AUSTIN (KXAN) — One year after an Austin man was arrested and booked into the Travis County Jail after authorities say he tried to hire a U.S. Marine to kill his ex-girlfriend, that veteran and the woman he was meant to harm met in person for the first time. KXAN was there exclusively to capture the unlikely meeting on camera.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” Joey Sees told SanDee Jones as the two hug and Jones begins to cry.
“I’m sorry we had to meet this way,” he whispers to her.
Consumed and overwhelmed meeting her would-be killer, the only words Jones can get out while crying are, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again.
Sees, the former Marine, responds politely, “You’re welcome, ma’am,” as he continues to hold her in his arms.
It’s a meeting no one expects they’ll ever experience.
“I owe him a debt of gratitude. He's a hero, not only for our country, but for me,” Jones said. “What Joey did is about nothing except love. That's the greatest and he didn't even know me. Not everyone would do what Joey did.”
What Joey did is foil a murder-for-hire plot from the inside.
Keith James Cote, 63, was arrested Oct. 23, 2017 after detectives with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office executed a search and arrest warrant at his North Austin home. Cote was charged with soliciting to commit capital murder of his ex-girlfriend. He was held on $1 million bond.
Almost a year after his arrest, on Sept. 6, 2018, Cote posted bond. About a week later, he committed suicide. Because Cote is now deceased and therefore no trial will take place, the case is officially closed.
Plotting the would-be murder
Authorities say Cote approached the Marine and offered him $10,000 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend SanDee Jones and an additional $15,000 “to watch him put a bullet in her head.”
“He just puts the money on the table,” Sees recalled.
The two men were acquaintances. Cote had the veteran’s family over last fall to watch a football game and barbecue. While there, Cote spoke to Sees and said he needed a “dirty deed, done dirt cheap,” according to the arrest affidavit. Cote asked if he could get a silencer and 9mm pistol.
According to the affidavit, Cote told the Marine he wanted his help because “he knew ‘he had killed people before and that this would be right up his alley.’”
“When we're in a warzone, we're just trying to get home and we're just protecting each other. I guess he thought every Marine is a hitman,” Sees said.
The Marine asked Cote why he wanted to kill his ex-girlfriend, and Cote allegedly replied: “because she's dating a black guy.”
“We're not killers. We just do our job, but our job isn't to come home and murder someone because she's dating a black guy,” Sees said later.
Sees joined the United States Marine Corps in January 2001. He was deployed to Kuwait, Iraq, and spent time stationed in Germany. In all, Sees spent nearly five years in the military.
Initially, Sees didn’t believe Cote was serious about the request.
“I thought he was kidding at first, until he kept initiating the conversation,” Sees said. “I thought he was just bragging that he has $10,000 cash. Like you know, good for you, bud. But then he kept on and on pursuing the idea of me murdering this lady.”
Sees says he became fearful Cote may find someone else to agree to kill Jones.
“I’m just glad he asked me,” Sees said. “I felt I was the right person to do it. [Cote] trusted me enough to think that I was that type of individual to murder someone. So, I knew that I wanted to handle this myself. I knew I had to do what I had to do and contact the police.”
Working the Investigation: A ‘homicide waiting to happen’
With experience in both the domestic violence unit and having worked homicide cases before, Sgt. Darrell Gibson said he knew from the beginning that this was a credible, legitimate threat to Jones’ life. From that point forward, Gibson said it was crucial to work the case as “a homicide waiting to happen” – a chance to proactively work a murder before anyone dies and thereby prevent the crime.
“My number one goal, obviously, is to protect her and in order to do that, we've got to start putting assets in position to do so,” explained Sgt. Gibson, who led the case for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
Sgt. Gibson says from the time he got the case, he was in direct and constant communication with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and began preparing for trial. From the very beginning, he says they were focused on gathering evidence against Cote to ensure Jones’ safety in case he tried to persuade someone else to kill her, even from inside the county jail.
“We build the absolute strongest case possible because we cannot let something like this fail on a technicality, or one small piece of evidence that we hadn’t obtained yet.”
Travis County, and a team made up of law enforcement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the U.S. Marshals’ Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, tracked Cote for three weeks.
Sees agreed to assist in the investigation and record multiple conversations with Cote while wearing a wire.
