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  • The Topeka Capital-Journal

    Former Topeka mayor backs clemency for Sarah Gonzales-McLinn, who killed alleged abuser

    By Tim Hrenchir, Topeka Capital-Journal,

    21 days ago

    Former Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon asked others to join her Wednesday in showing Gov. Laura Kelly public support exists for Kelly to grant clemency to a woman serving prison time for killing a man she said raped her repeatedly.

    "She needs to hear that not from insiders, but from regular working folks that live in Topeka and Lawrence and all over the state," Wagnon said.

    She made that statement at an evening informational program at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library to drum up support for the petition 29-year-old Sarah Gonzales-McLinn submitted in December 2022 seeking clemency from the governor's office.

    About 60 people were present for Wednesday's gathering, where Wagnon watched from the audience, then told those present near the end that she planned to ask Kelly to grant clemency to Gonzales-McLinn.

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    Clemency request is 'currently under review'

    Retired newspaper journalist Dave Ranney and longtime Washburn University faculty member Sharon Sullivan told Gonzales-McLinn's story Wednesday about how 52-year-old Harold Sasko held her in financial servitude and raped her repeatedly until she cut his throat at the Lawrence house where they lived in January 2014, when she was 19.

    Gonzales-McLinn was convicted of murder by jurors who weren't told about the abuse she endured, Ranney said.

    She has spent 10 years in prison and won't be parole-eligible for another 15, said Ranney, who helped prepare the petition she submitted seeking clemency.

    Kelly's office is taking that petition seriously, "but they need to hear from folks," Wednesday's audience heard from Michelle McCormick, executive director for the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

    “Governor Kelly thoroughly reviews clemency requests based on the circumstances of each individual case prior to making a decision," Grace Hoge, a spokeswoman for Kelly, told The Capital-Journal on Wednesday. "Sarah Gonzales McLinn’s clemency request is currently under review.”

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    Who is Sarah Gonzales-McLinn?

    Gonzales-McLinn was molested by a neighbor as a small child, then raped by a 20-something man when she was 16, Ranney said.

    Gonzales-McLinn met Sasko after she got a job at one of the two Cici's Pizza restaurants he owned in Topeka, Ranney said. Sasko also owned a Cici's Pizza restaurant in Lawrence, he said.

    Ranney played snippets Wednesday's of recordings of Gonzales-McLinn talking about her time with Sasko, whom she said initially appeared to want only to be a father figure to her.

    But over time, Ranney said, Sasko came to rape her regularly, isolate her from her family, hold her in financial servitude and force her to receive buttocks implants, then insist she owed him the thousands of dollars he had spent to pay for those implants as well as "nose job" surgery she received.

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    How was Harold Sasko killed?

    Lawrence police said Gonzales-McLinn in January 2014 drugged the beer Sasko was drinking, rendering him unconscious, then bound his ankles and wrists and cut his throat with a knife, nearly severing his head.

    Sasko regularly raped Gonzales-McLinn on days he was drinking beer, Ranney said.

    Gonzales-McLinn then used Sasko's blood to write the word "freedom" on a nearby wall, police said.

    She was convicted of murdering Sasko in a Douglas County District Court trial where the presiding judge banned any talk about the abuse she received, saying that allowing that wouldn't be fair because Sasko wasn't present to defend himself, Ranney said.

    Gonzales-McLinn was sentenced in 2015 to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years .

    She then saw her minimum sentence reduced by 25 years in May 2021 after prosecutors and her defense attorney agreed that her counsel for the 2015 trial, Carl Cornwell, had been ineffective.

    Cornwell had counseled Gonzales-McLinn to reject a plea agreement that would have resulted in her becoming parole-eligible after 25 years.

    Gonzales-McLinn argued in an appeal of her sentence that Cornwell also erred by choosing not to pursue a “battered woman syndrome” defense for her.

    Sasko's siblings agreed with the reduction of Gonzales-McLinn's minimum sentence in a letter , which described Sasko as being a kind man who was trying to help her.

    Even when she becomes eligible, Ranney said, Gonzales-McLinn probably won't receive parole soon because state officials tend to deny parole for many more years to eligible murderers who've been convicted in high-profile cases.

    What is the governor being asked to consider?

    Kansas law requires Kelly, in deciding whether to grant clemency to Gonzales-McLinn, to decide what is "proper and advisable," Ranney said.

    Sullivan said she thought 10 years in prison was a just punishment for Gonzales-McLinn, considering the circumstances involved.

    Sullivan said Gonzales-McLinn took an online course Sullivan taught, and proved to be "smart" and "articulate."

    "Sarah has accepted responsibility," Sullivan added. ""She's been accountable for what happened. We're saying she was a traumatized young woman who didn't know what else to do. For Sarah, this was an act of survival."

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    Former cellmate weighs in

    Wednesday's audience also heard from Roxie Merriman, who said she was Gonzales-McLinn's cellmate for a time at Topeka Correctional Facility.

    Merriman, 33, was an inmate there from 2014 to 2019 on Bourbon County convictions for kidnapping and a drug crime, according to Kansas Department of Corrections records that give her last name at the time as "Wilkinson."

    Merriman spoke glowingly of Gonzales-McLinn, whom she said probably has the "purest heart" of anyone she has ever known.

    If Gonzales-McLinn is granted clemency, she will "show the world that people can heal from trauma," Merriman said.

    Wednesday's speakers had appeared at a similar gathering Monday in Lawrence.

    Comments about Gonzales-McLinn's potential clemency may be emailed to Kelly's office at correspondence@ks.gov or sent by mail to Constituent Services, Kansas Statehouse, 300 S.W. 10th Ave., Room 264W, Topeka 66612-1590.

    Contact Tim Hrenchir at threnchir@gannett.com or 785-213-5934.

    This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Former Topeka mayor backs clemency for Sarah Gonzales-McLinn, who killed alleged abuser

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