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A Prescott, Arizona, man was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to murdering his wife by burying her alive in 2017.

Yavapai County Attorney Dennis McGrane said 62-year-old David Michael Pagniano was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of his wife, then 39-year-old Sandra Pagniano, who was buried alive in a hand-dug grave near their home.

“My office pursued the death penalty in this case because of the horrific circumstances surrounding the abduction and murder of a young mother,” McGrane said.

Sandra Pagniano disappeared while in the process of divorcing her husband in May 2017, authorities said.

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David Pagniano booking photo

David Pagniano of Prescott, Arizona, pleaded guilty to burying his wife alive and murdering her.

While the two were separated, they lived in the same home with their two young daughters.

The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office began investigating the circumstances of Sandra Pagniano’s suspicious disappearance, leading to a massive manhunt.

Sandra Pagniano’s body was found bound and gagged in packing tape in a hand-dug grave in a remote area near Prescott.

According to the medical examiner, she had been buried alive.

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Yavapai County Sheriff's Office vehicle

A Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office vehicle (KSAZ)

“The evidence revealed she vigorously struggled while she was in the grave and was likely conscious for up to five minutes after being buried,” McGrane said.

Detectives conducting the investigation discovered two notes filed in the divorce proceeding after Sandra Pagniano disappeared, which she had purportedly written. 

The letters stated Sandra Pagniano was leaving and handing David Pagniano the vehicles, house and custody of their children.

Forensic specialists examined the letters, and they were ultimately found to have been written by Sandra Pagniano.

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Additional evidence presented included cellphone data that showed David Pagniano was in the vicinity of the grave site where his wife was found just days before her death, as well as on the night she went missing.

McGrane said Pagniano pleaded guilty to murder on the night before his trial was expected to begin, putting the sentencing decision in the hands of the judge.

David Pagniano was sentenced to life in prison for murder as well as an additional 16 ½ years for kidnapping, forgery and fraud.

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“I hope the life sentence brings some closure to the victim’s family,” McGrane said. “I want to be clear that my office will vigorously prosecute anyone who commits a violent crime in Yavapai County, and we will continue to pursue the death penalty in appropriate cases.”

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