The sisters timed their visit to the crime scene while the sun was shining.
Ever since two teenagers had found Sarah Perry strangled to death in a garbage can, the power had been shut off in her East Ridge duplex. Even when police conducted their first investigation into Perry's June 2000 homicide, they had to do it in the dark, archives show.
"Her place was only roped off for 24 hours," Catherine Ellis, Perry's 40-year-old sister, recalled Wednesday. "That's what I was told. They had done their search, and as far as I could tell, they never went back."
That first time, everything was in place. Ellis and her older sister grabbed several pictures but didn't stay long. Only a week had passed since their younger sister's funeral — the pain was still fresh.
Within 24 hours though, Ellis said Wednesday, the place had been ransacked.
"I do not think it was from police. I think someone was there and looking for something," she said.
Nearly 16 years after Perry's death, authorities this week arrested a man they initially identified as a suspect: 43-year-old Jason Sanford, an ex-boyfriend of the victim who had been staying in Westland, Mich. A grand jury returned an indictment for first-degree murder after Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston presented the case Tuesday, his office announced.
While authorities begin the process of extraditing Sanford to Chattanooga, Pinkston and several law enforcement partners, including the East Ridge Police Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, made the announcement Wednesday from the Cold Case Office on the second floor of the Newell Building.
"This is for the families. This is for the people who cannot speak anymore," said Mike Mathis, a former Chattanooga Police Department detective who oversees Pinkston's cold case unit. "It means a lot to us."
It meant a lot to Perry's family members, too, several of whom appeared for the news conference. Ellis, for instance, remembered a competitive sister who spurred loved ones onto greater accomplishments. She recounted a friendly rivalry the two had when they were both pregnant, and Perry ended up winning by giving birth four days before Ellis.
"I went to school to be a [certified nursing assistant]," Ellis said. "Then she did it. Then she wanted to be a [licensed nurse practitioner]. That urged me on.
"If she were still here, I probably would have graduated already," she joked.
But she also remembered visiting the apartment — the chaos, the back bedroom, the eeriness. Were they being watched that day? She still doesn't know.
In the bathroom, Ellis said she spotted a urine print and some feces in the bath tub.
"I think this is where she could have died," she remembered saying as she turned to tell her older sister. But she, too, was busy making discoveries.
Holding up a belt, the older sister said, "'I found this in the couch,' and [the couch] reeked," Ellis recalled.
Then she pointed to the back bedroom: "'Oh my god, Catherine, look '"
Beyond the door, they saw the insides of several brown boxes scattered across the floor: Papers, clothes. And a clump of hair on the floor.
"It was like someone was really looking for someone and just slinging boxes everywhere," Ellis said.
And then, it hit her.
The clump of hair seemed to correspond to a bald spot Ellis had seen on her sister's head during the funeral. And the width of the belt seemed to match the bruises Perry had on her neck.
"It was just a freaky moment," Ellis said, so she and her sister grabbed the items and never went back.
Brian Ashburn, a detective with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office who traveled to Michigan this week to interview Sanford, said the items were never tested or used as evidence to his knowledge.
He said the arrest stemmed from clarifying statements with witnesses and nailing Sanford on his inconsistencies.
During his first interview in the early 2000s, Sanford told detectives he wasn't in town when Perry was killed: He'd already moved back to Michigan and hadn't seen his estranged girlfriend in several days, Ashburn said.
However, "We have a witness that can put him [in Chattanooga] when he left town, and we have documentation of when he left town," Ashburn said.
There's also documentation, Ashburn said, of the statements Perry had given to police before her death that Sanford was looking for her — to kill her.
Around 4 a.m. on June 14, Perry called police saying she was concerned Sanford might be inside her apartment. They checked and didn't find him, but they did see evidence that Sanford had been looking for her, Ashburn said.
"He called looking for her that morning," Ashburn said, a fact which police learned from a witness — in this case, a family member.
About one hour later, an officer found Perry walking on the 6400 block of Ringgold Road. She said Sanford was angry because she had ended their relationship.
"[The officer] offered to take her somewhere, but [the police report] doesn't say where she was going," Ashburn said.
She ended up going to an auto shop, he said, where she took her broken-down car between 5 and 8 a.m., after which someone from the garage gave her a ride home, Ashburn said.
"And then, 8:30 was the last time that we can account for."
Later that day, two 12-year-old boys spotted something odd about a garbage can while playing in Spring Creek near the 1600 block of Springvale Avenue. One boy dared the other to open the lid.
Inside, they found Perry, partially nude and strangled. Little did they know she had two children of her own.
That day, Ashburn said, Sanford arranged a way out of town. The next day, he left for good.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.