A month after being convicted of brutally slaying four people, Samuel E. Sallee said he’s the biggest victim from a 2013 Mother’s Day weekend tragedy.
“I’m not a monster,” Sallee said. “I didn’t do it. I was in the wrong place at the right time.”
After eight days of testimony, a Bartholomew County jury deliberated two hours Feb. 25 before finding the 57-year-old Columbus man guilty of four counts of murder.
The jury also recommended that Sallee be sentenced to life without parole for the May 11, 2013 killings of Katheryn M. Burton, 53; Thomas W. Smith, 39; Aaron T. Cross, 41; and Shawn L. Burton, 40.
While defense attorneys often urge convicted clients with little chance of having their convictions overturned to publicly express remorse and regret, Sallee made it clear that’s not going to happen.
“I have to be careful what I say because it could be damaging during an appeal or retrial,” Sallee said during a Tuesday interview at the Bartholomew County Jail.
While Judge Stephen Heimann has the power to improve his prison conditions if he expressed remorse, Sallee said the judge couldn’t do any worse to him than life without parole.
That’s the length of the sentence the Bartholomew Circuit Court judge is legally bound to hand down during Thursday’s sentencing hearing.
“I do feel bad about what happened. I cried because I’m in here … and they got killed,” Sallee said. “But at the same time, this was a drug dealer’s house that nobody ever wanted out there. They created this.”
Daniel Burton, the only surviving resident of the home where the killings took place, testified than an estimated five or six people a week came through the house, mostly on drug-related business.
Sallee was one of those involved in methamphetamine buys, Daniel Burton told the jury.
But Sallee expressed resentment about being publicly associated with methamphetamine. He was especially angry with defense attorney David Nowak’s references of his meth use to the jury.
“(Nowak) made me look like a chronic drug user, and the prosecution used that,” Sallee said.
Body photos of Sallee shown to jurors that prosecutors said were proof of meth use were dismissed by the defendant as nothing more than cuts and bruises he sustained during construction work, as well as symptoms of illness and malnutrition.
But later in the interview, Sallee admitted he had indeed tried methamphetamine.
“It peps you up, and keeps you going,” Sallee said. “I was getting older, and I kind of liked it.”
A troubled past
Samuel Earl Sallee was raised a ward of the state in the former Bartholomew County Children’s Home from kindergarten through his high school years.
Throughout his childhood, his biological father made several promises to visit him — but never did, Sallee said.
“I’ve been hurt time and time again from age 5,” Sallee said. “But I’ve learned how to deal with that hurt and let it go, so it don’t destroy me.”
The happiest years of his life took place while his first-born child, Michael Wayne Sallee, was growing up, Sallee said.
“Me and my oldest son were so close,” Sallee recalled. “Fishing, hunting. We did everything together. You couldn’t ask for a better son.”
After Sallee separated from his wife, his oldest son stayed with him during a portion of his high school years while the teen’s older sister, Amber Dawn Lacey Sallee, lived with her mother, he said.
But just three weeks after Michael Sallee’s son, Ethan, was born, tragedy struck the family during the early morning hours of Feb. 22, 2006.
While returning from visiting the infant at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, Michael Sallee, 18, and Amber Sallee, 19, died instantly when their vehicle collided with an oncoming box truck.
Amber Sallee left behind a one-year-old daughter, Destiny.
“When my children were killed, I fell apart for about two years,” Sallee said. “I was drinking all the time and almost lost my job with Carr Construction over it. Beer — that was my self-medication.”
Three months after the fatal crash, Sallee’s wife filed for divorce and won custody of his only surviving child.
During what he described as two years of excessive grief and drinking, Sallee frequently found himself crying as he tried to make sense of his personal loss, he said.
“Many times, I asked myself how I could always be drinking and driving, but never have a wreck,” Sallee said. “But then, this happens to my kids when they hadn’t done anything wrong. Why them and not me?”
