A landscaper made a discovery four years ago at a Phoenix home that provided a big break in a missing-persons case: A plywood box buried in the backyard that contained the mummified corpses of a couple.
The discovery was made at the former home of a woman whose son is scheduled to go on trial next week in the 2011 deaths.
Prosecutors say Alan Mathew Champagne fatally shot 32-year-old Philmon Tapaha and choked to death 26-year-old Brandi Nicole Hoffner at his apartment, put their bodies in the box, poured in lime to help with decomposition and buried it a half mile away at his mother's home.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Champagne in what marks the second time he has been charged with murder. He previously served 14 years in prison for killing a man in 1991 at a block party while high on alcohol, LSD and paint fumes.
Prosecutors say he returned to his violent ways in 2011, setting off a bizarre chain of events.
Police pulled Champagne over shortly after the killings and found a convenience-store bag that reeked of rotting flesh, a bag of lime and one of the dead women's Social Security cards, but didn't connect the dots about the killings, and he was arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant.
Eight months later, Champagne barricaded himself in his mother's home and opened fire on officers who went there to arrest him on an unrelated aggravated assault warrant, police said. He surrendered after he ran out of ammunition. No one was injured but authorities apparently didn't search the property closely enough to find the bodies buried in the backyard, even though family members had already reported Tapaha and Hoffner missing.
Authorities then learned from an undercover officer that Champagne, while jailed in the barricade case, wanted to post bond so he could move the buried bodies.
They sent an undercover officer into the jail posing as a private investigator in the hopes of getting information out of Champagne.
A Champagne associate who was cooperating with authorities had described the undercover officer as a dirty private detective with a criminal past who might be willing to commit crimes. The officer agreed to help Champagne arrange bail, though in the end he didn't follow through on the offer.
The undercover officer spoke with Champagne at the jail seven times in 2012 and 2013. In one conversation, Champagne gave the undercover officer a copy of a police report about Tapaha and Hoffner's disappearance and said, "This is my problem, know what I mean."
But the real break in the case came when a new owner began remodeling the home where Champagne's mother used to live before being evicted. The owner sent a landscaper to work on the property, and the worker found the bodies of Tapaha and Hoffner.
Maria Schaffer, one of Champagne's attorneys, declined to comment on the defense that will be offered at trial. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting Champagne, also declined to comment.
No clear motive for the killings has emerged, but police say Champagne had been smoking methamphetamine an hour before the killings and was feuding with Tapaha over a relationship. After Tapaha was shot in the face, Champagne is accused of strangling Hoffner with an electrical cable while was she puffing on a glass bong.
Police say his girlfriend, 26-year-old Elise Garcia, was at the apartment during the killings. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison last fall after pleading guilty to murder in Hoffner's death, and is expected to testify against Champagne.
In addition to the gruesome details in the case, it has also raised constitutional questions about the involvement of the undercover officer.
Champagne's attorneys wanted prosecutors to be barred from telling jurors about the undercover officer's conversations with their client, arguing the officer improperly portrayed himself as an investigator for a lawyer as a way to try to gather incriminating evidence.
A judge has since ruled that jurors can hear about six of the seven conversations.
Champagne, 46, is already serving a 700-year prison sentence for his convictions on 24 attempted murder charges in the barricade case.