A Santa Rosa man charged with strangling his wife of 38 years had a contentious relationship with her that was complicated by her longtime drug use, family members said Monday.

Dean "Sonny" Eliason Jr., 65, and Virginia Caetano, 64, had been physically violent with each other and once threw pots and pans at each other in front of a babysitter, said her brother, Tony Caetano of Santa Rosa.

"It was not a good relationship," the brother said. "She was a pill popper."

Eliason's sister, Mary Eliason of Redding, echoed the rocky nature of the marriage, saying Caetano's addiction was a source of tension.

Caetano overdosed on sleeping pills five or six years ago, Mary Eliason said, and she was taken to a hospital with symptoms of another overdose two days before she died.

But doctors released Caetano the same day, sending her home to Rincon Valley Mobile Estates, her sister-in-law said.

On Wednesday, Sonny Eliason called 911 dispatchers, saying he had strangled her, police said.

Officers arrived and found a radio cord wrapped around Caetano's neck.

A day earlier, Sonny Eliason spoke to his older sister by phone and gave no indication he was angry with his wife or planning to kill her, his sister said.

She guessed Eliason may be confused about what actually happened because he is taking prescription pills himself — or chronic depression, she said.

"I can't imagine he would be capable of that," Mary Eliason said.

However, Caetano's brother said it appeared that Sonny Eliason did kill his wife. He said he was told he strangled her first with his hands and then choked her with the cord.

On Monday, Sonny Eliason appeared shackled and in a blue jail uniform in Sonoma County Superior Court. He pleaded not guilty to murder and felony spousal abuse.

He uttered a barely audible "yes" when his lawyer, Chief Deputy Public Defender Kristine Burk, asked if he was denying the allegations.

He was ordered to return to court Aug. 22 for further proceedings that could include the setting of a preliminary hearing date.

"There's much discovery to be gotten and reviewed and discussions to be had," Burk said in court.

Eliason and Caetano met nearly four decades ago at a Sonoma restaurant Eliason owned called The Hashery, his sister said.

Caetano worked as a psych tech at Sonoma Developmental Center, she said. Eliason, a former Daly City firefighter, owned the restaurant and later worked for the county, she said. He retired from his job as a building mechanic at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in 2003, pension records show.

According to court records, he sought a divorce in 2007 – about the time Mary Eliason said her sister-in-law had an overdose.

Virginia Caetano was convicted of a drunken-driving conviction in 2007 and reckless driving in 2003. Sonny Eliason was convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence in 2008.

The two were separated for two years but got back together, Mary Eliason said.

Two days before Caetano was found dead, Sonny Eliason told his sister she was talking incoherently and walking "side-to-side," the sister said. Doctors couldn't determine if it was an overdose, a stroke or something else, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com