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Leach Guilty of 1983 Murder in Hawthorne

Times Staff Writer

Five years to the day after he left a Torrance courtroom a free man, acquitted of charges that he murdered his wife, James Stroup returned Friday to the same courthouse to see a 27-year-old handyman convicted of the killing.

Stroup wept and hugged Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Duarte after a jury found Peter Leach, 27, guilty of first-degree murder and burglary for shooting Stroup’s wife, Catherine, in April, 1983, inside the couple’s Hawthorne apartment.

Leach, who listened impassively to the verdict, is expected to be sentenced Jan. 20 by Judge John Shook to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Leach’s brother, Paul, the alleged accomplice in the murder-for-hire scheme, is scheduled to face his own murder trial later this month in Shook’s courtroom.

“It’s good, but it’s sad at the same time,” said Stroup, who testified of coming home from work to find his wife’s bullet-torn body. He said the guilty verdict was as liberating as his own acquittal because it put an end to “the anxiety, the constant anguish--wondering what’s going to happen, year after year, postponement after postponement.”

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Stroup, now 50, spent 7 months in county jail before a Torrance jury found him not guilty on Nov. 18, 1983.

In that trial, neighbors testified that the Stroups frequently argued and had been fighting the morning of the murder. The manager of the Hawthorne apartment house said James Stroup emerged from the apartment and said: “I think I just shot my wife.”

But Stroup testified that he arrived home from his graveyard shift at a Los Angeles dairy to find his 45-year-old wife dead on the living room floor. What he actually called out to the apartment manager, Stroup said, was: “I think someone shot my wife.”

Authorities said it was not until a year after the killing that they realized they had arrested the wrong man.

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Sheriff’s deputies arrested a man in Lakewood who was not involved with the killing but who was carrying a .22-caliber pistol registered to Catherine Stroup. Ballistics tests showed that the gun was the one used in the murder.

When they traced possession of the pistol back to the Leach brothers, detectives decided they had found the killers, prosecutor Duarte said.

In Peter Leach’s 4-week trial, Duarte played Leach’s tape-recorded confession that he had gone to the Hawthorne apartment at the behest of the Stroups’ son-in-law, Michael Seawright. James Stroup was the intended target of the plot that was to give Seawright control of the family-owned water-delivery business in the desert near Twentynine Palms.

“He offered me half of the water business if Mr. Stroup was out of the picture,” Peter Leach said on the tape.

Through his attorney, Seawright has denied any involvement with the murder. He invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination when he was called to the stand last month.

Prosecutors said that they lack evidence to charge Seawright with a crime but that he remains under investigation.

Peter Leach said in his 1984 confession that he and his brother pretended to join in Seawright’s plot but decided instead to burglarize the Hawthorne apartment, where they heard the Stroups kept $2,000 in cash.

Peter Leach said in the confession, played for the jury, that the burglary went awry when the brothers found Mrs. Stroup at home. Peter Leach said he shot the woman several times, using a heart-shaped pillow as a silencer, after his brother grabbed her from behind and began to strangle her.

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By the time he took the witness stand last month, though, Leach had changed his story considerably.

He testified that he and his brother drove to the apartment that day with Seawright and that it was Seawright who pulled the trigger. Leach said he kept the secret for more than 5 years because Seawright threatened to harm Leach’s wife and three children if he told the truth.

“He said he would waste our whole family,” Leach testified. “I was afraid of what he could do.”

Defense lawyer H. Clay Jacke, a courtly Los Angeles attorney who has worked in dozens of capital cases, attempted to divert the jury’s attention to Seawright. Jacke presented witnesses who said the son-in-law had been angry with the Stroups over their management of the water company. He also read an earlier statement from Seawright, in which Seawright acknowledged finding a footprint that matched his own outside the Stroups’ apartment window.

But Duarte, 33 and trying his first capital case, was able to poke holes in Leach’s story, most significantly when a water company employee testified under cross-examination that Seawright was in the desert on the morning of the killing.

Jurors said after the verdict the testimony that Seawright was nowhere near the Hawthorne apartment on the morning of the killing erased the only doubt that might have kept them from convicting Leach of murder.


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