From Sam Stanton and Chelsea Phua:
All through the years, Paul R. Kovacich Jr. maintained he knew nothing about his wife's disappearance in 1982.
For most of that time, he refused to discuss the case except to argue in legal filings that Janet Kovacich wasn't really dead, even though no one had seen her since she vanished from the couple's Auburn home Sept. 8, 1982, following an argument with her husband.
On Tuesday, a Placer County jury decided Kovacich, a Placer County sheriff's sergeant at the time of the disappearance, had been lying all along and convicted him of first-degree murder.
"It's a 26-year-old case, and I am absolutely overjoyed that the jury saw what people in the community had known for years," said David Tellman, the 41-year-old prosecutor who took over the case in 2008 after fellow prosecutor Daniel Gong became ill.
Kovacich, 60, who was indicted in 2006, faces 25 years to life in prison for a crime that many thought would never be solved.
He made no outward sign of emotion when the verdict was read, other than bowing his head slightly, said Art Campos, a former Bee reporter who had covered the case and sat through parts of the trial.
The conviction came after four months of trial, 77 witnesses and 750 exhibits. Kovacich never took the stand in the case, which relied largely on circumstantial evidence.
The 12 jurors left through a side door as court wrapped up, and Kovacich was handcuffed and taken to jail pending his next hearing.
But an alternate juror, Beverly Copren, told Campos afterward that she agreed with the verdict and that the extremely complicated threads of evidence had been tied together neatly during Tellman's closing argument.
Tellman was not present for the verdict; he was on a family vacation at Disneyland. But co-prosecutor Suzanne Gazzaniga and investigator Noah Brommeland were in court.
Defense attorney John Spurling indicated that he would seek a dismissal of the verdict, and a hearing for that motion was set for Feb. 20 by Judge Mark S. Curry.
For part of the trial, Kovacich's daughter, Kristi, who was 7 at the time of her mother's disappearance, waited to testify. She took the stand in the final days of the trial but was not present Tuesday.
Janet Kovacich's older brother Gary Gregoire had testified for the prosecution and said from his Colorado home Tuesday that he was "very happy that we've got justice for Janet."
He declined to speak further, saying he was not certain whether he remained under a gag order imposed by the court in 2006.
The verdict ends a mystery that has haunted authorities since Janet Kovacich, then 27 and the mother of two young children, disappeared.
At the time, Paul Kovacich claimed he and his wife had been discussing a separation, and that he left the home after an argument.
The two children said they last saw their mother when they left for school at 8 a.m.
Kovacich would later tell Auburn police detectives that when he returned to the home around noon she was gone. But his behavior, especially for a law enforcement officer, seemed curious at the time.
She had disappeared on a Wednesday, but Kovacich didn't mention it to anyone until Thursday, when he told a police sergeant that his wife was gone but he did not want to file a missing person report.
Two days later, Kovacich called his mother-in-law and asked, "Is Janet there? I've got a couple of squalling, crying kids here."
The case dragged on, with detectives searching the Auburn home, as well as the home of Kovacich's elderly parents at one point.
Kovacich remained with the Sheriff's Department until 1992. In January 1995, over his objections, a judge declared his wife dead and said she died the day of her disappearance.
The case began to come together 10 months later, when a man walking along Rollins Lake in Colfax found a partial human skull nearly buried in dry silt near a boat ramp.
DNA testing about a decade later indicated that the skull probably belonged to Janet Kovacich. It had a hole behind the right ear that prosecutors believed was a bullet hole.
Kovacich was charged with murder and appeared in court for his arraignment on Sept. 8, 2006, 24 years to the day after her disappearance.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that the couple's marriage was on the rocks, that there was a "preponderance of evidence of domestic violence" in their lives and that Janet Kovacich was planning to leave her abusive husband.
He allegedly kicked their dog, a German shepherd, to death. Prosecutors contended he pushed her off a boat once, yanked her from a movie theater and insulted her in front of friends.
"Sept. 8, 1982, was to be the first day of Janet's new life," Tellman said during the trial, adding that she had decided to move her children to a new school and had begun taking classes that summer.
"She was ripped from the lives of so many people," Tellman said in his closing statement. "Only one person stood to gain so much, one person with a motive to make her disappear. And that person was the defendant Paul Kovacich."
Spurling, the defense attorney, argued that his client was not guilty. He called on the Kovacichs' now-grown daughter Kristi, and on Paul Kovacich's longtime girlfriend (also a former Placer County sheriff's deputy) as witnesses.
He criticized the investigation as "slipshod," saying the prosecution relied on "rumors, innuendos and speculation."
He pointed out that no murder weapon was ever found, and presented expert witnesses who testified that they could not say with certainty that the hole in the skull was formed by a bullet.
And Spurling portrayed Janet Kovacich as a troubled, high-strung and emotional young woman who trusted her husband.
In journal entries written the year before she disappeared, she wrote that he was a special person who always put the children first.
"I am so lucky to have you to lean on and count on," she wrote.