Drifter Tells Trial of Bogus Confession

Times Staff Writer

Kentucky drifter Johnny Massingale testified Tuesday that he made a “phony confession” to the 1979 slayings of two San Diegans because he believed he would be sentenced to death for the crimes if he failed to cooperate with authorities.

Testifying in the murder trial of David A. Lucas, Massingale said he “just made it all up” based on information police investigators revealed while questioning him about the deaths of Suzanne Jacobs, 31, and her 3-year-old son, Colin, at their Normal Heights home.

“They made statements to me and I just repeated what they said,” Massingale told the jury in his thick Southern drawl.

Prompted by Office


Massingale, 33, said he was prompted to concoct the story after a Kentucky police officer told him: “Johnny, you can die saying you didn’t do it or you can throw yourself at the mercy of the court.”

Massingale is the first key witness to testify in the Superior Court trial of Lucas, 33, a former Spring Valley carpet cleaner who is charged with the Jacobs slayings and the throat-slashing murders of four other San Diego County residents from 1979 to 1984.

An illiterate Harlan, Ky., native whose education ended in the fifth grade, Massingale was first charged in 1984 with murdering the Jacobses on May 4, 1979. He was held for 10 months in the County Jail in San Diego, but was released on Jan. 4, 1985--just 10 days before he was scheduled to go on trial for the killings.

Despite the confession, prosecutors said at the time that they had long had reservations about his guilt, in part because physical evidence found at the scene did not match the Kentucky man. Some strands of hair found in Suzanne Jacobs’ hand were blond; Massingale’s hair is brown.

Massingale’s defense attorney, James W. Tetley, said at the time his client was released that his confession probably meant a sure-fire conviction by a jury. Massingale now has a $1.5-million civil lawsuit pending against San Diego County.

Suspicion first focused on Massingale after an Alabama man told authorities that a drifter named “Johnny” whom he met while hitchhiking had bragged that he “damn near cut the heads off” of a woman and a boy in San Diego. During a lengthy cross-examination Tuesday, Lucas’ defense lawyer sought to recast the shadow of guilt upon Massingale, a lean man who favors cowboy boots and has a rugged face bearing scars from a gunshot wound and barroom brawls.

Testimony Challenged

Challenging Massingale’s testimony that he felt pressured to provide the confession, attorney Steven Feldman asked whether he had been “threatened” by Kentucky Detective Dennis Pace, who first questioned him.

“No,” Massingale replied. “He said he was trying to help me.”

Feldman also asked whether he had been read his rights before responding to questions: “I guess so,” Massingale replied.

Feldman then repeatedly queried Massingale about details of his confession and attempted to suggest that the drifter had knowledge of details that were not public and that only the killer could know. Among those were that Colin Jacobs was killed in the home’s bathroom and that the killer left through the back door. In addition, Massingale’s confessions indicate he knew the color of the house and knew there was a Volkswagen bug parked in front.

‘Kept Riding Me’

Massingale responded that he gleaned those facts from statements and pictures police shared with him during questioning. And he said he repeated those and other facts back in his confession because he wanted to “get them off my back. They weren’t going to leave me alone. They just kept riding me and riding me and riding me,” he testified.

Near the end of the day, Feldman played tape recordings of two interviews containing Massingale’s confessions. The first was with Pace, the Kentucky detective, the second, with investigators from the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County district attorney’s office.

In the interviews, Massingale variously confirms statements made by authorities and claims he doesn’t remember anything.

“If I ever did kill anybody, I had to be out of my mind” on drugs, Massingale said in the first interview with Pace. The confession suggests he had taken LSD that day.

Became Angry

Under the scenario he confessed to and now denies, he was drinking with Suzanne Jacobs at her home the morning of the slayings. He said they were on a couch in the living room and that she became angry when he pinched her leg. He said he then attacked her in the kitchen with a knife, but he did not recall killing the boy. Massingale said he thought the woman’s name was Joanne.

During the first interview, Pace told Massingale that the evidence against him “is fairly strong” and that he would be “taking a big gamble” by insisting he is innocent. Pace also told Massingale that, if he did commit the crime, he should “tell the truth and admit you messed up and ask the court for mercy.”

In the second interview, with San Diego authorities, Massingale is more forthcoming, demonstrating an eagerness to cooperate and begging for “mercy” and forgiveness.

“I did it,” he said. “I’m guilty and I’m sorry. I had no intention of it. And I pray for mercy. I’d die myself if I could bring them back.”

Asked to See Psychiatrist

At the conclusion of the interview, Massingale asked to see a psychiatrist and talk to his mother.

Lucas was arrested Dec. 16, 1984, at his home in Spring Valley. In addition to the slayings of Suzanne and Colin Jacobs, he is charged with the Dec. 8, 1981, slaying of real estate agent Gayle Garcia; the Oct. 23, 1984, slayings of Rhonda Strang, 24, and Amber Fisher, 3, a girl she was baby-sitting; and the Nov. 20, 1984, slaying of University of San Diego student Anne Catherine Swanke. He is also charged with the attempted murder of Jodie Santiago Robertson of Seattle on June 9, 1984, and with two counts of kidnaping.

Prosecutors say the throats of all the victims were slashed in a similar fashion.

Lucas’ trial, which is being held before Superior Court Judge Laura Palmer Hammes, is expected to last until June. If convicted of the murder charges, Lucas could be sentenced to death.