Haslam grants hitman clemency for 1994 murder-for-hire plot that also left a woman permanently injured

Gina Sanjines.
Gina Sanjines.

I'm confused. I feel like it's an episode of the twilight zone, where up is down and left is right, and now wrong is right. I don't know how that happens. I am more confused and more devastated than I can describe.

On his last day in office, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency and commuted several individuals' sentences, including a Hamilton County man convicted of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder in a 1994 murder-for-hire plot that left one man dead and a woman permanently injured.

Jeremy Michael Ingram, then 18, pleaded guilty in 1995 to the murder of Virgil Schrag and attempted murder of Gina Sanjines, as well as conspiracy to commit murder, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Ingram was accused of taking $10,000 from Sanjines' ex-husband Ariel Sanjines, who was an emergency room physician at a North Georgia hospital, to kill her at her Mountain Shadows home in East Brainerd in March 1994.

photo Gina Sanjines and District Attorney Neal Pinkston.

Gina Sanjines said she was made aware of the outgoing governor's intention to commute Ingram's sentence on Thursday afternoon after Haslam's General Counsel Dwight E. Tarwater notified Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston on Thursday.

A commutation was granted by Friday just before noon, despite Ingram being denied parole by the parole board in December.

Ingram's sentence is commuted to parole supervision beginning Jan. 17, 2020, and will last for the remainder of his sentence, a news release from the governor's office stated.

"He has undergone a transformation during 25 years of incarceration, earning four higher education degrees and actively participating in rehabilitation and faith-based programs and earning the respect of numerous volunteers and prison officials," the news release states.

Upon hearing the news, Gina Sanjines said she feels confused.

"I feel like it's an episode of the 'Twilight Zone,' where up is down and left is right, and now wrong is right," Sanjines said through tear-filled eyes. "I don't know how that happens. I am more confused and more devastated than I can describe."

Police and prosecutors said in 1994 that Ariel Sanjines' then-19-year-old girlfriend Amy Marcum recruited Ingram to do the killing, according to Times Free Press archives. Both Marcum and Ingram worked at the Perkins Family Restaurant - of which Ariel Sanjines was a co-owner - located near Hamilton Place Mall.

The killing was rooted in the couple's bitter divorce and an ensuing custody battle over three children, police said at the time.

A divorce filing in the Hamilton County Court Clerk's office included a restraining order against Ariel Sanjines, the Times Free Press previously reported. And court records showed Gina Sanjines filed reports that her husband violently attacked her as early as 1991.

On the night of the murder, Gina Sanjines and Schrag, who she described as her best friend in a 2018 victim impact letter to the parole board, were returning to her home after attending a party for a retiring coworker.

It was just after midnight on a Sunday morning when they walked into the house. Gina Sanjines darted up the stairs to her bedroom to check any voice messages from her children, who had been with their father for a scheduled weekend visit.

"I noted that the message light wasn't blinking and suddenly heard a foreign noise, much like a firecracker, followed by a loud thud," Gina Sanjines wrote.

Almost instantly, Ingram burst into her room brandishing a firearm.

"I quickly turned and ducked but felt searing pain in the back of my skull," she wrote. " I felt the heat of the blood seeping down the back of my neck and heard the intruder's footsteps coming closer. He stood over me, legs straddling mine as I lay on the floor; pointed his gun at my head and pulled the trigger."

Police said Ingram had been waiting in ambush and shot Schrag once in the head before shooting Gina Sanjines three times.

Following the shooting, Gina Sanjines' parents filed for temporary custody of her children, but Ariel Sanjines challenged it and a judge awarded him custody, despite being a suspect, because there were no charges against him. By the end of that week, though, charges were filed, and the children were placed back in custody of the grandparents.

Ingram, meanwhile, had taken the $10,000 and gone on a skiing trip in Vermont, police said at the time. He was arrested upon returning to his East Ridge home on March 18 and admitted to the crime and told police about Marcum's and Ariel Sanjines' involvement.

They were arrested the same day, and all three defendants eventually pleaded guilty. No trial ever took place.

Both Ingram and Ariel Sanjines were sentenced to life in prison.

Marcum received a 10-year sentence but was released after serving only three.

Ariel Sanjines remains incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison.

As a result of the shooting, Gina Sanjines still has a bullet lodged in her skull and she's suffered permanent injuries, including blindness in her left eye, hearing loss, chronic headaches, weakness in her right side, and off-and-on rehab over the years.

"I have experienced a profound sense of survivor's guilt," she wrote. "Why did a good man die? If he didn't know me, he wouldn't have been murdered. If I never filed for divorce, he would never have been in my life. If I didn't race up the stairs I would have been shot first."

But people like Bobby Duck, who've gotten to know Ingram, say he's taken responsibility for his crime and is remorseful.

Duck has visited Ingram on the first Saturday of every month since 2005, and they've exchanged over 200 letters, he said.

"I've heard him say many times about how much he regrets his crime and words can't express how sorry he is for his crime," he said. " He takes full responsibility."

Duck said Ingram's degrees were all in religion, the highest being a doctorate of theology from Covington Theological Seminary. Some members of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, helped with tuition, Duck said.

He did very well in school, Duck said, graduating with summa cum laude honors.

"[Ingram] received straight As in all of his coursework, in spite of having limited resources financially and economically, and with limited research materials, and also no internet access he did all of that in spite of those limitations."

Gina Sanjines knew Ingram was working on his education.

"How could he spend 25 years advancing his own education, padding his own resume routinely visit with family and friends but not issue a word of apology or regret to his victims?" she wrote in her victim impact letter.

She pointed to letters dating back to 2007 indicating that Ingram had been trying to send an apology to his victims.

"It is now 2018 and we have not received any such communication," she wrote.

Duck said Ingram "very much wanted to do that [reach out to the victim], but the prison discouraged that. He wrote some draft letters, he told me. The inmates, the prisoners, they discouraged that."

"He's paid for his crime," Duck said. "He's paid for what he's done. And to continue to keep him in prison and have taxpayers pay what they have to pay, it serves no one, quite frankly."

"My biggest worry, again, isn't just for me and my family," she said. "It's for the citizens of this state. A murderer is going to be let out of prison."

Staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.