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They were named California’s top prosecutors earlier this year by the California District Attorney’s Association. So it came as no surprise when Senior Deputy District Attorneys Suzanne Gazzaniga and David Tellman were honored today as Placer County’s “prosecutors of the year.” The two received the award in a ceremony during a meeting of the Placer County Board of Supervisors.

Gazzaniga and Tellman won the state and county awards for gaining a conviction in a 26-year murder mystery in which the defendant was a retired Placer County sheriff’s sergeant.

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The defendant, Paul R. Kovacich, Jr., was convicted for the 1982 murder of his wife, Janet, whose body was never found. In 1995, the top of her skull was found in a dry lakebed at Lake Rollins near Colfax.

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.

When the skull portion was found 13 years later, it appeared to have a bullet hole in it. In 2003, Auburn police conducted followups on interviews from the 1980s. By early 2007, new DNA techniques allowed investigators to establish that the partial skull was that of Janet Kovacich.

Paul Kovacich was indicted on a murder charge and the case went to trial on Oct. 6, 2008, with Gazzaniga and Tellman as prosecutors working largely with circumstantial evidence in the effort to convict him.

On Jan. 27, 2009, a jury came back with a guilty verdict against Kovacich for first-degree murder. The jury also determined that he used a firearm.

Kovacich, 60, is now serving a state prison sentence of 27 years to life.

Placer County District Attorney Brad Fenocchio called Gazzaniga and Tellman ‘remarkable attorneys’ who ‘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.’

Placer County Supervisor F. C. ‘Rocky’ Rockholm, a former police officer, noted the difficult work the prosecutors performed on such an old case to win the conviction.

‘You did an outstanding job,’ he told them.

Gazzaniga, a 13-year veteran prosecutor in Placer, is a graduate of Del Oro High School in Loomis and of UCLA. 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.

In 2006, he was named regional prosecutor of the year for Central California by the California Narcotics Officers Association.

Last week, Tellman and co-prosecutor Doug Van Breemen gained a first-degree murder conviction against two men in a drug-related case in which the victim was tortured and murdered in 2006.

One defendant faces a sentence of life in prison without parole while the other is facing a prison term of 25 years to life.

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