Originally published July 3, 2013
Finding a bag left behind is not unusual for employees at the Best Western Plus motel in Poway, California, but the abandoned rolling bag they found on August 8, 2012, would prove an extraordinarily grusome exception: it contained a woman’s fresh corpse.
Christine Stewart, 47, of Canyon Lake, California, had been reported missing on August 6, 2012, after she did not show up to work for her job as a counselor for the Riverside County MOMS program. Stewart, who helped mothers work through addiction and mental-health issues, seemed in danger of becoming a statistic herself.
Her family and friends’ worst fears came true in that Poway motel room. Stewart was 5’2” – but her body had been forced into a rolling bag that was roughly 3 feet long and 18 inches wide and deep. The room where the bag was found had been rented by Joseph David Dorsey a few days before. When Dorsey left the hotel without checking out, hotel workers ultimately took possession of the bag… and discovered its grisly contents.
Although her friends didn’t know all the details, Dorsey and Stewart had been romantically involved on-and-off for a while. In fact, Stewart was mentioned as an ex-girlfriend in 2012 grand theft and vehicle burglary charges against Dorsey. Dorsey pleaded guilty to those charges and was released in July 2012. Through her work at MOMS, Stewart came into contact with Dorsey’s mother Joy Dickenson as well. Stewart wrote a letter to the court on Dickenson’s behalf when the older woman was charged with burglary in 2011.
By August 8, 2012, police had a body and a suspect, Joseph Dorsey, but Dorsey was nowhere to be found. A hotel clerk saw Dorsey drive away in a dark blue Ford Explorer, but investigators didn’t know where Dorsey was headed. A check of Dorsey’s cell phone showed that it was roaming on an international cell tower. Later that month, Stewart’s ATM card was used in the Baja California region of Mexico.
By September 2012, the FBI received a federal warrant for Dorsey’s arrest after an unlawful flight complaint from authorities in Riverside, California. Federal authorities began working with Mexican officials to negotiate the capture and repatriation of Joseph Dorsey.
It took another couple of months but on October 23, 2012, Dorsey was arrested by Mexican officials in Playas de Rosarito and extradited to the U.S. that same day. By the end of the week, Dorsey had made his first court appearance in connection with Stewart’s slaying. A throng of Stewart supporters attended the hearing including some of the women Stewart counseled professionally and her mother Judy Brauer, who told reporters that she hoped the worst for Dorsey: “He shouldn’t get to breathe. My daughter doesn’t get to breathe anymore.”
Dorsey was kept behind bars on $5 million bail, and although he did his best to elude capture in the wake of the murder once in custody he sang like a canary. In a videotaped interrogation with Riverside County Sheriff’s investigators, Dorsey admitted that he had “snapped” while lying in bed with Stewart in his apartment and “pinned [her] to the bed by her throat” for no discernible reason. Dorsey first attacked with his hands and then used a cell-phone charging cord to squeeze the life out of Stewart. When she was dead, Dorsey submerged her body in his bathtub before stuffing her in the suitcase. “It seemed like kind of a… movie [but] I was completely in control,” Dorsey told authorities.
Investigators also recovered Dorsey’s journal in which he wrote that killing Stewart “felt like the devil or a demon speaking through me.”
Dorsey added that he and Stewart had discussed Stewart’s fiancé Daniel Loyle shortly before the attack, but that he could not remember what, if anything, about the conversation led to violence. Loyle testified at Dorsey’s preliminary hearing that Stewart was “going through a midlife crisis” that led to a dalliance with Dorsey – and that while he spoke to Stewart the day of her death, she told him she was going to spend a night out with girlfriends.
Last month, an eight-women, four-man jury was empanelled to hear the case of Joseph David Dorsey. With evidence of the defendant’s confession available to the jury, the defense felt its best option was to call Dorsey to the stand: he would be the trial’s final witness.
On the stand, the 28-year-old Dorsey gave new details about the night he killed Christine Stewart. Dorsey told the jury he loved the deceased and that the violent attack was provoked when Stewart “told me I was a piece of shit, just like my family.” Defense attorneys hoped the admission would help convince jurors that the killing was a crime of passion, and not pre-meditated as first-degree murder requires. “It all happened so fast, I can’t really remember what I was thinking,” Dorsey said.
Of course, when a defendant takes the stand in his own defense he is subject to rigorous cross-examination by prosecutors. In this case, Dorsey had to explain that while he didn’t know what he was doing while committing the crime, he retained his wits enough to pilfer Stewart’s jewelry and bank card. When asked if he went to Denny’s for a milkshake two hours after “killing the woman that you loved,” Dorsey had to answer affirmatively.
With the crime and the circumstances that followed fully admitted to by the defendant in court, the brief deliberations brought no surprises. On June 27, 2013, a California jury found Joseph Dorsey guilty of first-degree murder for the killing of Christine Stewart after just three hours of deliberations. Dorsey’s sentencing hearing has been set for September 6: he faces as many as 57 years in prison.