In recent weeks, Robert Alton Harris has been the focus of attention among the 330 inmates on California's Death Row. But, as Harris awaits his scheduled Tuesday morning meeting with the executioner, 11 other condemned killers nervously await the day when they too may be strapped to a chair inside the San Quentin gas chamber for murders committed in San Diego County.
Over the years, intense media scrutiny of Harris' 1978 murders of Mira Mesa teen-agers John Mayeski and Michael Baker has made him the best-known of San Diego's killers on Death Row.
However, the murders committed by San Diego's other lesser-known killers are no less brutal.
Eleven local men wait to be executed, but only two, Bernard Hamilton and Michael Williams, have had their death sentences affirmed by the California Supreme Court. Hamilton has been on Death Row since March 4, 1981. Williams joined him on Sept. 30, 1982.
Using only affirmation and time on Death Row as a yardstick, it would appear that Hamilton and Williams would be the next two San Diego killers to trace Harris' footsteps into the state's death chamber. However, Hamilton, Williams and the other nine condemned men can still appeal their sentences through the maze of courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Until their appeals are exhausted, it is virtually impossible to predict who of the 11 men will be the next to die.
Recently, Supreme Court justices, led
by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, have expressed frustration over the lengthy and numerous appeals used by condemned inmates to stave off their executions. Rehnquist has said he favors a shortened appeals process for prisoners who receive the death penalty.
The condemned men from San Diego County are almost evenly split by racial and ethnic background. Three are Latino, three are black and five are white. Two of the Latinos are brothers. Following are brief descriptions of their crimes:
Hector Juan Ayala, 40, and Ronaldo Medrano Ayala, 41. The Ayala brothers were sentenced in 1989 for the April 26, 1985, killings of three men in a Southeast San Diego garage. The execution-type murders resulted from a drug dispute. The victims were bound, their mouths sealed with duct tape and then shot with .22-caliber and .38-caliber handguns. All were shot in the head. One of the victims was also stabbed.
A fourth victim survived a gunshot to the head and testified against the Ayalas. Ronaldo Ayala arrived on Death Row first, on Feb. 16, 1989. Hector Ayala joined his brother on Death Row on Dec. 6, 1989. The brothers were born one year and six days apart.
Terry Douglas Bemore, 35. Bemore is one of the more anonymous of San Diego's killers. A former Baptist minister and Palo Alto police officer, he was sentenced Nov. 2, 1989, for the Aug. 26, 1985, torture murder of a liquor store clerk.
Bemore and an accomplice robbed Kenneth Muck, 55, who worked at Aztec Liquor on El Cajon Boulevard. Muck was stabbed 37 times. Bemore's accomplice was sentenced to life in prison without parole, even though he was also convicted of killing Muck and another man in a previous robbery.
Christopher Clark Box, 23. Box is the youngest of the condemned killers from San Diego and one of the three youngest on Death Row. He was sentenced Feb. 22, 1991, for a triple murder on Aug. 9, 1989, in Clairemont. Box's victims were April Gilhousen, 20, her 3-year-old son, Bryan, and Kevin Chandler, 29. The victims were bludgeoned with a baseball bat and stabbed; Chandler's throat also was slashed.
Box and and an accomplice went to Gilhousen's house on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard to steal 1 pound of marijuana and $2,000 in cash. The accomplice, Manuel Flores Jr., escaped the death penalty because he was a juvenile at the time of the killings. He was instead sentenced to life in prison.
Dean Phillip Carter, 36. A former television cameraman, Carter is awaiting execution for the 1984 murders of four women during a brief but deadly crime rampage. Only one of the victims, Janette Cullins, 25, was from San Diego. The other three were killed in the Los Angeles area. He was also sentenced to death in Los Angeles.
Cullins' partly clothed body was found stuffed in the closet of her Pacific Beach apartment on April 14, 1984. Three days earlier, Carter had killed two women in their Culver City apartment and put the bodies in a closet. On April 12, he killed a fourth woman in her West Los Angeles apartment.
Each of the women was strangled, and some were sexually assaulted. Police said the killings were committed while Carter was burglarizing and robbing the victims' homes. He was sentenced on Sept. 9, 1991, for Cullins' murder, when he was already serving a 56-year prison sentence for a previous robbery and sexual assault and while he was already serving a death sentence for the Los Angeles murders. Carter arrived on Death Row on Feb. 7, 1990.
Bernard Hamilton, 41. Hamilton , a minister's son, committed one of the most heinous murders in recent memory on May 30, 1979, when he kidnaped Eleanore Frances Buchanan, a 28-year-old Mesa College student and mother of two. Her decapitated and handless body was found the following day at the edge of a Pine Valley cul-de-sac. He was sentenced March 2, 1981, and has been on Death Row since March 4, 1981.
