After Dan Montecalvo was convicted of killing his wife to collect her insurance money, the outcome seemed to end a tangled odyssey that began in 1988 when the ex-bank robber was found wounded in his Burbank home alongside his dying spouse.
Although he insisted that the couple had been shot by burglars, the 49-year-old Montecalvo was sentenced last month to 27 years to life in prison for first-degree murder in a plot that involved shooting himself to cover up the crime.
Now, in a bizarre twist, a witness has told Los Angeles County district attorney's office investigators that Carol Montecalvo was indeed shot and killed during a burglary attempt--and has confessed that she and her friends were responsible for the death.
While the district attorney's office remains skeptical of her confession, prosecutors have granted Susan Brown, a former neighbor of the Montecalvos, immunity from prosecution and are arranging a polygraph examination. They also are checking to see whether any fingerprints of the newly identified suspects match unidentified fingerprints that were found in the Montecalvo home.
"We're attempting to corroborate what she says, but it's going to take time," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Cohen, who questioned why Brown waited more than 2 1/2 years to confess.
Brown has named her accomplices, but Cohen, who prosecuted Montecalvo, said her word alone is not enough to make an arrest or obtain any search warrants.
Brown, 45, had appeared as a defense witness during the Montecalvo trial but had never admitted any involvement in the crime until now. After first telling her story to private investigators working for Montecalvo, she repeated her confession during a Dec. 17 meeting with Cohen and investigators from the district attorney's office and the Burbank Police Department.
"See, I know Dan didn't do it. I've got a conscience, and I'm tired of living with it," Brown told investigators when asked during the taped interview why she was stepping forward.
Montecalvo, who had a prison record for bank robbery, was convicted two months ago after jurors failed to believe his story that the couple had stumbled upon a burglary when they returned from a late-night walk on March 31, 1988, and were shot by the panicked intruders.
During the trial, jurors said they found no proof that a burglary had been committed. And although the evidence against Montecalvo was largely circumstantial, prosecutors portrayed him as a man saddled with gambling debts and knowledgeable about guns who shot his 43-year-old wife to cash in on her $600,000 in life insurance policies.
With the latest revelation, however, Montecalvo's attorney says that he will seek a new trial for his client.
"There's an innocent guy languishing in prison, and he should be free," said attorney Lorn Aiken, who first brought Brown to the attention of prosecutors and who accompanied her during an interview with The Times.
According to Brown, the fatal shooting stemmed from a "spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment" decision to burglarize the Montecalvo home after she and three friends had spent nearly a week bingeing on "speed" and became desperate to buy more drugs.
"What happened that night was basically we were all high and we were coming down and we ran out of money, and I had thought Carol and Dan had left for their vacation the day before," said Brown, who lived with the others two houses down from the Montecalvos.
"So, we decided to raid their house and get a TV or something that we can sell and get some drugs with," she continued.
To draw the attention of neighbors away from the burglary, Brown said, she and one of her companions feigned a loud argument in front of another home on the block while the others slipped inside the Montecalvo house. But Brown said that when she saw the Montecalvos returning home from a neighborhood walk a few minutes later, she realized that the couple had not yet left on their trip.
Returning quickly to her own house, Brown said, she heard the gunshots that killed Carol Montecalvo and wounded her husband.
"We went into my den from the garage," Brown said. "I heard two shots. I looked at the person that was with me and said, 'We're in damned trouble now.' And then it sounded like a muffled sound, and I didn't know what it was. Then I found out (later) it was the third shot."
According to police reports, Carol Montecalvo was shot twice in the neck that night with a .38-caliber revolver and died in the hallway. Her husband was shot with a .25-caliber handgun pressed against his back--a wound that prosecutors later contended was self-inflicted.
But Brown supported Montecalvo's story that he and his wife were shot by intruders--the same burglars who returned to her home after the shooting.
"When (one gunman) came into the house, he said 'Damn, I got blood on my hands,' and he went back out the garage door" to wash his hands, Brown recalled.
When she asked about the gunshots, the gunman told Brown he had mistakenly shot Carol Montecalvo when she surprised him in the hallway.
"All (he) said to me was, 'It was an accident.' But I know it wasn't an accident," said Brown, who added that she had sold the gunman the .38-caliber, snub-nosed revolver only months before the shooting.
Later that evening, Brown said, Carol Montecalvo's killer announced that he had taken $800 from a box found in the victims' home. Then, Brown said, the gunman handed her $450 of the stolen money that he owed her.
The gunman, whom Brown described as a man in his mid-40s with a violent temper, warned anyone against talking to the police, including Brown. "He told me he'd kill me," she said.
The account given to The Times was similar to information that Brown had provided earlier to prosecutors and investigators. She described in detail the .38-caliber handgun that she said was used to kill Carol Montecalvo and explained that the .25-caliber pistol that was purportedly used to shoot Dan Montecalvo had once belonged to a friend.
Neither weapon has ever been found. And although Montecalvo's attorney says that Brown told investigators more than two weeks ago where the guns may be located, Aiken said the district attorney's office has done little to follow up on that information. He also contended that investigators have balked at pursuing the leads that could free Montecalvo from the California Institution for Men at Chino, where he is serving his sentence.
"There's an innocent guy sitting in prison while these guys are sitting around just trying to save their jobs," Aiken said. "Remember, they have a stake in not pursuing this because they have convicted the wrong man."
However, prosecutor Cohen said his office has been investigating Brown's story and denied that he is reluctant to pursue any evidence that could point to a different killer.
"If Montecalvo didn't do it, I will be the first one to ask that he go free," Cohen said. "But we have to have competent evidence that someone else did it."
Mike Stevens, a senior investigator assigned to the case, declined to talk about any specifics regarding Brown. "The only thing I can tell you is that the case is being investigated by the district attorney's office, and we are not dragging our feet," he said.
Cohen said investigators are exploring the possibility that Brown or her friends may have helped Montecalvo murder his wife.
"She is an admitted perjurer," Cohen said of Brown's earlier court testimony, which failed to disclose any involvement in the shooting. "She could have come forward then, but didn't."
Brown, however, said she was reluctant earlier to tell the truth. Weeks after the shooting, she said, she sold her house and left the neighborhood, hoping to put the episode behind her.
"One of the first laws of nature is self-preservation, so I kept my mouth shut, mainly out of fear, and I ran for two years," Brown said.
After moving from city to city and turning increasingly to drugs to try to escape the memory of that night, Brown said, she contemplated killing herself at one point and called a suicide hot line. Then, after learning that Montecalvo had been charged with his wife's death, she found herself pressured by his private investigators--two former sheriff's detectives--who repeatedly questioned her about the case.
Still, it was only after Montecalvo had been sentenced that Brown stepped forward, finally swayed by "the fact that an innocent man was convicted of something totally outrageous, and like I said, my conscience had been bothering me anyway."
As she spoke those words, Brown bowed her head and puffed on a cigarette and said she still fears for her life. Brown said she presently is facing a drug possession charge in San Bernardino County after being caught with "speed" and said her only previous run-in with the law was a conviction in the mid-1970s on a bad check charge.
But Brown raised her head and insisted that she was telling the truth about Carol Montecalvo's death.
"I don't think too many people in their right mind would sit and admit the fact that they were accessory to murder, not after someone has already been convicted. That's almost (getting away) scot-free, isn't it?" she said.
"Maybe I ought to get my head examined but I guess it's better I talk and get this off my chest anyway."