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Engineer Convicted of Murdering Wife : Crime: Jury returns first-degree verdict in Anaheim Hills slaying. His poems and letters had more than 50 other people targeted for death.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury Wednesday found an Anaheim Hills engineer guilty of first-degree murder while lying in wait in the shooting death of his wife, the first of more than 50 people he claimed in letters and poems he intended to kill.

Today, jurors return for the central issue of the trial: Was David Lee Schoenecker sane when he killed his wife, Gail Mae, as she slept on May 6, 1989, just hours after he had taken her out to dinner?

Schoenecker’s attorney, Ronald Y. Butler, who is defending his first case since he took over as county public defender 10 years ago, is scheduled to make his opening statement today in the sanity phase of the trial.

Butler has already argued to jurors that psychiatrists say that the 50-year-old engineer “suffers from a major mental disorder . . . an obsessive compulsive psychosis that causes gross impairment in regulation of both mood and rationale.”

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The defense is not contesting that Schoenecker killed his wife. In the guilt phase of the trial, Butler tried to argue that prosecutors failed to prove that Schoenecker had actually “lain in wait” before shooting his wife in her bed.

However, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans argued that the victim had placed her glasses on the night stand, was dressed for bed and under the covers when she was killed.

“It is obvious that he waited until he knew she would be asleep before he killed her,” Evans said.

Prosecutor Evans also argued that Schoenecker’s own words to a psychiatrist, in an interview put before the jury, proved he was guilty of first-degree murder.

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Schoenecker told a psychiatrist that while standing over his wife with the gun, “I was thinking, ‘I’ll get in trouble if I do this.’ ” Evans claimed that was proof that the shooting was premeditated.

The jury deliberated four days before returning its verdict in the guilt phase of the trial. The “lying-in-wait” finding could mean a sentence of life in prison without parole for Schoenecker. Superior Court Judge Robert F. Fitzgerald has some leeway in sentencing.

However, if jurors find that he was not sane when he committed the crime, he would automatically be committed to a state mental hospital. It would then be up to state officials, not the court, to determine when he is eligible for release. It could be anywhere from six months to the remainder of his life.

Schoenecker led police on a massive manhunt in the week after his wife’s death. He disclosed what he had done in a letter to the Orange County Register, but he mailed it from Montana, where he was equipped with snow gear for hiking cross-country.

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Prosecutors argued that Schoenecker wanted the police to know what he had done but planned to make his escape in the few days that it would take for his letter to arrive at the newspaper office.

Schoenecker was caught hiking through the mountains in Montana less than a week after the shooting.

Most of the 54 people on the “hit list” he included in his letter lived in the Milwaukee, Wis., area, where the Schoeneckers had lived most of their married life.

Schoenecker had left a poem on a table at his Anaheim Hills home for police to find, in which he stated about the 54 intended victims: “I made my list, I’m checking it twice, I’m going to find out who’s naughty, not nice. . . . All on the list will go to their grave, all with the help of friendly old Dave.”

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Prosecutors believe Schoenecker, an out-of-work chemical engineer, might have killed his wife, a 40-year-old schoolteacher, either because she knew too much about his plans to kill the others, or because he blamed her for his financial troubles.

He bought the gun the day of the killing. A key piece of evidence against him was a post office slip, showing he had canceled their mail delivery that day.

“He knew he wasn’t going to be there, and he already knew his wife wasn’t going to be able to get the mail, because he had already planned to kill her,” Evans argued to the jury.

Because prosecutors do not have access to a defendant to have their own psychiatrists interview him, their side in the sanity phase of the trial almost always lies in the cross-examination of the defense witnesses.

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