An El Toro Marine Corps sergeant has been cleared of charges that he strangled his wife, then hanged her body in the garage of the couple’s Corona home last year to make it look like suicide, Marine Corps officials say.
Charges of premeditated murder were dropped Monday against Gunnery Sgt. Murray D. Payne because of insufficient evidence. The action came after a yearlong investigation by civilian police and the Naval Investigative Service into the cause of death last May of Ella Mae Payne, 39. Her 22-year-old son found her hanging from the garage rafters.
Two months ago, military prosecutors requested that the murder charge against Payne be dismissed. He was returned to duty while the recommendation was being studied by the investigating officer and the commanding officer of Payne’s Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 at El Toro. He was officially cleared Monday, said Marine 1st Lt. Gene Browne, assistant public affairs officer at El Toro.
“He has weathered the storm pretty well,” said his civilian attorney, Kevin McDermott of Santa Ana. “There was never a doubt in my mind that he was innocent. I would not have hesitated a second to put him on the stand to testify.”
McDermott said he fears that the military may now try to punish Payne administratively by discharging him from the Marine Corps.
“He (Payne) has requested that he be transferred to another facility so he can start over again,” McDermott said, adding that the “whole thing” has cost his client dearly.
“He lost his wife, his house, and he was jailed and the Marine Corps turned its back on him,” the attorney said.
The case originally was investigated by Corona police and transferred to the Marine Corps in January. Payne was arrested Dec. 1 and jailed at Camp Pendleton. He remained there until January, when evidence at his Article 32 hearing indicated that his wife could have killed herself.
Suspicious of Knot
Police were suspicious of a complicated knot that formed the noose on the rope found around Ella Payne’s neck. They said the knot was a military type and too complicated for Payne’s wife to have tied.
An initial autopsy conducted by the Riverside County coroner’s office determined that Ella Mae Payne had died from hanging, and her death was declared a suicide. After a second autopsy on Ella Payne’s exhumed body, a military medical examiner said her death could have been a homicide.
The case was turned over to the Marine Corps because Payne was a Marine and Corona police officials said they believed Payne would get a quicker trial in the military justice system.
Payne was the second Marine in Orange County last year to be charged with the murder of his wife.
Sgt. Joseph Thomas was sentenced to death in November for bludgeoning his wife to death in their military apartment at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.
The sentence was reviewed and approved by Maj. Gen. Donald E. P. Miller, commanding general of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing.
Thomas, held at the Camp Pendleton brig since his conviction, will be transferred to the U.S. Army Detention Facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., this week, according to a public affairs officer.