-McLinn had been molested by a neighbor as a child, and the rape at age 16 “was extraordinarily traumatic.” She had nightmares of killing herself and the rapist. She felt unavoidable humiliation.
Sasko’s abuse compounded the trauma. Gonzales-McLinn came to the conclusion she would have to kill herself or kill him. A change in antidepressant medication may have affected her thinking, Hutchinson noted.
On the morning of Jan. 14, 2014, Sasko texted Gonzales-McLinn to apologize for trying to sleep with her again. But at 5:15 that night, he sent a text asking her to put beer in the refrigerator. She knew if he was drinking, she would be raped.
Gonzales-McLinn killed Sasko shortly before midnight. She drove her car to Florida so she could see the ocean before her inevitable arrest.
Lawrence police questioned her after she was found 11 days later in Everglades National Park. Detective Jamie Lawson wanted to know why she used Sasko’s blood to write “FREEDOM” on the wall.
“What was you trying to express when you did that?” Lawson asked.
“That’s how I felt,” she replied.
Later, Gonzales-McLinn told Hutchinson that killing Sasko felt like standing in the sun for the first time.
In a closed-door meeting with the trial judge in 2015, prosecutor Charles Branson successfully argued that it would be inappropriate for the jury to hear about Sasko’s abuse of Gonzales-McLinn.
“Details of those allegations would not be proper in front of the jury during the guilt phase of the trial because they would be simply information that would be used to create sympathy for the defendant,” Branson said, according to a transcript of the conversation.
Branson considered the abuse to be “irrelevant information.” He also didn’t want the abuse to be made public because news outlets would write about it.
Defense attorney Carl Cornwell agreed to restrictions on the evidence of abuse he could present at trial. Instead, he tried to convince jurors that Gonzales-McLinn was too mentally unstable to understand her actions.
The jury rejected Cornwell’s arguments, which emphasized the “system of Sarah,” a reference to her multiple personalities. Prosecutors said she was exaggerating symptoms of mental illness.
Gonzales-McLinn didn’t realize she might have to spend the rest of her life in prison. She was shocked and confused when evidence of Sasko’s abuse wasn’t presented at trial.
“I never had this mentality of, ‘I’m just going to get out scot-free, that’s what I’m fighting for, that’s what I want.’ But I did always want what was fair,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “If you don’t say everything that happened, how can somebody decide what’s fair?”
Douglas County District Judge Paula Martin gave Gonzales-McLinn a Hard 50 sentence, meaning she would have to serve at least 50 years before the chance of parole. She would be nearly 70 years old by then.
Gonzales-McLinn appealed her sentence on the grounds that Cornwell provided ineffective counsel. Meanwhile, advocates began to prepare a clemency application — and uncovered evidence that wasn’t presented to the jury.
Sasko had downloaded hundreds of videos of violent pornography on his phone and visited X-rated websites that featured children, teens and bestiality. At least 20 times, he visited websites that featured men fondling or having sex with women who appeared to be sleeping.
Police found a camera and flash drives on a desk in Sasko’s bedroom. A detective said images found on the flash drives demonstrated that Sasko and Gonzales-McLinn were friends who spent time together. Advocates weren’t allowed to view the files.
Confidential police reports revealed Sasko was grooming 16-year-old twin girls before his death. Their mother was furious at the attention and gifts he provided them, including cash, gas, clothes, subwoofers for their car, and an unsolicited envelope of marijuana. When the mother blocked his number on their phones, he bought them new phones. If they ever wanted to run away, he told the girls, they could move in with him.
Megan Stuke, executive director of The Willow, a domestic violence center in Lawrence, said the concepts of “grooming” and “human trafficking” are frequently misunderstood.
“Somebody gets you in a relationship, provides you with creature comforts or covering your needs, so that then you don’t have any other options but to do what they want — to maintain your housing, finance, maybe it’s an addiction that they’ve helped you create,” Stuke said. “People can be trafficked by their parents. People are trafficked by their boyfriends. It’s not necessarily the big ring of bad guys moving people around.”
Valdez, the Douglas County district attorney, knew about the abuse when she reached a plea deal in May 2021 with defense attorney Jonathan Sternberg that would require Gonzales-McLinn to spend at least 25 years in prison.
Before his client would drop her appeal, the defense attorney made one last request.
“Can you also confirm that should the settlement agreement be accepted by the judge, you personally intend to support Sarah obtaining clemency from the Governor when it becomes politically appropriate for both you and the Governor?” Sternberg wrote in an email. “I know we also discussed that, too, and Sarah wanted me to ask you that.”
Valdez replied: “Yes.”
Valdez declined to comment for this story, but she and Sternberg defended the plea deal in a column published by Kansas Reflector.
“There is a difference between zealous advocacy and zealotry,” they wrote. “Zealous advocacy relies on facts that are supported by testimony, evidence and arguments that can be admitted in a court of law. Zealotry relies almost solely on zeal.”
Michelle Gonzales responded on behalf of her daughter’s advocates: “Valdez and Sternberg may find legal comfort in knowing that a young woman who killed her rapist will spend at least 25 years in prison. We do not.”
Processing her shame
Gonzales-McLinn said her unwanted buttocks implants are a constant reminder of the physical and emotional pain Sasko inflicted on her.
Shortly after she arrived at prison, she asked to have them removed.
“They were all just curious,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “I remember one nurse went and called another nurse in and they both touched me.”
The state denied her the medical procedure.
“Yeah, it would be ideal if all of the nurses would, you know, follow HIPAA and keep your medical stuff private, but they don’t,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “And they told a lot of people — a lot of officers, a lot of inmates. That was just very traumatic.”
She recently renewed her request to remove the implants and is awaiting an answer.
Advocates, including Ranney, Sullivan and Stuke, compiled a lengthy review of her case, with supporting documentation, as part of the clemency application they filed in December with the Prisoner Review Board. Advocates hired Hutchinson, the psychologist, to conduct a new evaluation.
“It is with a great deal of psychological certainty that I opine that Sarah Gonzales McLinn has achieved rehabilitation and is very capable of maintaining a crime-free and productive life,” Hutchinson wrote in a new report.
The board, through a process outlined in state law, will gather input from Valdez and Sasko’s family, and make a recommendation to Gov. Laura Kelly.
Kelly has granted clemency to eight individuals through an initiative that reviewed nonviolent drug crimes. Her office declined to answer questions for this story about whether that initiative is ongoing, or whether consideration should be given to someone who suffered sexual abuse.
Stuke said Gonzales-McLinn was acting in self-defense when she killed Sasko.
“When you meet Sarah, it is so clear that she is not a vicious killer,” Stuke said. “She is not someone who is a danger to society at this point. She was in a particular situation with what felt to her like no options.”
Prison has given Gonzales-McLinn a chance to heal.
In a “weird way,” she said, being locked up was a relief. She took the time to think about what happened. She would write letters to God as a way of trying to process her shame.
She trains Labradors and golden retrievers to be service dogs for an organization based in Washington, Kansas. The dogs have “healed me in a way that I didn’t even know needed healing,” she said.
If she could talk to the governor, she would tell her she is no longer the young girl who felt hopeless and didn’t know what to do.
“I have dedicated every day since my incarceration to better myself — not only for myself but for my family and the community,” Gonzales-McLinn said. “I will continue to make sure that everything that happened wasn’t just for nothing.”
This story was produced by the Kansas Reflector which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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