Von Staich Uses Victim's Statement to Ask New Murder Trial

Times Staff Writer

Convicted murderer Ivan Von Staich has given the state Court of Appeal a sworn statement from a woman who now says she may have been partly at fault when Von Staich killed her husband 5 years ago.

Prosecutors attacked the new statement as coerced and meaningless.

Von Staich, who a jury found was justified in escaping from Orange County Jail because he feared for his life, is also seeking to overturn the murder that put him in jail in the first place.

In appealing for a new trial earlier this month, Von Staich submitted the new statement from Cynthia Topper that would appear to support Von Staich's contention that he acted in self-defense in killing her husband, Robert Totter, on Dec. 7, 1983.

But this week, investigators with the district attorney's office interviewed Cynthia Topper themselves and said they heard a different story.

The investigators said that Topper denied the alleged recantation as "all lies" and that Von Staich or his investigators may have somehow coerced the woman into signing the declaration. She suffered severe brain damage when Von Staich attacked her after the shooting, prosecutors said.

"We don't believe it is true," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard King. "It's totally inconsistent with the facts that came out at Von Staich's trial." He declined to provide access to investigators' taped interviews with Topper, and she could not be reached for comment.

"This woman is a very confused and vulnerable victim," King said. "Because of him, she now has the mental capacity of a fifth-grader, and this is just another example of his capitalizing on his brutality to victimize her yet again."

Von Staich, 32, was convicted of breaking into the Toppers' Santa Ana home in 1983 and shooting and killing Robert Topper, 29. Von Staich then repeatedly beat 25-year-old Cynthia Topper, his former girlfriend, with a claw hammer, sending her into a coma that required brain surgery.

Sentenced to 37 years to life in the attack, Von Staich escaped from Orange County Jail in January, 1986. But last week, a jury astounded county officials by finding that Von Staich was justified in his escape because he was beaten by jail guards and had to flee for his life.

Von Staich has already been turned down by the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana on an earlier motion for a new murder trial. But in papers filed Feb. 6 with the court, he urged yet another reconsideration of his case based on the allegedly new evidence from Topper.

Topper was not called to testify at Von Staich's trial because of a memory loss caused by her beating. But in the signed declaration that Staich gave the court, Topper said that she invited Von Staich to her house that night to pick up some old clothes and that her husband, Robert Topper, in fact, provoked the attack by threatening to kill Von Staich.

Topper's declaration ends: "My conscience has been bothering me real bad, so I just want everyone to know the truth about the night of Dec. 7, 1983. I know the trial is over, but I feel that if I had not called Ivan that night, that maybe none of this would have happened."

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