By Christopher Goffard
6:00 AM PST, February 11, 2014
An Orange County jury is deliberating the fate of Hilbert Thomas, a cash-strapped real estate agent accused of committing two execution-style murders because he wanted a luxury car to ferry around clients in style.
The morning of Feb. 2, 2009, prosecutors said, Thomas, then 37, entered Golden Sun Homes on Beach Boulevard in Stanton and confronted longtime secretary Elizabeth Ann Palmer, 49, of Fountain Valley and Matthew F. Scott, 42, of Anaheim, a salesman at the home-sales company.
Prosecutors said he forced them to kneel and put one bullet through the top of each victim’s head. Investigators found two 9-millimeter gun casings on the carpet.
Missing from Palmer’s purse were the keys to her Lexus, but nothing else.
Weeks earlier, Thomas, a divorced father of two, had been hired by ReMax realty in Lakewood, but he was struggling, prosecutors said.
“He wasn’t making any money, he did not have a car, and he wanted a nice car,” prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh told jurors. “He blew their brains out for a car.... Nothing else was taken.”
Scott’s father, Donald, discovered the bodies face-down in the office and called 911.
The case went cold for eight months, the prosecutor said, and all the while Thomas was living a block and a half from the crime scene and driving Palmer’s Lexus with a dealer sticker in the window to avoid being stopped.
The break came in October 2009, when a police officer spotted the Lexus outside a hotel in Anaheim and checked the vehicle identification number. The same month, Thomas’ ex-wife filed a restraining order against him, the terms of which required him to turn in his 9-millimeter handgun to authorities.
Ballistics matched the gun to the shootings, and DNA evidence put him inside the stolen Lexus, the prosecutor said.
In court, one of Thomas’ attorneys described the case as “largely uncontested,” suggesting a strategy that will be focused on the penalty phase of the trial, in which the defense will try to persuade jurors to spare him the death penalty.
“It’s not a whodunit,” defense attorney Denise Gragg said. “It’s about his mental state.”
Thomas is being tried on two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances, charges that could bring him the death penalty.
Jurors began deliberating in the guilt phase of the trial around 2:30 p.m. Monday and are expected to resume Tuesday.
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