Kimberly Machleit and Benjamin Mersai
Kimberly Machleit and Benjamin Mersai. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department photos)

A murder trial started in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria this week with testimony from the man who helped dispose of a dismembered body later found in a Nipomo golf course pond.

Kimberly Machleit, 38, has been charged with murder for the Dec. 3, 2018, killing of Joseph Martin Govey, 53, in a townhouse on the 2200 block of Professional Parkway in Santa Maria. She also faces special allegations or sentencing enhancements for the killing, which she is accused of doing with a sawed-off shotgun.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office dive team found Govey’s skeletal remains in September 2020 in a pond at the Blacklake Golf Resort in Nipomo. 

“It wasn’t all of him,” Deputy District Attorney Madison Whitmore said, adding that the man’s jaw had been blown off and his legs were removed with a reciprocating saw. 

Opening statements in Machleit’s murder trial took place Monday morning before a series of law enforcement officers testified about the discovery and recovery of the skeletal remains in the water hazard No. 5 at the golf course. A Huntington Police Department detective testified about taking a missing person report for Govey in 2019. 

On Monday afternoon, while wearing a Santa Barbara County Jail uniform, Benjamin Mersai, 36, of Grover Beach took the witness stand, a requirement of his plea deal for voluntary manslaughter and a three-year sentence related to this case.

“If I testify truthfully, my deal stands. If I don’t, my deal’s revoked,” said Mersai, who is awaiting sentencing.

Machleit lived at the Santa Maria townhome with boyfriend Donald “Drew” Anderson, Govey and another man. 

Mersai, who worked as a bouncer previously and had martial arts training, said he also stayed at the house to be “extra hands” to help deter Govey during his outbursts.

The roommates had discussed how to remove Govey, who had said he needed to go back to Orange County to serve a jail sentence. 

“We kept waiting for that day to come and it never did,” Mersai said.

The night before the shooting, the four stayed up using methamphetamine, he testified. On Dec. 3, 2018, Govey brandished a knife and broke down the door of the third-story room with Machleit and Anderson inside. 

Mersai said he told Govey to leave. 

“He told me no, that he would kill me and I needed to mind my own business,” Mersai said.

When Anderson and Govey went downstairs, a distraught Machleit showed up with a gun, Mersai said.

“She said she couldn’t handle it anymore,” Mersai said. “She said she had enough.”

However, she returned a short time later, saying Anderson was in the way. That led Mersai to create a distraction — setting off the fire alarm, an idea he said he got from a movie.

Mersai said he suggested dumping the body at the Nipomo golf resort.

“I chose the golf course because that lake I knew nobody went into it,” Mersai said, calling it a partial nature preserve.

While Mersai watched the front door, he said Anderson used a reciprocating saw to remove Govey’s legs and that Machleit helped hold the body still. 

Afterward, they placed the legs in a suitcase and disposed of it in a trash container nearby. They then drove to Nipomo to dispose of the body that been placed in a tote, Mersai testified.

Using a borrowed golf cart, they took the body to the water hazard.  

Anderson and Mersai attempted to hurl the body from the tote but weren’t successful. 

“Why not?” prosecutor Whitmore asked during the testimony.

“Physics,” Mersai said, adding that Anderson then entered the pond to push the body farther into the reeds.

Whitmore asked why Mersai at some point revealed what had happened.

“I needed to clear my conscience,” he said. 

During cross-examination aimed to discredit some of the Mersai’s testimony, Macleit’s defense attorney, Jess McHarrie, questioned why Mersaid had kept the knife Govey brandished.

“As like a souvenir?” McHarrie asked. 

“I like knives,” Mersai said. 

In an earlier opening statement, McHarrie told jurors that Govey, “a volatile, vicious and  violent individual,” had terrorized and threatened Machleit long before the fatal shooting. 

“He was a scary individual and the nickname Evil said it all,” McHarrie added. 

“When Kimberly Machleit pulled that trigger she was terrified and trapped and trying to defend against evil,” McHarrie added. 

Govey, who moved to the Central Coast from Orange County along with Anderson and Machleit, had a lengthy history of arrests related to various crimes dating back to the 1980s, and he served stints in prison, according to court records. There also were reports he had ties to white supremacist gangs.

The jury trial in Judge John McGregor’s courtroom is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday and is expected to continue into November.