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Court Backs Deluca Murder Conviction Despite Trial Errors

Times Staff Writer

An appellate court on Tuesday upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a Huntington Beach man who lay in wait for a postal carrier and then bludgeoned her to death in 1984.

Pointing to the “inescapable” conclusion that Gabriel Deluca, then 18, “was sexually aberrant,” the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana said the killing was nothing less than a “planned ambush” against neighborhood mail carrier Ida Jean Haxton.

The appellate court said the trial court had erred in allowing as evidence a nude-oriented magazine belonging to Deluca, as well as the testimony of a girl he had allegedly harassed.

But Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr., writing for the appellate court, concluded that these errors were “harmless” in light of other overwhelming signs of sexual deviance that weighed against Deluca, who is serving a 26-years-to-life sentence in state prison.

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who prosecuted Deluca five years ago, called the ruling “a great decision.”

“My heart goes out to (Haxton’s) mother and her family because I know she was very concerned that Deluca would get out. This will certainly relieve the anxiety,” Brown said. The family could not be reached for comment.

Deluca, a high school dropout described by neighbors as a loner, waited for Haxton on her regular mail route on Jon Day Drive in Huntington Beach on Jan. 3, 1984, beat her with a baseball bat and stabbed her 19 times with a hunting knife.

Mother of Two

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Paxton, of Garden Grove, was 30 at the time and was a mother of two. Her body later was found in the back seat of her mail truck in a Costa Mesa church parking lot, her bloodied and emptied mail bag still in the trunk. The victim’s clothes had been partially ripped off, but there was no evidence of rape, authorities said.

A bloody trail of evidence soon led investigators to the home of Deluca, just next door to the last house to receive mail that day on the victim’s route.

Deluca’s lawyers never denied that he had carried out the attack, but tried to show that he had a history of mental illness, was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana and may have in fact been “unconscious” at the time of the killing. A Superior Court jury in Santa Ana didn’t believe the argument, convicting Deluca of first-degree murder in June, 1984.

In appealing the conviction, attorney Mark Greenberg said in an interview that “all Mr. Deluca was hoping to do was to get the conviction reduced to second-degree (murder).” That would require a finding that the killing was not premeditated.

Greenberg asserted that the evidence erroneously introduced at Deluca’s trial--specifically, the testimony of a 15-year-old girl who said the defendant stared into her window and then grabbed her from behind about a month before the killing--unfairly inflamed the jury against his client.

Testimony Held Irrelevant

The evidence left the jury with an unfair impression of Deluca’s sexual deviancies that could indicate the killing was planned in advance, Greenberg said.

The appellate court agreed that this testimony and a copy of Swank magazine found in Deluca’s bedroom were irrelevant to the case and should not have been admitted as evidence at Deluca’s trial by Superior Court Judge Leonard H. McBride.

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But the court concluded that these were only two pieces among many that demonstrated the defendant’s sexual and violent problems, including Deluca’s own prediction that he would become a rapist.

Greenberg said he would probably appeal the ruling.


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