Jury Hears 2 Scenarios as Penalty Phase Trial for Child Killer Opens

Times Staff Writer

Jurors in Department 34 of Orange County Superior Court heard two stories Wednesday morning.

The first was a tale of the brutal, senseless murder of a little girl and the attempted murder of her best friend--of a gun-crazed man who drove along the isolated paths of Cleveland National Forest, lay in wait and then shot both children in the head and drove away.

The second was a tale of lost love and a life of sorrow, of a desperate man plagued by demons, of a three- to five-second incident that ruined three lives, a yarn of guilt and remorse.

Both were the story of Thomas Francis Edwards, 43, who was convicted in 1983 of first-degree murder and attempted murder in the 1981 slaying of Vanessa Iberri and attack on Kelly Cartier, both 12 at the time.

On Wednesday, jurors heard opening statements in the penalty phase of Edwards' trial. Those 12 men and women will decide whether to send Edwards to the gas chamber or to state prison for life, without the possibility of parole.

"This is a brutal but tragic story of a man in his mid-30s who finds a young woman (whom) he meets and woos and marries and for 1,000 days has what happiness he is to have in life," said Michael P. Giannini of the Orange County public defender's office, Edwards' attorney.

In 1981, Giannini said, the marriage fell apart, the wife filed for divorce and Edwards ended up living in his truck. He was left with only his job at an Irvine gun club, his dog and his guns, a lifelong hobby.

In an attempt to seek reconciliation with his wife, he sent her a birthday card, which she ignored. The morning of Sept. 19, 1981, he drove to the national forest, not far from the secluded Blue Jay Campground five miles northwest of El Cariso on the Ortega Highway.

"It is three to five awful seconds," Giannini continued, his voice getting quieter. "He fires the shots. . . . He is full of remorse. If we know the devils that brought about this act, we don't share them."

Holding in his hand the last picture taken of Vanessa and Kelly together, Deputy Dist. Atty. John D. Conley painted a different scene--a picture of an idyllic weekend, of bicycling and Monopoly games, of two little girls racing off into the woods to find the perfect spot for a picnic.

"But there was someone else in the Cleveland National Forest, a crack shot driving around in a pickup truck crammed with weapons," Conley said. That man was Edwards, who called out to the girls, aimed, fired and raced away, to be found and arrested nine days later in Maryland.

Joe Iberri, 42, sat in the front row of the small courtroom Wednesday, taking notes and shaking his head. He has sat in about the same spot through three trials now--the original trial at which Edwards was found guilty and two previous penalty phases, both of which ended in mistrials.

"I just want to see that justice is going to be done," the San Diego man said. "That was my only child."

The trial is to continue today.

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