Sallee appeared to detach himself as the topic was being discussed by making facial expressions to two guards outside the interview room.
Despite a lengthy history of alcohol-related legal problems that predates the death of his children by at least 20 years, Sallee insisted he experienced a genuine divine intervention in 2008 that finally ended his suffering.
Sallee claims he walked into a bright light, where God put his arm around him, assured him everything was going to be all right, and took all his grief and pain away.
“I got to thinking that maybe God needed my kids more than I did — that (God) had plans for them,” Sallee said.
Made the scapegoat
He accused the murder trial investigators, witnesses and even his own attorneys of “taking evidence and twisting it around” to the degree where he felt he was “being railroaded into a living hell as a scapegoat.”
Sallee said, however, that he did not testify on his own behalf in fear that questions from attorneys would call attention to past arrests.
“If I got on the stand, they can bring up my past criminal record. That could be incriminating,” Sallee said.
In 2013, Sallee was charged in Brown County on charges of battery and receiving stolen property. Federal charges of being a felon with a firearm were also filed that year.
There were also battery-related felony convictions in both 1988 and 1989, as well as a number of alcohol-related misdemeanors going back almost 30 years.
But contrary to what Sallee said, judicial orders were specifically issued by Heimann that prevented previous arrests and convictions from being brought to the jurors’ attention.
Despite the conviction, Sallee said he still believes he can beat the murder charge and win his freedom.
He also expressed confidence that he will merit prison considerations from the judge without displaying remorse.
How? By emphasizing to Heimann how he once spent a day in the 1970s working on a voluntary river cleanup crew, Sallee said.
“My picture was in the paper,” Sallee wrote in a March 18 letter to the judge, “helping to make Columbus a better looking place even back then.”
The community and Sallee will find out how well that strategy works on Thursday, when his sentencing is announced.
There are three major points that Samuel E.Sallee said will be his basis for an appeal he intends to file after he is sentenced Thursday on four counts of murder:
- On Feb. 20, Sallee was not in the courtroom when jurors were shown photographic evidence, he claims.
- The defense team did not hire an investigator to work on his behalf.
- His two court-appointed attorneys did not represent him Sallee to the best of their ability, Sallee claimed.
During a Tuesday jailhouse interview, convicted quadruple murderer Samuel E. Sallee expressed anger and suspicion at many connected to the investigation, as well as his February trial. Examples include:
Capt. Greg Duke of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department: “He had me guilty before they ever did an investigation.”
Co-defense attorney David Nowak: “He was working more for the prosecutor, because he was mad ’cause I said he was incompetent.”
Co-defense attorney Christopher Clerc: “Chris told me a jury trial is like putting on a play act. Now, what kind of a defense is that?”
Roommate Malcolm England, who found evidence that led police to Sallee: “Why did he wait two days to call? Someone got Malcolm to say certain things. Maybe Greg Duke fed him a story.”
A former cellmate who testified Sallee confessed to the killings: “He added stuff to what I told him with what he read in the paper. There’s all kinds of stuff he switched around or made up.”
Nathaniel Sallee, his 18-year-old son: “He’s a mama’s boy. My ex-wife has had him brainwashed ever since the death of my kids.”
Samuel E. Sallee, convicted Feb. 25 of four counts of murder, is scheduled to be sentenced at 2:30 p.m. Thursday by Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann.
While Heimann is legally obligated to follow the jury’s recommendation of life without parole for Sallee, the judge will use a number of factors, including a pre-sentence investigation, to determine where the convicted killer will be imprisoned, as well as other appropriate considerations.
“I was in the wrong place at the right time.”
“It (methamphetamine) peps you up, and keeps you going … I was getting older, and I kind of liked it.”
“When my children were killed, I fell apart for about two years … I was drinking all the time and almost lost my job with Carr Construction over it. Beer — that was my self-medication.”
— Convicted murderer Samuel E. Sallee