Press Release: Placer County prosecutors win statewide honor

June 26, 2009

Bradford R. Fenocchio

District Attorney


10810 Justice Center Drive, Suite 240
Roseville, California 95678

For Immediate Release
Date: June 26, 2009


Art Campos

Public Information Officer


Scott Owens

Acting Assistant District Attorney



Two Placer County prosecutors who gained a conviction in a 26-year murder mystery were honored Thursday night as “Prosecutors of the Year” by the California District Attorneys Association.

Suzanne Gazzaniga and David Tellman received the statewide award for rural and medium counties - populations of 400,000 or less - during the CDAA’s annual conference in South Lake Tahoe.

“This is the second year in a row and the third time in six years that Placer County has been able to bring home this prestigious award,” Placer County Assistant District Attorney Scott Owens said.

“It’s a testament to the strength, depth, dedication and experience of the prosecutors who work in the Placer County District Attorney’s Office.”

Previous winners of the Prosecutor of the Year award are Placer County Senior Deputy District Attorney Garen Horst in 2008 and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Thomas Beattie in 2004.

Horst successfully prosecuted Mario Flavio Garcia in the murder of Christie Wilson, whose body has never been found, and Beattie got a conviction in the case of Arturo Juarez Suarez, who murdered and then buried two adults and two children in a mass grave.

Gazzaniga and Tellman won the award largely for their successful prosecution of Paul R. Kovacich, Jr, a former Placer County sheriff’s sergeant whose wife, Janet, then 27, disappeared from the couple’s Auburn home in 1982.

Auburn police interviewed Kovacich several times within the first year of his wife’s disappearance but he was not charged with a crime because of lack of evidence. There were no witnesses to her disappearance or suspected murder.

In 1995, the top of a skull was found in the dry lakebed of Rollins Lake near Colfax. It appeared to have a bullet hole on the right side. Attempts to identify the skull as that of Janet Kovacich were unsuccessful at the time.

However, in 2003, Auburn police reopened the case, conducting followups on interviews from the 1980s. By early 2007, new DNA techniques also allowed investigators to establish that the partial skull was that of Janet Kovacich.

Paul Kovacich was indicted on a murder charge and prosecutors Gazzaniga and Tellman commenced trial in Placer County Superior Court on October 6, 2008.

On January 27, 2009, a 12-member jury returned a guilty verdict against Kovacich for first-degree murder and determined that he used a firearm. Kovacich, 59, is now serving a state prison term of 27 years to life.

Placer County District Attorney Brad Fenocchio wrote in his nomination paper to the CDAA that Gazzaniga and Tellman “boldly brought their unique skills, intellects and sheer courtroom mastery together in order to reach back in time and hold accountable someone who sought to escape justice.”

Owens said the case was difficult because of its age and the circumstantial nature of the evidence.

“It’s a tribute to the hard work and dedication of Ms. Gazzaniga and Mr. Tellman and to all of the prosecution team that worked on this case,” he said.

“And it would also not have been possible to get a conviction without the cooperative efforts of the law enforcement agencies that worked on the case, including the Auburn Police Department, the Placer County Sheriff’s Department, the California Department of Justice and the FBI.”

Both Gazzaniga and Tellman are products of Placer County high schools.

Gazzaniga, a 13-year veteran prosecutor in Placer, is a graduate of Del Oro High School in Loomis and of UCLA, where she was a member of the women’s crew team, earning most outstanding senior oarswoman.

She received her law degree from Southwestern University School of Law. In 2005, Gazzaniga won the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for prosecution of elder abuse crimes.

Tellman, a 15-year member of the Placer district attorney’s office, is a graduate of Colfax High School and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His law degree is from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

Tellman has been a judge for Placer County Peer Court, a coach for Placer Hills Youth Soccer and president of the Placer County Bar Association. In 2006, he was named regional prosecutor of the year for Central California by the California Narcotics Officers Association.

Gazzaniga, lead prosecutor in the Kovacich case, said the two were proud to perform justice for the family of the murdered Janet Gregoire Kovacich.

"When I was presented with the opportunity to be the lead attorney on a case involving the cold, calculated murder of a young mother of two children by a law enforcement officer that occurred 26 years prior, it was an incredible privilege,” she said.

“It was an absolute honor to champion justice for the young mother’s parents, who passed away never knowing justice. To receive an award for this work is a tribute to all those involved in this case who persevered and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of justice.”