Hearing Date Brings Reminder of Deaths : Crime: Two men convicted in two particularly brutal murder cases in 1973 are up for parole May 17. Officials argue that neither should be released.
The two killers came from different backgrounds, but their paths to crime bore striking similarities, and the murders they committed one day apart in 1973 are still considered among the most vicious in Orange County.
Robert Michael Sesma, an enforcer for a drug syndicate, was sentenced to life in prison for beating one man to death and fatally shooting another as he begged for his life.
John Benjamin Tidwell, a pimp and bounty hunter from Ohio, robbed an Orange County teen-ager, then took him to a remote canyon area and shot him twice in the back with a sawed-off shotgun. The youth, mortally wounded by the double-ought buckshot, bled to death on the side of the road. Tidwell was also sentenced to life in prison.
Now, seventeen years later, Sesma and Tidwell are both scheduled for parole hearings May 17.
Both men, who have been turned down for parole before, say they have been rehabilitated and are ready for life on the outside. Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates and other law enforcement officials, however, are pleading with state prison officials not to release them.
“Both of these crimes were very blatant, and to release these convicted murderers on parole would certainly create a danger to the citizens of the county,” Gates said.
“We vehemently oppose their parole,” said Jay Moseley, an Orange County deputy district attorney who represents the district attorney’s office at state parole hearings. “I think they are extremely dangerous.”
Sesma, 38, formerly of Albuquerque, N.M., first became eligible for parole in 1981. He has been turned down in seven previous hearings before the state Board of Prison Terms. Tidwell, 41, formerly of Warren, Ohio, became eligible in 1984 and has been turned down twice.
Both have pleaded passionately for their release from the California Men’s Colony East at San Luis Obispo. Coincidentally, officials say, both have trained as jewelers and hope to pursue that profession if released.
“What I need is that one chance to prove to you, my family and most of all to me that I can be a productive human being in the community,” Tidwell wrote in a July 21, 1989, letter to Walter W. Charamza, the Orange County Superior Court judge who sentenced him for the Dec. 13, 1973, murder of Harold Reinhart, 18, of Midway City.
But Charamza, now retired, has recommended that Tidwell remain incarcerated indefinitely, saying in a letter to prison officials: “The murder for which he was convicted was planned, committed in cold blood and done in the commission of a robbery.”
In statements to prison psychiatrists, Sesma has said he regrets the murders of Vaudra Dewey Nunley, 28, and Rue Eugene Steele, 29, on Dec. 12, 1973, and that he believes he can safely be returned to society.
“He views himself as someone who got involved with the wrong people,” an Orange County Probation Department official wrote in a pre-sentencing report in 1975.
However, James K. Turner, the Orange County Superior Court sentencing judge, has asked that Sesma never be released.
“These were brutal and horrible killings,” Turner, also now retired, wrote after sentencing Sesma in 1976. “I sentenced this defendant . . . so that he will be incarcerated as long as possible.”
The lives of Tidwell and Sesma, both of whom declined interviews, took many similar turns, according to Orange County Superior Court records. Both were U.S. Marines who saw combat duty in Vietnam during the late 1960s. Both grew up in working-class families. And both fell in with criminal elements during the early 1970s when the drug subculture was flourishing.
Their crimes also had similarities. Tidwell’s victim was a burglary suspect who was high on drugs the last night of his life, court records show. Sesma’s two victims were drug dealers who were part of an Orange County-based marijuana syndicate.
Sesma was paid $2,000 for his role in the killings. Tidwell was to be paid half the $35,000 he took from his victim. However, Tidwell kept all the money that Reinhart, his victim, had taken in a burglary.
Court evidence would show that Reinhart was a “naive and vulnerable” young man who fell into a trap set by a woman he had begun living with three weeks before his death. The woman arranged for Tidwell to rob Reinhart of his share of the money from a recent burglary in Oregon, court records show. Reinhart and two female accomplices had taken a total of $98,000 hidden in the freezer of a home.
Tidwell by that time was a seasoned criminal. He was under investigation in Warren, Ohio, for the July, 1973, shooting deaths of wealthy industrialist Walter Holmquist, 78, and his wife Dorothy, 77, during a burglary at their home. Tidwell was convicted five years later in the case. He killed Dorothy Holmquist first, then fatally shot her husband, who was crippled and walked with a cane.
Tidwell was living in Las Vegas and working as a bounty hunter when the woman enlisted his help in robbing Reinhart. Tidwell rented a car under an assumed name, drove to Orange County and met with the woman and Reinhart at her Midway City home.
The woman had told Reinhart that Tidwell was a “fence” who would launder Reinhart’s stolen money. Instead, Tidwell pulled a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun and demanded all the money. Then he drove Reinhart to a remote spot in Santiago Canyon, forced him to his knees and shot him twice in the back, court records show. An autopsy showed that Reinhart bled to death from his wounds. Tidwell returned to Las Vegas and eventually to Ohio.
Back in Ohio, Tidwell kidnaped a 19-year-old woman in May, 1974, and forced her into his prostitution business. He was convicted a few months later of assault with intent to commit rapes in the case and sentenced to Ohio state prison for five to 15 years. While in prison, he confided to a cellmate about the Reinhart murder in Orange County.
Those admissions led to his arrest and conviction in 1978 of Reinhart’s murder. He was convicted a short time afterward of the Ohio double murders. His life sentence for that crime runs concurrently with the California sentence. With credit for time served in California, Tidwell also will be eligible for parole if returned to Ohio.
In a pre-sentencing report in 1978, an Orange County probation officer wrote that Tidwell exhibited “a pattern of violent conduct representing a serious danger to society. If not imprisoned, the defendant would be a danger to others within the community.”
