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Trial Ordered for Man Accused of Killing Wife, Staging Crash

Times Staff Writer

A Tarzana man who insisted that his attorney conspired with prosecutors to falsely convict him of killing his wife is mentally competent to stand trial, a San Fernando Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

After examining Robert Peernock, 51, four court-appointed psychiatrists concluded that he understands the nature of the court proceedings against him and can contribute to his defense.

On the basis of the evaluations, Judge John H. Major ruled that Peernock must stand trial on charges that he beat his wife to death, tried to kill his daughter and then staged a car crash to make their deaths appear accidental.

The body of Peernock’s estranged wife, Claire Laurence Peernock, 45, of Saugus, and his oldest daughter, Natasha Peernock Sims, 18, were found in July, 1987, in Claire Peernock’s car, which had been doused with gasoline and had struck a utility pole. Police concluded that the accident was staged with the idea that the car would burst into flames when it crashed.

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An autopsy on Claire Peernock revealed that she had died before the crash of a type of head wound not associated with traffic accidents. The Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office concluded that her head injuries had been inflicted with a blunt instrument.

Peernock, a former pyrotechnical engineer for a movie studio, was arrested in September, 1987, and pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, attempted murder, arson and kidnaping.

Sims testified in a preliminary hearing that her father had handcuffed her, put a hood over her head, force-fed her alcohol and put her in the back seat of her mother’s car before the crash.

In October, Major ordered a competency hearing for Peernock after Peernock interrupted a proceeding eight times, insisting that his attorney Gerald L. Fogelman was conspiring with prosecutors. Fogelman said at the time that his client was incapable of cooperating in a defense.

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Peernock, according to court documents, believes that authorities want to frame him because he exposed a system of kickbacks by officials in the Department of Water Resources.

Peernock recently hired a new attorney, Felipa R. Richland, and the psychiatrists said he will cooperate with her as long as he trusts her. They also said he clearly understands the nature of the proceedings against him, noting he has “superior intelligence.”

Although he has an almost paranoid distrust of institutional authority, it has not rendered him irrational, Dr. William McAdoo said in his report.

If he had been found mentally incompetent, Peernock could have been sent to a state mental hospital for an indefinite period.

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