Former teacher's aide Roberta Pearce was convicted Monday in Vista Superior Court of hiring two 15-year-old boys to murder her estranged husband so she could collect his life insurance benefits.
Pearce, 42, faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole because a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances and conspiring to commit murder in the slaying of Robert Wayne Pearce on Jan. 31, 1989.
The defendant sat still and without expression as the verdict was read after 2 1/2 days of jury deliberations. The dead man's mother, Rita Church, watched Pearce and whispered, "She's the coldest thing I ever saw in my life."
The jury agreed with Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim Casserly that the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and lying in wait were present, therefore requiring a sentence of either death or life in state prison without parole.
Judge Franklin J. Mitchell told the jurors to return to his courtroom next Monday to begin deciding the penalty. In the meantime, he instructed jurors not to discuss the trial publicly or even among themselves, or to expose themselves to news coverage.
Because of a previously imposed gag order, neither Casserly nor Pearce's defense attorneys, Brad Patton and William Fletcher, commented on the verdict.
Pearce's parents, Minnie and Herbert Meadows, darted from the courtroom after the verdict.
Also present for the proceedings, beside the dead man's mother, was his brother Jim Pearce and sister-in-law Debra Pearce, who had come from Illinois for the verdict. They gasped when the guilty judgment was read and somberly left the courtroom.
"I'm glad we got justice in the state of California," said Jim Pearce. The family's attorney, Dennis Atchley, advised them against further remarks because they have filed a civil suit against Roberta Pearce.
During the trial, the teen-agers who killed Pearce's husband testified against her. Isaac Hill and Anthony Pilato, now both 16, previously pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and were sentenced to the California Youth Authority until they reach age 25.
Hill and Pilato, along with 17-year-old Mandy Gardiser who lived in Pearce's sprawling Valley Center ranch house for two weeks before the killing, testified that Pearce wanted her husband dead so that she could get a $200,000 life insurance premium.
They also said under oath that Pearce, a former teacher's aide at Orange Glen High School in Escondido, was fearful about losing the couple's home in a pending divorce and having to displace her two dogs.
Hill and Pilato testified that Pearce promised each of them $50,000 and a car if they'd kill her husband, who was attacked by them as he walked toward his pickup truck before dawn on Jan. 31 last year.
Hill said that as he asked Pearce for the time of day, Pilato struck him from behind with a carpenter's hand ax and then attacked him with a kitchen knife. Although the victim was hit 27 times, he managed to crawl back to his third-floor apartment before collapsing.
He died in surgery at Palomar Medical Center.
Taking the stand in her defense, Pearce conceded she had smoked marijuana with some of the teen-agers who congregated at her home. She also admitted she had sex with another teen-age boy, Frank (Soddy) Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder for his role in the plot.
But Pearce said that on the night and early morning of the slaying, she had closeted herself in her bedroom, angry at the teen-agers for having taken her car without permission.
The defense argued that it was the teen-agers' own idea to kill Pearce so that they could continue living at the Valley Center home and because of their misguided belief that Roberta Pearce wanted him dead.
Though the defense argued the statements of Hill, Pilato and Gardiser couldn't be trusted, the prosecution maintained the youths would have had no reason to kill a man they had never met--unless they had been asked to act by Pearce in exchange for money and cars.
Gardiser had testified that at 3 a.m. the day of the killing, Roberta Pearce admonished Hill and Pilato as they left the house, "be careful and don't get caught."
When the two boys returned to the house after the deed at about 6:30 a.m., Hill told the court that Pearce was angry at them. "I said we had done it, we had killed Mr. Pearce," Hill recounted.
"She said the hospital had called that he was alive, and they wanted her at the hospital," Hill continued testifying. "She was mad. She said 'he's not dead and you're not going to have the opportunity to do it again.' "
Two other teen-age boys testified that they, too, had been solicited by Pearce to kill her husband, but that they refused. However, jurors, despite handing down the murder verdict, found Pearce not guilty on these two counts of solicitation to commit murder.
Hill and Pilato said they fled to Tijuana after the killing, and that on Friday of that week they telephoned Pearce because they needed $300. They said she arrived later that day with the money.
Phone records documented the collect telephone call to her house from Mexico, and bank records showed she withdrew $300 in cash that day.
Mitchell told jurors he expects the penalty phase to last about two days next week.