JOSHUA TREE — After 15 years, Jean Leppan’s family got some answers on Friday morning as her killer, Charles Leppan, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for her death.
Jean Leppan’s body was found buried in a shallow grave 22 miles east of downtown Twentynine Palms on May 12, 2004. Charles Leppan, 46, was an early suspect but investigators were unable to find enough evidence to link him to her death. The two were reportedly living in a house in Yucca Valley and attempting to reconcile their marriage when Jean disappeared that January.
Leppan never reported her missing, and he remarried two weeks after she disappeared, investigators said.
Nine years later, Leppan was arrested at his house in Clarkston, Michigan, on Oct. 13, 2013, after investigators in the cold-case unit said they had new evidence linking him to Jean’s death. He was brought to California, where he has remained in custody for the past six years on $1 million bail.
Leppan was initially charged with murder but last month, he made a plea bargain with the district attorney’s office that lowered the charge to voluntary manslaughter, defined as an unlawful killing upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion, and two counts of assault by means of force likey to produce great bodily injury.
On Friday morning, Leppan was sentenced for these charges. Jean’s family was financially unable to attend the sentencing but wrote letters that were read in open court by prosecutor Lisa Crane.
“I am Jean’s younger sister. I had nightmares for several years,” Angelyna Almonte wrote. “My sister was left in the desert as if her life didn’t matter.”
Just before Jean disappeared, Almonte gave birth to a child.
“My daughters will never get to meet their aunt Jean,” she said. “For him to receive anything less than a life sentence is injustice.”
Another of Jean’s sisters, Justina Robinson, also detailed their family’s turmoil after Jean’s death.
“We waited for years to get her body,” she said. “Her body was on ice for years.”
Jean’s body was not released to the family until the investigation was officially deemed a cold case. At that time, the Sheriff’s Department stored biological samples and then turned the remains over to the family, who held a memorial.
“Our family is forever broken,” Robinson said.
Judge Rodney Cortez, who has presided over the case since the charges were filed, said the pain the family went through, not knowing what happened to Jean for so long, must have been unimaginable.
He urged Leppan to make a statement to the court. Leppan has not made a comment about Jean or the investigation throughout any of his court proceedings.
“This has been something I have been living with for all these years,” Leppan said. “Jean certainly didn’t deserve anything.”
He went on to say that at the time of her death the two were in a very rough place in their marriage. He said he acted out of fear because Jean was bringing drugs into their household.
“It was an accident that happened in a panic,” he said. “I should have done something different or walked away.”
Cortez said that, while he can not discount the damage done to Jean’s family, he would move forward with the plea bargain offered to Leppan by the district attorney’s office.
He sentenced Leppan to 13 years in prison — 11 for voluntary manslaughter, which is the maximum sentence for the charge, and two for the assault charges.
He was credited for 2,408 days already served and he will serve out the rest of his sentence in state prison. After his release, he will be on probation for three to four years.