A disillusioned and angry Murray D. Payne, who spent 57 days in a military jail at Camp Pendleton on suspicion of murdering his wife, said Thursday that his legal problems began when Corona police officers decided over “a cup of coffee” that he had killed his wife and hanged her body from the garage rafters to make her death look like suicide.
“They decided that the knot in the rope was too complicated for my wife to have tied,” the 40-year-old Marine gunnery sergeant said at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. “This is something they made up over a cup of coffee. It wasn’t that complicated. It was the kind of knot you find in a shoestring.”
A spokesman for the Corona Police Department who declined to give his name denied that any decisions in the Payne murder case, which the Marine Corps officially dropped Monday, were made casually, over cups of coffee.
The police spokesman said the officer who conducted the case is an excellent investigator who makes decisions based on evidence. Efforts to reach the investigators on the case were unsuccessful Thursday.
Payne’s January pretrial hearing on the charge that he killed his wife on May 10, 1988, ended when the prosecutor asked that the accusation be dropped.
He was set free in late January, after spending 2 months in a small jail cell at Camp Pendleton, but the soft-spoken Payne, who was reared in the small Texas town of Marlin, said he is still reeling.
In May, he lost his wife, Ella Mae Payne, 39. Even though the Riverside County coroner’s office ruled the death a suicide, there were months of investigations by the Corona Police Department and the military. In early December, Payne was arrested and locked up in the brig at Camp Pendleton.
The worst part of the ordeal, Payne said, was when his 22-year-old son testified for the prosecution and against him in the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing in January.
But the military prosecutor asked that the murder charge be dropped because of a lack of evidence showing that his wife’s death was caused by anything other than hanging.
Payne recalled Thursday that he and his wife had been together for 26 years. They had been high school sweethearts, he said.
Of his incarceration, he said: “It was not a healthy experience. It was a very traumatic experience to be locked up in a 4-foot-by-7-foot cell for 57 days. Every time I left that cell, I had chains on me.”
One night that stood out in Payne’s mind was Christmas Eve: “I was really lonely. It all kind of hit me that night. My minister from my Santa Ana church came to the brig, and we prayed. That really helped.”
Military officials said a final decision on the charge was not made until the entire record was studied by the investigating officer and Payne’s commanding officer.
But for Payne, being implicated in the first place, then the wait for his name to be cleared, has been “an embarrassment.”
“It’s embarrassing to have your name in the newspaper connected to a thing like this,” he said. “Even after I was freed in January, other Marines would say, ‘There goes that gunny (gunnery sergeant).’ ”
Payne--of the Marine Wing Support Squadron 373, Marine Wing Support Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing--said the only family he has left now is the Marine Corps.
“I guess what hurt the most was what my son did,” Payne said. “He never came to the brig to see me or bring me the things I needed. It hurt when he testified for the prosecution.
“I thought we were fairly close for a 22-year-old son and a 40-year-old father. I just did not know he had those deep inner feelings of hatred toward me.”
Payne has requested a transfer to another Marine base so he can start anew. The move will mean that he will leave many friends behind. Most of his 17 years in the Marine Corps have been spent at El Toro.
For a while, Payne said, he even felt betrayed by the Marines. But in the long run, he said, “they stood by me,” and both he and the Marines overcame the charges, “the embarrassment, the slander” and the “black mark.”
“I’ve received an informal ‘I’m sorry,’ ” he said. “But an ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t heal the wounds.”
Some friends stood by him during the ordeal, visiting or sending letters.
“The people in our unit are close,” he said. “They took care of me when I was in the brig. They made sure I had cigarettes and underclothes. I’ll never forget that.”
Timing of Hanging Stories
Asked why he thought this happened to him, Payne, pausing for a moment to consider his answer, said the timing of “the entire matter” was unfortunate. His wife’s suicide took place about the same time the first newspaper stories began to appear about the murder of Melinda Thomas, wife of another El Toro Marine, Sgt. Joseph L. Thomas.
Thomas was convicted of murder by a military jury and sentenced to death in November.
That case had many unusual twists. A friend of Thomas testified that he watched Thomas beat his wife to death with a tire iron and that the two of them then took the body to a remote highway, placed it in the couple’s vehicle and pushed it over a steep embankment, to make the death look like a suicide.
“It was an unfortunate time, just after the Thomas case,” Payne said of his arrest. “It was a Marine thing. The people thought the worst because of the Thomas case.”
The first autopsy, performed by the Riverside County coroner’s office about a week after the body was found, showed no proof that his wife had been dead before the hanging.
Her body was exhumed in November for a second autopsy.
Payne was arrested 3 days later by agents of the Naval Investigative Service at the El Toro base. The Riverside County district attorney’s office turned the case over to the corps because Payne is a Marine.
This week Payne was finishing his income taxes. The task made him think about the past and the future.
Reflecting on his past, he said: “I have no bad feelings toward the Marines. People can be mistreated and misjudged. I was misjudged.”
As for the future, he said: “It doesn’t look very good.”