He was arrested June 8, 1979, in Oklahoma, driving the victim's van. When police searched the van, they found a quart of blood in a tire well, a butcher knife and a pruning saw. While awaiting trial, Hamilton wrote the victim's husband from jail, telling him that his wife was still alive, smoking PCP and running around with other men.
Hamilton had a long criminal record before the murder, mostly for robbery, burglary and forgery. In 1976, he was convicted of burglary in Louisiana, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.
David Allen Lucas, 37. Next to Harris, Lucas is probably the most notorious of the San Diego killers on Death Row. He was sentenced Sept. 19, 1989, for three murders committed in 1979 and 1984. Lucas, a carpet cleaner, slashed his victims' throats. His first two victims were Suzanne Jacobs, 31, and her 3-year-old son, Colin, who were killed in their Normal Heights home.
University of San Diego student Anne Catherine Swanke, 22, was killed Nov. 20, 1984. She was abducted when her car ran out of gas, and her body was found on a remote hillside in Spring Valley, near where Lucas lived. The same jury that convicted Lucas deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction in the deaths of Rhonda Strang, 24, and Amber Fisher, 3, both of Lakeside. Their throats were slashed.
Lucas has been awaiting execution since Oct. 5, 1989.
Kurt Michaels, 26. Michaels, a former Marine, was the first killer to receive the death penalty in a North County courtroom on July 31, 1990. Michaels and three accomplices were convicted in a scheme to murder his girlfriend's mother so that the daughter could collect her mother's life insurance. JoAnn Clemons, 43, was stabbed to death while asleep in her Escondido apartment Oct. 2, 1988. One of the accomplices in the murder was the victim's daughter, Christina Clemons, who was also Michaels' girlfriend.
Michaels, who acted as his own attorney at the trial, admitted killing Clemons but claimed it was to prevent the continued sexual and physical abuse of Christina Clemons, who was 17 at the time. He also argued against the jury's recommendation that he be put to death.
Superior Court Judge J. Morgan Lester brushed aside Michaels' request that he be sentenced to life in prison. "You are going to die in the gas chamber," Morgan said at the sentencing. Michaels has been on Death Row since Aug. 3, 1990. His accomplices were sentenced to prison but did not receive the death penalty. One was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Richard Gonzales Samayoa, 39. Although he has been on Death Row for almost four years, he is another of the lesser-known of San Diego's condemned killers. Samayoa was sentenced June 28, 1988, for the Dec. 18, 1985, murders of Nelia Silva, 33, and her 2-year-old daughter, Katherine. He beat the victims to death with a wrench after they caught him burglarizing their Otay Mesa home. Silva and her daughter were Samayoa's neighbors.
He told a psychiatrist he burglarized Silva's home because he "was tired of looking for jobs and being turned down." At the sentencing, a prosecutor pointed to Samayoa's prior convictions for burglary, rape and attempted rape, and pointed to his propensity for violence. Samayoa "should assume his proper place in line" on Death Row, said the prosecutor.
Billy Ray Waldon, 40. He is the most recent arrival on Death Row from San Diego County after offering the most bizarre courtroom defense of San Diego's killers. Acting as his own attorney, Waldon denied committing the three murders he was charged with and the almost two dozen other charges that included rape and animal killings. Waldon said he was framed by an FBI counterintellingence operation better known by its acronym COINTELPRO.
In tedious, often rambling arguments, Waldon told an incredulous judge and jury he was framed by FBI agents for founding a Cherokee nation government in exile in Switzerland. He denied shooting Dawn Ellerman on Dec. 7, 1985, in her Del Mar Heights home. He set Ellerman's house on fire and Ellerman's 13-year-old daughter, Erin, died in the blaze. On Dec. 19, 1985, he shot and killed Charles Gordon Wells in an armed robbery in San Diego.
Police found several items from Waldon's victims in his car, but he said they were planted there by FBI agents. During the trial, Waldon, who authorities said is white, insisted on being called by the Cherokee name Nvwtohiyada Idehesdi Sequoyah. At the trial, Waldon questioned himself, calling himself "the suspect." The prosecutor referred to him as "the suspect, Mr. Waldon," while the judge called him "Mr. Sequoyah."
Michael Williams, 29. He was only 19 years old when he was convicted of fatally shooting a sailor in a Sept. 30, 1981, robbery that netted him and two accomplices $2.50. Williams of Santee was sentenced April 1, 1983, and arrived on Death Row on April 25, 1983.
Williams and the accomplices helped Gregory Lock Jr. start his stalled car at a Mission Beach parking lot. The three men then forced Lock at gunpoint to drive them to National City, where Williams shot the sailor once in the back and twice more as he lay on the ground. In an effort to help her son avoid the death penalty, Williams' mother testified that he was beaten as a youngster by his father.
One of Williams' accomplices was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The other received a sentence of 15 years to life.