Herman (Rock) Kreutzer, the pugnacious proprietor of Big Oak Ranch, the East County frontier amusement park, and a one-time candidate for county supervisor, was convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his son-in-law.
The jury returned the verdict after deliberating for 10 days, and lawyers took the verdict as a rejection of both the prosecution’s argument that compared the killing to an execution and the defense’s claim that it was done in self-defense.
Kreutzer, who appeared impassive as the Superior Court clerk read the verdict, was taken directly to the county jail, where he is being held without bail. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 8. He faces a maximum term of life in prison.
His lawyer, C. Logan McKechnie, said in a telephone interview after the verdict that he would appeal the decision, arguing that Superior Court Judge J. Perry Langford erred in refusing to allow the defense to present two “expert witnesses” during the monthlong trial.
One expert would have testified that it is natural to empty one’s gun when one’s life is threatened, McKechnie said, and the other expert would have discussed “post-shooting trauma, the tendency of not-guilty people to hide or attempt to hide a shooting.”
Kreutzer, 48, was accused of the April 11, 1984, murder of James Ray Spencer, the 32-year-old estranged husband of Kreutzer’s daughter Kelly. Spencer was found dead at Big Oak Ranch in Dehesa with a half-dozen bullet wounds in his chest, arms and legs.
At first, Kreutzer said he and his wife, Lynne, were in Tijuana the night of the murder and knew nothing about it. Later, he admitted shooting Spencer, but said he fired in self-defense after Spencer pulled a gun on him and his son Jerry.
Nevertheless, he was charged with first-degree murder. Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Michaels said there was no evidence that Spencer had a gun and argued that Kreutzer planned the murder, then shot Spencer point blank as Spencer knelt before him, pleading for mercy.
“I feel the case was a first-degree,” Michaels said Tuesday. "(The jury) found that there was not premeditation and deliberation in the sense of planning to take James Spencer to that location and kill him. But they found in all respects the charge of murder was satisfied.”
The jury returned the verdict shortly before noon in a small courtroom crowded with television cameras, reporters and guards. Kreutzer sat motionless at the counsel table, dressed in a plain, open-collared shirt, his chair twisted slightly toward his lawyer.
He whispered briefly with McKechnie, then left the courtroom with several guards. Absent from the courtroom were his wife and two sons, who have been charged as accomplices and accessories to the murder.
Jurors refused to answer reporters’ questions about the verdict, fleeing down a locked hallway to avoid the cameras and queries. One explained that the jurors agreed among themselves not to talk, but he did not give the reason.
Even McKechnie said the jurors declined to talk to him--something he said he had never encountered. McKechnie said only that he was shocked by the verdict and that the jury had insufficient evidence for a conviction.
However, he said the verdict reflected a repudiation of the prosecution’s claim. “What the jury said was (Spencer) wasn’t executed,” McKechnie said. “If it had been an execution, it would have been first-degree murder.”
Some of the jurors did speak to Michaels, who later said that while some of them believed the crime may have been premeditated, they believed there was insufficient evidence presented at the trial to show that.
Michaels had argued during the trial that the murder arose out of Spencer’s deteriorating relationship with the family of Rock Kreutzer, who for eight years had run the Big Oak Ranch as a frontier park and country and western concert center.
Spencer and Kreutzer’s daughter, Kelly, 25, had not been getting along, both sides have said. In a fight three weeks before the shooting, Spencer allegedly hit Kreutzer with a board and Kreutzer bit off part of his son-in-law’s finger. Kreutzer has said Spencer was a drug abuser who beat his wife.
On the night of the murder, Kreutzer testified, he and his son Jerome, now 28, picked up Spencer at an El Cajon bar and took him to the ranch to pick up his tools. Kreutzer said he shot Spencer only after Spencer had pulled a gun. Authorities were unable to find any gun.
But a part-time maintenance and security man at the ranch, Larry Stilwell, testified that he witnessed the killing and heard Spencer pleading with Kreutzer between shots: “I don’t deserve this . . . It’s not too late . . . Oh, God!”
Jerome Kreutzer also has been charged with murder. His trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 16. Kreutzer’s wife, Lynne, 35, and his other son, Kurt, 20, are charged with serving as accessories after the fact of murder. Their trial is to begin after the completion of Jerome’s.
A woman who identified herself as a secretary at the ranch said over the telephone Tuesday afternoon that neither Mrs. Kreutzer nor Kreutzer’s sons were “taking calls” from the media.
Kreutzer, who finished last in the June 1984 primary for the job of supervisor in the county’s 2nd District, was for years a subject of controversy over his operation of the Big Oak Ranch.
In August, 1983, the Board of Supervisors revoked his entertainment license after he was accused of selling beer to minors, illegally tapping water and utility lines and allowing illegal camping and excessive crowds.
But Kreutzer continued to operate the ranch without a permit and finally was arrested for doing so. He told The Times in a 1983 interview that the arrest hurt his children especially, because they thought of their father as “an all-American guy.”
These days, there are picnics and company parties at the ranch. An employee said Tuesday that a band still plays there “from time to time.” But the 28-acre stretch is up for sale. It has been, she said, for three years.
Kreutzer was scheduled to sing with his country music band tonight at Mama’s Mink Cocktail Lounge in El Cajon.
“He was supposed to be singing here, but it doesn’t look like it,” an assistant bartender said. “He’s in jail.”