Wife pleads guilty to 2011 murder of Susanville police officer

Sam Williams
Staff Writer

Joanna McElrath, 39, who pleaded guilty Friday, Feb. 28 to the Jan. 1, 2011 premeditated and deliberate first-degree murder of her husband, off-duty Susanville police officer Robert McElrath, will be a senior citizen if she’s ever allowed to walk free from behind those prison walls.

According to a plea bargain offered by Lassen County District Attorney Bob Burns, McElrath is expected to receive a 25-years-to-life sentence during a 1:30 pm. May 23 hearing in Lassen Superior Court.

“Obviously it’s not a perfect situation, but it’s a good resolution to a complicated case,” Burns said.

But the DA was ambivalent when asked if he was happy with the deal and felt justice had been served.

“There is never a perfect case, and for those who think there is, they haven’t lived through the jury trial process. There have been cases that we thought were just dead-bang and gone to trial only to find some error in the process, the unavailability of some witness or something like that and then we had a problem mid-trial.

“The outcome in this case, although it’s not perfect, it is certain, and I think this will provide a finality we all would like.”

Burns explained the details of the plea bargain.

“By law, her sentence would be 25-years-to-life, but there are a couple of other parts to the agreement — and it was an agreement, a plea bargain, no question about it,” Burns said. “I struck the special allegations that would make it (the sentence) life without the possibility of parole — the lying in wait and the financial gains special circumstances. And count two was also dismissed, conspiracy to commit murder. In addition to pleading guilty to the first-degree murder charge, she also waived any right to appeal her conviction. In addition to waving her right to appeal, which we view as pretty big,” McElrath also gave the judge sole discretion to determine if she will receive “custody credits” for time already served, about three years, at sentencing.

The DA also said McElrath’s family has been involved with the case from the beginning.

‘The family has been in contact all through the process,” Burns said. “I don’t want to speak for them, but I guess what I would say is there’s a mixed bag there. I think all of them are glad it will be coming to a conclusion, at least as to her. I think some of them, frankly speaking, would like to see her executed in the town square. That may be an exaggeration to some extent, but I don’t think the sentiment is too far off. We’ve spent a lot of time together and discussed the pros and cons of risking it all and going to trial and the uncertain outcome versus the certainty of a plea, and I think they understand the decision I made and why I made it.”

McElrath reportedly wept at the sentencing, and Burns said he didn’t know what to make of her reaction.

“It was the first time I’ve seen her display any emotion in court since this thing began,” Burns said. “Some of us sitting there wonder if her show of emotion was because something was happening to her — we have the notion she’s a hard-core narcissist — so it’s more about this is happening to her and not about her remorse for the crime. I don’t know. I can’t unscrew her head and look inside.”

Burns said the case against James continues to move forward.

“His is not resolved yet,” Burns said. “He’s separate and independent, and we’re going to be talking about that one here very shortly.”


A cold-blooded murder

According to the investigation, McElrath allegedly drugged her husband by serving him alcoholic beverages laced with Zanax and Ativan the evening of Jan. 1, 2011 — apparently in an attempt to make it appear he took his own life. While he was incoherent, she drove him to the old railroad trestle above Devil’s Corral where she met her boyfriend and codefendant Robin Glen James. Robert McElrath and James struggled, and James shot the off-duty officer once in the face and spine, paralyzing him. His body was thrown over the railing, where a passerby found it the next morning.

Investigators got a big break in the case when a former Susanville resident called to say he’d had a sexual relationship with McElrath in 2008 and during their affair she had asked him to kill her husband.

Investigators obtained search warrants and phone records and discovered text messages allegedly sent between the killers.

In one message sent the morning after the murder, McElrath allegedly wrote, “I’m shaking uncontrollably here. What kind of woman am I?”

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