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A polygamous preacher became the prime suspect when one of his wives disappeared from their San Diego home. How did it happen?
Friends described Joy Risker, 25, as a bubbly woman who sought out a father figure after her biological dad left the family when she was a teenager. Risker surrounded herself with friends and made regular appearances around the 1990s rave circuit before her mother encouraged her to join her at church. There, she met charismatic youth pastor Sean Goff, who took a liking to the young woman.
“Joy was straddling that line of being a kid and having fun while also trying to maintain respect for her mom,” Risker’s friend Lora Logan told “Killer Relationship with Faith Jenkins,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
Risker’s mother was delighted when Goff entered their lives, believing he might be just the person who could guide Risker from her partying ways. For a time, she was right. Risker enrolled in the church’s youth group to be closer with Goff, and Goff helped Risker turn toward the Lord for guidance, embodying the father figure that was missing from her life.
“He was a very good-looking dude,” said Goff’s friend Leif Wright. “He had the power of a Pentecostal minister, but the intelligence of someone who has actually done the research and the study on the doctrines he is espousing.”
Risker even went on to become Goff’s personal assistant, and the two became inseparable. Soon after Risker turned 18, Goff invited Risker to live in his home, which he shared with his wife, Sheila. Sheila, who religiously stood by her husband, also seemed happy to welcome Risker into their growing family. In exchange, Risker agreed to help care for the couple’s newborn child.
But in 1997, one year after Risker moved in, Wright received an email in which Goff accidentally included a letter to someone else. In the message, Goff explained he’d secretly officiated a marriage ceremony between him and Risker. Goff was then married to both women as a polygamist, an illegal practice that could be damning for his ministry.
“Each of the wives lived in a separate bedroom, and Sean would just alternate between bedrooms,” said Wright. “And Sheila agreed with it because she was raised to believe that the man was the ultimate authority.”
But Wright gave Goff an ultimatum: Tell the congregation, or he would. Goff remained resolute in taking Risker as his wife and was subsequently kicked out of the church when Wright revealed his secret.
Friends and loved ones who’d known the pair were shocked and concerned, but it seemed as if no one could change Risker’s mind.
“She just swore, like, ‘No, he has a big heart, and he’s a good person,'" said her friend Zeon Santos.
In 2000, Risker and Goff welcomed a son. When Risker's mother passed away just one day after the birth, Risker saw no choice but to rely on Goff and Sheila more, further isolating her from those who cared about her the most.
Another year later, Risker had a second child with Goff. Friends saw her from time to time, but Goff never left his bride’s side. During a wedding, friends noticed Goff acted more controlling and dominant than ever before. That was the last time they saw Risker before she disappeared in September 2003.
“Joy’s friends started calling Sean, saying, ‘Where is Joy? What happened?’” said Wright. “He told them that Joy had run off to Europe and that she had left the kids behind and that he was distraught.”
Those who knew Risker didn’t believe she’d leave her children and run away. They reported her missing on Oct. 5, 2003, but failed to tell law enforcement that she was involved in a polygamous relationship. When San Diego investigators interviewed Goff, he gave them the same story: He said Risker decided to backpack through Europe and further claimed that Risker was with an old boyfriend.
Days later, Risker's friends received emails from Risker’s account, where she stated she’d run off with the ex and needed time away. But not everyone believed the emails were sent by Risker.
Investigators looked into the ex-boyfriend, who lived in Massachusetts, and found he hadn’t been in touch with Risker in years.
“Now we knew we had to get going on this one,” said Detective Deanna Warrick of the San Diego Police Department. “We needed to find her immediately.”
Police looked into Risker’s phone records and discovered her last call was to Goff on the evening of Sept. 19, 2003; something Goff withheld from authorities. Goff then changed his story and said he and Risker got into an argument but that she came back that evening. The last time he saw Risker was the following day when she took two suitcases and got into a car, he claimed.
“To me, it was odd that he waited so long to go into detail on how he knew that Joy had left,” said investigator Linda Koozin. “The fact that she packed and got into a car and drove off.”
Then investigators finally learned from Risker’s friends that Goff had another wife. Could Sheila be involved?
Police visited Sheila, who said she was in Santa Barbara with the three kids when Risker disappeared. The reason for the weekend getaway, she claimed, was because Goff wanted some special time with Risker.
Feeling the heat of the investigation, Goff walked into the police department in an attempt to explain himself. But once again, his story changed. This time, he said Risker had an accident at home and “was killed.”
“When I then used the word ‘murdered,’ he then corrected me and said, ‘No, she was killed,’” said Detective John Tefft. “And so we would dance around this.”
When Detective Tefft pressed Goff about the location of Risker’s body, Goff requested an attorney. Authorities placed him under arrest on the partial confession but couldn’t yet charge him with murder. With only 72 hours to gather evidence that could be used against Goff, investigators went to the home.
There, Sheila claimed that while she was in Santa Barbara with the kids, Goff called her to say Risker would no longer be living with them, and that there’d been an accident. Goff asked his obedient wife to help clean up the blood when she got home.
“Sheila had been controlled by his manipulations for years,” said Wright. “So at that point, she was inclined to believe him almost no matter what he said.”
Sheila sat with investigators and was open with her account. Eventually, police found cell tower information and receipts that confirmed Sheila was in Santa Barbara when Risker disappeared.
“We were very confident that Sheila was not involved in making Joy disappear,” said Tefft.
With Goff in jail, investigators obtained Sheila’s permission to search the home. There, they found evidence of blood in several rooms as well as crucial computer evidence.
“When we collected the computer, a forensic examination was done,” said Detective Warrick. “And the emails that were sent to Risker’s friends came from this computer that belonged to Sean.”
Detectives officially charged Sean Goff with murder, but without Risker's body, it seemed authorities faced an uphill battle toward securing a murder conviction. As the investigation continued, police sifted through Goff’s credit card records and found he made questionable purchases at a hardware store.
“A hacksaw, a shovel, an icepick, a sledgehammer, a tarp,” Warrick listed off. “We never found those items afterward. So Sean knew he was going to kill her ahead of time.”
Investigators also found Goff rented a car the weekend Risker disappeared. The mileage showed he traveled 800 miles, leading investigators to believe he disposed of the body some 400 miles away.
Goff refused to give the location of Risker’s body. It seemed law enforcement had hit a dead end, until three months later, when two hikers stumbled on bones in the desert of Maricopa County, Arizona, 400 miles away from San Diego. The skeletal remains had been mixed with stones positioned to look like a makeshift grave. The teeth and fingers were absent from the remains, but DNA confirmed the remains were Joy Risker’s.
Two years later, Sean Goff stood trial, claiming he killed Risker in self-defense after the pair fought over a knife. Goff testified that he accidentally stabbed Risker but then stabbed her again out of panic.
“At that point, she just kind of went limp,” Goff said when he took the stand. “I couldn’t believe that she was dead.”
Authorities believed Risker intended to end their relationship, but Goff convinced Risker to meet him for dinner. At their home, he attacked her with a knife. Police say he then dismembered her body in the bathroom, where large amounts of blood were later detected.
In 2006, a jury found Sean Goff guilty of murder. Goff was sentenced to 26 years behind bars, where he is currently housed at the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California.
“Joy was too vibrant,” said her friend Jason Broome. “She was too big for someone as small-minded as Sean.”
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