FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In a forest clearing outside Flagstaff, Arizona, Sasha Krause was found cold and stiff, with a bullet wound to the back of her head. She was face down beneath brush, wearing a gray dress, white coat and hiking shoes. Her hair was pinned in a bun and her hands bound by duct tape. Her underwear was missing.
The 27-year-old Sunday school teacher had disappeared more than a month earlier from a Mennonite community in New Mexico more than 400 miles (640 kilometers) away.
Authorities are still trying to determine how her body ended up steps away from a makeshift camp off a lonely two-lane road that cuts through the canyons and groves of towering pine trees.
A 21-year-old U.S. Air Force airman stationed near Phoenix has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges. Raised in a Mennonite family in Wisconsin, Mark Gooch joined the military to escape what he told investigators was a difficult, sheltered and restricted life, according to sheriff’s records obtained by The Associated Press.
Sheriff’s officials used cellphone records to link Gooch to Krause, but his attorney Matthew Springer said that doesn’t mean his client is a killer. Gooch is jailed without bond.
When authorities first questioned Gooch at the base, he said he thought it was about driving his motorcycle too fast. Coconino County sheriff’s Detective Lauren Jones asked him about his recent travel, his family history and church. At the end of the 75-minute interview, she asked pointedly: “Did you abduct Sasha Krause?”
“No, ma’am,” Gooch responded.
“Did you kill Sasha Krause?”
“No, ma’am,” he said again.
The records hint at disdain for the Mennonite community by Gooch and at least two of his brothers. He never became part of the church, a process that involves a period of study, a commitment to be a follower of Jesus, and baptism usually in teenage years.
Gooch said he felt like an outsider because his family wasn’t born into the religion. He once told a friend that he found life on his family’s organic dairy farm depressing and wanted to live like other people. His older brother, Sam Gooch, told investigators his brother holds a grudge against the Mennonite community over perceived mistreatment, but he didn’t elaborate.
Mark Gooch acknowledged traveling to Farmington, New Mexico, on Jan. 18, when Krause was reported missing. He said he had time for a long drive.
He left the base early that Saturday morning and drove north, past Flagstaff’s snow-capped mountains and through the Navajo reservation, stopping for food and then for gas in Farmington.
He said he went to the Mennonite church on the outskirts of town where the words “Lamp + Light” are spelled out in painted white rocks on the side of a mesa — a nod to the publishing ministry where Krause worked. He said he wanted to attend a service because he missed the fellowship of Mennonites. But he hadn’t checked to learn when services would be held and instead hurried back to the base to meet a friend the next day.
Detectives say there were inconsistencies in Gooch’s story. Cellphone records indicate he was around the church for a couple of hours and in the forest outside Flagstaff after midnight. Surveillance video at the base showed his car returned about 7 a.m. the day after he left. Gooch said he thought it was no later than 2 a.m.
A receipt showed Gooch had his car detailed a day after authorities announced a body had been found in the forest. In addition, Gooch’s phone was the only device that communicated with the same towers as Krause’s phone before her signal dropped off west of Farmington, prosecutors said.
Authorities aren’t sure yet whether the .22-caliber bullet believed to have killed Krause was fired from a rifle that belonged to Gooch. Results also are pending on DNA from under Krause’s fingernails and on her neck.
Gooch was assigned to Luke Air Force Base in October and worked in equipment maintenance. Base officials wouldn’t say whether he’s ever faced disciplinary action.
The case has entangled other members of Gooch’s family. Sam Gooch was arrested last month after authorities said they suspected he flew to Arizona to pick up the rifle used in the killing. He was released on bond and hasn’t been charged.
Sam Gooch said the family left a Mennonite church in Wisconsin around 2015. As the siblings grew older, some went separate ways but kept in touch through occasional phone calls and text messages.
In one text exchange in mid-April, brother Jacob Gooch, a state trooper in Virginia, told Mark and Sam he gave a Mennonite a ticket and coughed on the driver “so he would spread Corona to the wedding they were going too. lol.” The other brothers encouraged the behavior, according to the messages.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the text exchange is part of an internal investigation into Jacob Gooch, who was placed on administrate leave May 8 as part of a separate criminal investigation. She declined to discuss details but said the probe is unrelated to the death of Krause.
Authorities don’t have any indication that Mark Gooch and Krause, who both came from large families, knew each other. Calls to numbers listed for the Gooch family and Krause’s parents went unanswered or unreturned.
In what has been chalked up to coincidence, one of the elder Gooch brothers attended Bible school with Krause in her hometown in Texas several years ago and had dinner at the Krause home.
A former school teacher in Texas, Krause arrived in Farmington two years ago to work for the publishing ministry. She knew Spanish, a skill that proved valuable to the ministry known for its outreach to Spanish-speakers, and she was learning French.
Krause was part of a group of conservative Mennonites where women wear head coverings and long dresses or skirts. Men wear plain clothing. They practice non-resistance and believe in forgiveness, said Paul Kaufman, general manager of Lamp and Light Publishers.
Krause also was a poet whose words became hymns. Some were sung at her memorial service. Her father Robert Krause described her as friendly and deeply compassionate with “zero ability” to hide stress or emotion.
On the evening she disappeared, Krause drove to the church to pick up materials for use as she filled in at Sunday school. She parked her silver Ford Focus close to the sidewalk and went inside the church.
She wouldn’t be seen alive again by anyone in her community.
An autopsy report released Thursday declared Krause’s death a homicide, citing the gunshot wound and head injuries. It noted there was no definitive evidence of injury to her genital area but didn’t elaborate.
Gooch’s phone records indicate he returned to the forest a couple nights after authorities said he left Krause’s body beneath the brush.
A camper discovered her body while gathering firewood. She noticed something white on the ground amid the black volcanic cinders and dry pine needles.
Weeping and shaking, the camper drove to a nearby visitor center and told staff she had seen legs and shoes.
The news spread through Mennonite communities across the world.
“It hit people, it became very personal to people,” Kaufman said. “It was so wrong.”
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this story.