AURORA | An Aurora man will spend the rest of his life in prison for murdering a woman who was found strangled to death with a bratwurst shoved down her throat in December 2017, the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday.
An Arapahoe County District Court Judge on Monday sentenced Terrence Straughter, 51, to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killing of Dana Sems, 57, on Dec. 12, 2017.
Sems’ son eventually found her body in her Aurora apartment on South Sable Boulevard, even though multiple Aurora police officers and firefighters had searched and cleared the residence earlier in the day, according to an arrest affidavit filed against Straughter.
Because she had epilepsy, Sems had a medical home alarm system, according to the affidavit. When alarm company staffers were unable to contact her on Dec. 12, they called Aurora Fire Rescue and asked for a welfare check. Fire personnel were dispatched to the apartment around 10 a.m., but left after finding nothing suspicious.
Straughter was at Sems’ apartment when the first responders arrived. He told them Sems was at work and “he was babysitting her rabbit,” according to the arrest document.
A pair of Aurora police officers conducted another welfare check at Sems’ home at about 2:15 p.m. the same day, but left after speaking with Straughter. He again told them he was caring for Sems’ rabbit, according to the affidavit.
When the medical alarm company was still unable to get hold of Sems, they called her son, who arrived at her apartment around 6 p.m. and ultimately found her body under a pile of clothes in her bedroom.
Aurora police returned to the residence after a neighbor called 911 and told dispatchers “there was a man outside of her building yelling, ‘My mother is dead,’” according to the affidavit.
After determining Straughter had disposed of Sems’ bedding, Investigators later found Sems’ bed sheet, comforter and pillow at the Alpine Waste Transfer Center in Denver.
Officers proceeded to interview several neighbors, who reported that Straughter and Sems had argued earlier that day. One neighbor told police she spoke with a man who had a “similar look to the actor in ‘The Green Mile,’ Michael Clarke Duncan” at Sems’ apartment the day of the killing, according to the affidavit.
Authorities quickly identified Straughter as a possible suspect after his DNA was found on an approximately 6-inch-long link of bratwurst lodged in Sems’ throat. The sausage was cooked, and “partially hanging out of (Sems’) mouth,” according to the affidavit.
Investigators also obtained DNA from tissues that Straughter had coughed and spit into during an interview at Aurora police headquarters the day after the killing.
Police positively identified Straughter as a suspect using DNA testing in late December. A warrant was issued for his arrest on Jan. 2, 2018.
Straughter and Sems met through a mutual friend several months before the killing, according to the affidavit. The two occasionally did cocaine together, including shortly after Straughter was released from jail on Dec. 7, 2017. Police said Straughter and Sems also did cocaine together the night before Sems was found dead in her bedroom.
While Sems died of asphyxiation, Arapahoe County Coroner Kelly Lear was unable to determine whether the bratwurst contributed to her death.
Sems also had a broken neck, fractured ribs, and cuts and bruises on her head, face, neck and body, according to the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office.
Straughter had tried to wash the body and put a lotion-like substance and salt on the body in an attempt to destroy evidence, according to the DA’s Office.
“This trusting, gentle woman was violently murdered by a man she had befriended,” District Attorney George Brauchler said in a statement. “She was likely unaware that this monster had a history of attacking women and had only recently been released from prison.”
Straughter completed an eight-year sentence stemming from a domestic violence conviction less than six months before the killing, according to Brauchler’s office.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Jake Adkins said Straughter also had a domestic violence assault conviction in Tennessee in 2005.
“When this defendant commits acts of violence, he commits them against women,” said Adkins, who prosecuted the case against Straughter with Deputy District Attorney Kevin Keyes.
In 2012, Straughter was convicted of assaulting a woman with a metal pipe in Aurora, according to the arrest document. The woman told police Straughter later sexually assaulted her, and “stayed in her residence after the assault and ate a meal.”
Sems’ daughter sat with friends and family in the first two rows of the courtroom during sentencing.
“My daughter was 4 years old when her grandmother died,” Sems’ daughter told the judge. “She asks over and over what happened, and I can’t tell her the truth because it’s too hard.”