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Killer claims strangulation in hotel room an accident, gets 20 years in prison

Killer claims strangulation in hotel room an accident, gets 20 years in prison

From the This week in local crime news: Family protests outside of police station; sources ID Gary cop who fatally shot man during weekend call series

CROWN POINT — Friends and family of a woman strangled to death in a Hobart hotel room said they were pleased her killer received a maximum sentence but are disgusted by his claims the death was an accident.

Christopher Traicoff, 41, of Calumet Township, was sentenced to 20 years in prison Friday after telling Lake Criminal Court Judge Diane Boswell he never intended to kill April Salazar-Bernal, 38, of Wheatfield.

Salazar-Bernal's sister found her badly decomposed body inside the hotel room March 15, 2018, days after Traicoff strangled her to death and took off in her car.

Traicoff pleaded guilty in July to voluntary manslaughter, admitting he "knowingly or intentionally" killed the mother of four.

Salazar-Bernal's family members and friends remembered her Friday as the heart of her family, a vibrant and hardworking woman who wanted a better life for her children.

As defense attorney Kevin Milner began to present his arguments, Salazar-Bernal's mother, Gloria Bernal, left the courtroom.

Milner said Traicoff and Salazar-Bernal were friends, and he had evidence that Salazar-Bernal liked to be strangled during sex.

"There was no criminal intent to kill," he said.

Deputy Prosecutor Kathleen Kurowski said it wasn't accurate to say the killing wasn't intentional.

The state never conceded to Traicoff and Milner's version of events, but realized the allegations could be presented by the defense at trial, she said. The allegations factored into the state's decision to offer the plea agreement, following lengthy negotiations with the defense, she said.

Milner asked Boswell to sentence Traicoff to 10 years in prison, saying the maximum of 20 years under his plea agreement was "overkill."

Kurowski read a long list of previous convictions, saying Traicoff had been given many chances at probation over the years and failed every time. She asked for a 20-year sentence.

'You knew'

Traicoff said he had known Salazar-Bernal since they were teenagers, and that they had been friends.

She reached out to him after learning he'd been released from prison and went to his house, he said. They went to the mall, drank at a Hammond bar and then decided to get a hotel room.

In that room, they continued to drink, talked about their lives, used marijuana and cocaine, and had sex, he said.

"It happened. It was dark," he said.

By the time he realized Salazar-Bernal wasn't OK, it was too late, he said.

"I didn't ever mean to hurt her," he said. "She was one of my best friends."

He said he dressed her so she would not be found in the nude, and he planned to call police but never did because he knew he'd end up back in prison.

Traicoff claimed he twice tried to kill himself using heroin, first overdosing in a shed and then again before members of a Lake County SWAT team found him unresponsive March 15, 2018, after he barricaded himself inside a home in the 4300 block of McKinley Street in Calumet Township.

Boswell interrupted Traicoff to ensure he understood his plea, saying he admitted to "knowingly" killing Salazar-Bernal. 

"That doesn't mean you planned to take her to that hotel and kill her," Boswell said. "You knew when you were choking her that she was dying, or you should have known."

When Boswell pronounced the sentence, Salazar-Bernal's family and friends applauded. 

After the hearing, Salazar-Bernal's brother Oscar Bernal and childhood friend Heidi Rowen said they were disgusted by his statements. 

"Evil," Bernal said. 

Traicoff knew Salazar-Bernal's children, who attended the sentencing, and saying what he did in front of them was inappropriate, Bernal said.

"Take your licks," Bernal said. "You messed up. You made a mistake."

Rowen said, "It was disgusting."

"I don't believe a word that came out of his mouth, and I think it was absolutely appalling that he sat in front of her children and spoke in that manner."

Salazar-Bernal's children range in age from 13 to 19.

'She was so many things'

Yolanda Clifford, Salazar-Bernal's sister, said during the hearing that she would never understand Traicoff's actions.

"Why? Why didn't you call for help?" she said. "You are a coward."

Clifford said she shared an unbreakable bond with her younger sister, who could brighten a room with one smile.

Salazar-Bernal was raising her children on her own, and her death left them without a mother or a father, she said.

"I feel like you are getting off easy," she said.

Bernal said he struggled after returning from military service, and his sister helped him feel comfortable among civilians.

"You left her in a hotel room rotting," he told Traicoff. "You strangled the life from her. In my opinion, that's instinct. That's predatory."

Rowen recalled driving Salazar-Bernal's mother to the county morgue only to learn that she could not view her daughter's body because decomposition had rendered her unrecognizable.

"She was so many things," Rowen said. "Funny, outgoing, full of life, but most importantly, she was a mother."

"What you took from me is irreplaceable," she said. "Because of you, our children believe that monsters are real."

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