According to the arrest affidavit, Cote told Sees he wanted to ride in Sees’ pickup truck with him and would “lean the seat back to prevent being seen” during the murder. Cote instructed Sees that he wanted him to walk up to Jones’ vehicle and tap on her window.
“When she looked up at him,” the affidavit states, “[Sees] is to shoot her twice in the head and [Cote] wanted to watch her slump over the wheel dead.”
KXAN obtained video evidence that was prepared for the grand jury prior to Cote’s death which captures Cote detailing the crime to Sees. Cote can be seen on camera inside Sees’ vehicle scouting the location of the would-be hit, providing specific details to Sees about how he should kill Jones outside her work, and how he could prevent someone from seeing him shoot her.
“I would just stay along the perimeter,” Cote tells Sees in the undercover video. “It's dark and you're ninja.”
In audio recordings, Cote tells Sees: “Head shot, yep.”
Sees responds, “While she’s in the car?”
Cote clarifies, “No, she’ll be walking out of the door.”
“[Cote] wanted me to make it look like a robbery – steal her purse, get her phone,” Sees said.
When the men return to his house after the reconnaissance mission, Cote wanted to “have a toast” and is heard in an audio recording saying several times that this “ain’t about revenge, it’s about the reckoning.”
After the stakeout mission, Cote is also recorded telling Sees he will make plans to have an alibi when he kills his ex-girlfriend.
Cote says, “The next thing I gotta do is make sure I’m having dinner with somebody. Police will be here next day in abundance.”
Sees replies, “You think?”
Cote responds, “Yes. They’ll be here at my door.”
A relationship that turned violent and nearly fatal
Keith Cote and SanDee Jones were in a relationship for more than a decade. Jones says they broke up in 2011 and she hadn’t seen her ex-boyfriend since 2015. Jones told detectives she was still afraid of Cote, even before she was told that he was allegedly plotting to kill her.
“In the beginning, the man that hired Joey to kill me is not the man I fell in love with,” Jones explained. “I loved him at one point.”
Although the relationship was healthy in the beginning, at one point Jones says it became violent. Cote reportedly had a history of strangulation and violence against her.
“I survived him once,” Jones said. “I was strong enough to get away from him, and then [this time], Joey came.”
Detectives told KXAN they were not surprised to learn about this aspect of his criminal history because strangulation can be telling, especially in a domestic violence case.
“When you start seeing these types of incidents with abusers, where they take it to the level where they're willing to strangle the person that they supposedly love, they are playing God. They are deciding whether you live or die. So, that right there, in and of itself, increases the credibility of the threat against her,” Sgt. Gibson said. “Domestic violence is murder in slow motion.”
Sgt. Gibson says people who strangle often go on and commit other, more heinous crimes.
“She's a possession. She's a piece of property to him and he treated her as such. When this piece of property was no longer useful to him, he wanted it disposed of,” Gibson said. “I realize the lethality of these types of cases.”
Cote was “independently wealthy,” according to his ex, and was injured in an accident that left him wheelchair-bound. The Marine told investigators later on that Cote told him “if it were not for his accident, he would do the job himself, and would stab [Jones] in the heart with an ice pick so he could watch her die,” according to the affidavit.
Despite their violent history, the experience was still surreal for Jones.
“This came out of nowhere… except I always looked over my back, always,” she said.
Although Jones says she didn’t expect something like this would happen to her, she said she also knew to live in fear of Cote.
“I'm getting to relief. I know I'm finally free because I knew I would never be free until he no longer breathed on this earth, even from jail [or] prison. I've lived terrified for the last year of my life, terrified for others – the people I care about, the people I love,” Jones explained, getting emotional. “I’m not in a body bag… Joey is the reason I’m alive.”
Jones says her father, who served in Korea, had always been her hero. Now, Sees also has that title in her mind. When her father passed away, Jones made a commitment to work with veterans. After this experience, she says she’ll do that in an even greater way.
“In this day, I stand more blessed than I ever thought I could,” she said. “Every day, it gets a little bit better.”
Jones says she’s grateful for all the Travis County Sheriff’s Office did to keep her safe, and she believes she’ll share a forever bond with Joey Sees, his wife and their entire family.
“My life is forever changed,” she said. “I’ve had some pretty dark moments, but because of [Sees and Sgt. Gibson], every day I get up and I name my blessings.”