Prison psychiatrists have labeled Tidwell a sociopath with “a severe antisocial behavior disorder.” But in a 1989 evaluation, prison staff psychologist Robert K. Bolin described Tidwell as “bright and friendly” and said he exhibited no further evidence of a psychological disorder. Bolin said Tidwell had done “well” in the prison system and that he seemed psychologically fit. Tidwell is engaged to be married a third time.
“The fact that I am 41 years old, getting married to a wonderful woman who is very respectable in the community, my showing of maturity and growth over the years of my rehabilitation and having been in prison for 15 straight years, should all add up to something worthwhile,” Tidwell wrote in his appeal to Charamza.
Sesma had been serving as an enforcer and distributor for Orange County marijuana kingpin John Solis in 1973 when Solis ordered him and an accomplice to “hold” Nunley, a fellow drug ring member who purportedly was planning to kidnap Solis and his family.
Prosecutors later discovered that Sesma’s accomplice, Michael L. Thompson, had fabricated the kidnap threat. Thompson had wanted to get Nunley out of the way so that he could be with Nunley’s wife.
On the day of the murders, Sesma and Thompson confronted at gunpoint Nunley and Steele, a reputed drug dealer from Boston who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nunley and Steele were tied up at Solis’ house and viciously beaten. Steele died during the beating. Nunley was presumed dead when he and Steele tossed him into the trunk of a car and drove him to a Tustin residence to bury him. When they opened the trunk, however, the men discovered that Nunley was still alive.
Sesma took a .22-caliber pistol and aimed it at Nunley. Randall Pierce, who had been commissioned to dig a grave for the victims, later testified in court that Nunley “raised his hands to shield his face and simply said, ‘I don’t want to die.’ Sesma said only, ‘Close your eyes, man,’ then shot him in the forehead.”
The bodies were buried in a grave behind the Tustin home. The murders did not come to light until nearly a year later, when an informant tipped off police. In 1975, Sesma, Thompson and Solis were convicted of murder and other charges in a six-month trial that at the time ranked as Orange County’s longest criminal proceeding. Only Solis has since been paroled.
Turner, the judge who sentenced Sesma, said he regretted not being able to send Sesma to the gas chamber. The death penalty had not yet been reinstituted.
“I never thought I would see the day when I was sorry I could not sentence someone to death,” Turner told Sesma.
In court testimony and later interviews with psychiatrists, Sesma claimed that Thompson committed the killings and that he was an unwilling participant. He said he fell in with the drug crowd because he needed money to support a wife and infant daughter. Sesma called his involvement with Solis’ organization “the biggest mistake” in his life.
Sesma’s parents and siblings in New Mexico say they believe that he has been punished enough.
“We want him back home,” Sesma’s sister, Roberta Sesma, said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Albuquerque. “He’s in our prayers every night. He’s a very good person. He’s a loving person. Every chance we get we go to see him.”
Prosecutors describe Sesma as “cold-blooded” and find it difficult to believe that he is rehabilitated.
Robert D. Chatterton, now an Orange County criminal defense attorney, prosecuted the case against Sesma and the others. Chatterton said that although Sesma says he regrets the killings, his refusal to admit that he committed them is a sign that he is not ready to be released.
“That to me is one of the crucial things he must come to grips with,” Chatterton said. “He was the one who personally killed both of the men.”
UP FOR PAROLE
John Benjamin Tidwell
Born: July 18, 1948, in Warren, Ohio.
Background: Grew up in working-class family in an Ohio automobile factory town. After high school, Tidwell joined the Marine Corps and served in combat in Vietnam before being honorably discharged in 1968. He then married and moved to Westminster, where he worked 13 months for a cable television company. He moved back to Ohio in 1970 but spent the next three years bouncing from Ohio to Las Vegas to Orange County.
Criminal history: In 1971, Tidwell pleaded guilty to using a stolen credit card in Garden Grove and was sentenced to one year’s informal probation. Two years later in Ohio, he was convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to state prison. He was charged in the 1973 double murder of a wealthy Ohio industrialist and his wife, but his 1974 trial ended in a hung jury. While he was in an Ohio prison serving time for the attempted rape conviction, law enforcement authorities learned of his involvement in the 1973 killing of an 18-year-old Midway City man. Orange County prosecutors filed murder charges in the case in 1977,
and Tidwell was convicted of the killing by a jury on Oct. 5, 1978. He was then retried and convicted of the double murder in Ohio.
Present status: Serving a life sentence in California Men’s Colony East at San Luis Obispo for the Orange County murder conviction. He also received a life sentence in the Ohio case, but he is serving the sentences concurrently. He has been turned down twice for parole. He will be eligible for parole next month.
Robert Michael Sesma
Born: July 16, 1952, in Albuquerque, N.M.
Background: Grew up in Albuquerque in a working-class family. After high school, he joined the Marine Corps, where he served four years in a variety of duties including combat in Vietnam before being honorably discharged in November, 1973. While still assigned to military duty at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Sesma married and the couple had a daughter. Upon discharge from the Marines, he worked for a tortilla delivery company.
Criminal history: In 1973, to make ends meet, Sesma began working part time in the organization of reputed marijuana kingpin John Solis of Santa Ana. Sesma helped distribute drugs and collect drug debts. He was charged and convicted in 1975 of the shooting and beating deaths of two men: a fellow drug ring member and a Boston drug
dealer. The killings took place in Orange County in 1973.
Current status: Sesma is serving a life prison term. He has been turned down for parole seven times but will be up for parole again next month.