After two years behind bars, a Chula Vista man accused in a twisted murder plot died Sunday at a San Diego hospital, the evening before his trial was to begin.
Billie Joe McGinnis, 52, died at Harbor View Medical Center, apparently of complications from pneumonia, authorities said. The results of an autopsy performed Monday were not available, authorities said.
McGinnis had been admitted to the hospital last Tuesday after telling officials at the downtown County Jail that he needed medical help, his court-appointed lawyer said. Jury selection in his murder case was to have begun Monday.
"I'm just shocked and sad," attorney Elizabeth Barranco said. "And pretty helpless, really. You like to think you can help your clients. I guess there are forces greater than the forces available to a lawyer."
The death marked the latest twist in a case that, from the beginning, has seen its share of unusual turns.
McGinnis and his ex-wife, Virginia Rearden, 54, were charged with killing a 20-year-old former housemate, Deanna Hubbard Wild, to collect on a $35,000 life insurance policy that Rearden took out on Wild on April 1, 1987, the day before she died.
Wild, who had been a close friend of Rearden's son, died from head injuries during a sightseeing trip with McGinnis and Rearden. She plunged nearly 400 feet down a cliff along California 1, about 30 miles south of Monterey.
At first, authorities called her death an accident. Later, investigators learned about the insurance policy. In September, 1989, San Diego prosecutors filed murder charges against McGinnis and Rearden. The pair also were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, insurance fraud and theft.
The case was brought in San Diego County because, prosecutors alleged, that's where the murder plot was hatched. Monterey County authorities declined to prosecute the case.
Last month, San Diego Superior Court Judge Bernard Revak announced that prosecutors could not pursue the death penalty.
Revak said that, when Deputy Dist. Atty. Luis Aragon read a psychiatric report on McGinnis that accidentally had been sent to him, that action violated the ethical rules of legal conduct because that information could prove pivotal in the sentencing phase of a trial.
Rearden remains in the Las Colinas Jail in Santee under $5 million bail. The case against her will resume next Monday with a new jury pool, Aragon said Monday.
If convicted, Rearden could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The case originally was to go to trial in October, 1990. It has been postponed several times for various reasons, including Barranco's pregnancy.
"I'm still not convinced he's guilty, knowing everything I know about the case," Barranco said Monday.
She also said she is disturbed by the circumstances of McGinnis' death. McGinnis had a history of illness, including a stroke, and told defense investigators that he complained about his health for a week to jail officials before he went to the hospital, Barranco said.
"It's troubling to think that someone without independent financial means and a health problem could receive less than what would be considered the general standard of care," Barranco said.
Dan Greenblat, a spokesman for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which runs the county jails, said Monday that he was unable to comment on the medical care that McGinnis received behind bars because jail records could not be immediately retrieved.
But, Greenblat said, "We have endeavored to improve both the quantity and quality of medical services in the jails. We are saddened by Mr. McGinnis' death. And we continue to believe the medical care being provided is adequate."