Man Whose Estranged Wife ‘Vigorously Struggled’ As He Buried Her Alive Sentenced

An Arizona man who kidnapped his estranged wife and buried her alive has been sentenced to life in prison without parole for her murder.

Sandra and David Pagniano were still living together amid divorce proceedings when he abducted her, bound her in packing tape and buried her in a grave he’d dug with his bare hands, authorities said.

Their two children, ages 8 and 12, were sleeping at the family’s home in Prescott during the kidnapping and were unharmed, authorities said.

Sandra Pagniano, 39, was in the process of divorcing her husband when he abducted and killed her in 2017.
Sandra Pagniano, 39, was in the process of divorcing her husband when he abducted and killed her in 2017. Yavapai County Sheriff's Office

Sandra Pagniano, 39, “vigorously struggled” and “was likely conscious for up to five minutes” while she was in the grave, Yavapai County Attorney Dennis McGrane said in a news release Friday.

McGrane’s office initially pursued the death penalty due to the “horrific circumstances” surrounding Sandra’s death, the attorney’s office said. David Pagniano, 62, ultimately pleaded guilty before his trial was set to start. He was sentenced to life on May 9 for the murder, and was given an additional 16 and a half years for kidnapping, fraud and forgery.

Two notes purportedly written by Sandra said that she was leaving and giving David her cars, their house and full custody of their children, authorities said. Investigators later determined that David had written the notes himself. 

Sandra Pagniano was last seen on May 19, 2017, AZ Central reported at the time. Her body was found a week later, after a massive search, in a remote area 10 miles from her home, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. David Pagniano was already in custody after being charged with second-degree murder in relation to Sandra’s disappearance. He did not tell investigators where to find his wife’s body; they used cellphone evidence and a cadaver dog to pinpoint the location of the grave.

A year after Sandra’s killing, her mother, who lives in Venezuela, said on Facebook that she still hadn’t processed her daughter’s death.

“She is an angel, surrounded by angels, and will always be remembered,” she wrote in Spanish in a 2018 post.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.