'Legally dead' kidnapping case set for 2014 trial

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By Sarah Blais By Sarah Blais

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- A Louisiana judge has scheduled an August 2014 trial for a Mississippi man who disappeared and was declared dead, only to resurface years later as a suspect in the slayings of his girlfriend and her daughter.

Thomas Steven Sanders' trial had been scheduled to begin this month in Alexandria, La., where he's charged in 12-year-old Lexis Roberts' kidnapping death. Hunters found her body in Catahoula Parish, La., in October 2010.

In June, U.S. District Judge Dee Drell in Alexandria postponed the trial because he said federal budget cuts were hampering the publicly funded defense team. This week, he set the date for Aug. 18, 2014.

Drell said public defenders couldn't afford expenses for the complex, death-penalty trial because of automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which took effect in March.

The trial had been scheduled in the last six weeks of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The defense asked to take up pretrial motions during that time and have the trial later, so the costs could be spread out over two fiscal years.

After being arrested in Gulfport, Miss., authorities say Sanders confessed to the child's death and directed them to the body of Suellen Roberts, who was his girlfriend and the child's mother, in Yavapai County, Ariz.

Sanders has been jailed since his arrest.

Sanders walked away from his family in Mississippi in 1987, and they didn't hear for him for years. His parents, brother and ex-wife petitioned a Pike County, Miss., court in July 1994 to have him declared dead.

According to court documents, Sanders was living at a storage facility in Las Vegas when he met Suellen Roberts. A relationship developed and they planned to take her daughter on a trip to Bearizona, a wildlife park near the Grand Canyon, for the Labor Day weekend in 2010.

On their way back to Nevada, Sanders pulled over in the desert "ostensibly so Suellen could shoot his .22 rifle," but instead he shot her in the head, court records said.

Court records say Sanders then took Lexis, in hysterics after seeing her mother killed, to a wooded area in Louisiana, where he allegedly killed her.