Long Delayed Trial of Murdered Palm Desert Teacher Begins

News Staff

Indio, CA

It’s been three years since 41-year-old Jill Thomas Grant was murdered but the trial of her accused killer, then live -in  boyfriend 46 -year-old Michael John  Franco finally  got underway. 

Michael Thomas, Grant’s brother says waiting for this day has been tough, "Gave us hope only to find out that no it was indeed going to being continued again and again and again so that process has been very frustrating."

Thomas arrived in court backed by many friends who stayed through the testimony. Thomas was not allowed in court, something he contested. But in the end he was told he would not be allowed because he would be called to testify. (Cameras were also not allowed inside the courtroom. We spoke with Thomas before he entered the building and he made it clear he could not speak about the case as he would be testifying, we respected this request and did not approach him after he testified. The following was written from notes taken in court and the quotes are from the interview with Thomas before we both entered the Larson Justice Center.) 

In opening statements the prosecution told jurors Franco murdered the Palm Desert High School teacher two days before Christmas by cutting her throat with a box cutter, and then plowed her over with her own car.

Golf course employees who heard her desperate screams and discovered her body tangled in a bush took the stand. Aurelio Elizalde, a mechanic at the Terra Lago golf course in Indio, the community where Grant and Franco lived, said just before 5:00 in the morning, while doing his rounds, he got to hole 7 and saw tire marks on the grass, because he thought he saw a broken sprinkler near the tire marks he went to take a closer look, Elizalde said what he confused for a sprinkler was a black sandal and when he shined his flashlight on a bush he saw a tan blouse and a body dripping blood in the bush. He said he then shined a light at a couple of Indio Police patrol cars, one stopped. 

Then Thomas testified. For the first time, he was shown a crime scene picture, a close up of his sister’s face, it was swollen, bloodied and bruised. Friends in the courtroom caught a glimpse and gasped.

When he was asked if he recognized the picture, Thomas answered, "Barely."

Thomas stayed strong, "Emotionally I’m just here for my sister, and so that gives me the strength I need to to be able to  sit up there and do what I need to do," he said.   

Thomas said the evening of the murder his sister was throwing a holiday party at her home and friends who were stopped at the guard gate entrance to her community called him asking if he knew the whereabouts of the couple. He says he called Franco, who called him back after a few calls saying the party was canceled because he and Grant had a "big blowout" and she left on foot. Thomas says he was suspicious because it was cold and out of character for Grant to cancel an event without alerting her guests.

The defense told jurors during opening statements several times the case was about "drugs, sex and passion". The defense attorney said Franco had a long history of drug addiction and the night of the murder he was "high as a kite" on methamphetamine and that he doesn’t remember any of that night because he was on a drug fueled psychosis. Franco pleaded not guilty on all charges but his attorney asked jurors to only convict Franco on manslaughter charges, not torture, gun charges or kidnapping. Franco is charged with murder, torture and committing the and kidnapping, he also faces charges of being a convicted felon in possession of a loaded gun. If convicted Franco faces life in prison without parole. 

Both the defense and prosecution described a phone call Franco made by accident from his cell phone to a friend. The defense says in the call Franco wants to get Grant help but the prosecution says Grant is heard asking Franco to let her leave and she would say she was attacked. 

Thomas says regardless of the outcome he says some in his family will never see justice, "My father died during this period of time my mother was checked into the hospital yesterday morning … parents may very well not see justice for my sister because of these delays, so certainly justice was denied to my parents."

Thomas noted that it was fitting the trial started on PI Day, as Grant was a math teacher.

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