A San Diego County jury deliberated less than a day before finding a Navy officer guilty Thursday of murdering his estranged wife in a case that lay dormant for 4 1/2 years until authorities were prodded into action by the woman's neighbors.
Lt. Cmdr. Leonard E. Eddington II was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Vickie Eddington, his wife of 12 years and the mother of his three children. Her body was unearthed in the back yard of their rural East County home in December.
The Superior Court jury also found that Eddington killed his wife for financial gain, a special circumstance that will result in his serving life in state prison without possibility of parole.
"I think the jury saw it the obvious way, the only way you could see it as evidence. They could not get around the fact that she was buried in his own back yard," prosecutor Jeff Dusek said.
While Vickie's family quietly nodded as the verdict was read by a court clerk, Eddington, dressed in his Navy uniform, showed no reaction.
"The only thing I've got to say is I feel sorry for him," said Elmer Vess, Vickie's father. "I have no hatred for him."
Defense attorney Milly Durovic said her client took the verdict "like an officer, you know, stiff upper lip."
Vickie Eddington, 29, vanished July 30, 1987, and sheriff's deputies found her car abandoned 4 miles from the couple's home. Leonard Eddington told authorities that he last saw her leave the house the evening before on her way to an overnight nursing job. In front of television cameras, he pleaded for her safe return.
Although neighbors reported seeing Eddington atop a bulldozer in his back yard in the weeks after his wife's disappearance, the detective investigating the murder was transferred to a special homicide task force and the case was dropped.
But neighbors in Jamul kept after authorities for years, demanding they keep the murder case active. A new sheriff's detective, Dennis J. Brugos, was assigned to the case full time. During an aerial tour of Eddington's home, authorities could see that a low-lying ravine had been filled with dirt.
For months, Brugos investigated Eddington's behavior before and after his wife's disappearance. Before she vanished, Eddington told a Navy colleague that he would "take a chain saw to the house, saw it in half, and her too if she got in the way," rather than surrender the property in a divorce settlement, Dusek said. Vickie Eddington had gone to a legal expert in the Navy to inquire about a divorce in 1985 but dropped the matter.
In early 1987, Eddington took money from their joint account and transferred it into a personal account. He took out personal ads in local newspapers and began dating a 31-year-old woman, Karen Field, whom he promised to marry by the end of 1987.
On the night Vickie Eddington disappeared, he was to meet with Field, but broke the date, saying he had to help his brother fix his car in Imperial County.
Instead, prosecutor Dusek said, Eddington killed his sleeping wife in her bed, smashing her skull with a blunt object. He carried her in bedsheets and blankets to the back yard, dug a hole and dropped her in, Dusek said, covering the grave with a piece of chain-link fence. The area was marked with a piece of pipe, Dusek said, probably to mark erosion.
Vickie Eddington's relatives, who descended on the couple's home following the disappearance, found it odd that Eddington kept them from walking through the back yard. Eddington's defense attorney said during the trial that he simply didn't want them tearing up the property with their dirt bikes.
Last December, nearly five years after Vickie Eddington vanished, detectives knocked on Eddington's front door and handed him a search warrant to begin digging. His 8-year-old daughter remarked, "You're here to find Mommy in the back yard."
Paulette Johnson, a neighbor who kept after authorities for years to get the case resolved after seeing Eddington on a bulldozer, praised the efforts of Dusek and Brugos.
"I thank them for everything that's happened," she said. "They have become family. It took someone to believe us and have enough faith that Vickie was there and to do something and follow it through. Vickie was wonderful."
Throughout the trial, Eddington's new wife, whom he married after his arrest, sat in the courtroom. He did not testify.
Eddington's attorney suggested that Vickie Eddington had either run away from home before being murdered or had been abducted from her car the night it broke down.
The defense presented testimony from Dennis Faulkner, a clerk at a nearby 7-Eleven store, who said he saw Vickie Eddington the night she disappeared. She had come into the market seeking change for a $20 bill so she could make a phone call to report a flat tire.
However, under cross-examination by prosecutors, Faulkner had difficulty clearly identifying certain characteristics, such as the clothing she was wearing the night she disappeared.
"I think the jury saw it the obvious way. . . . She was buried in his own back yard," Dusek said. "You cannot get around that."
After the verdict, the jury met with attorneys in the case.
"It sounded like the most important thing to them was that she was in the back yard," Dusek said. "There seemed to be a general consensus that she did not make it out of the house that night."
Eddington will be formally sentenced by Superior Court Judge Herbert J. Exarhos on Nov. 6, although it has already been predetermined that he will spend life in prison without parole.
Durovic said she will ask for a new trial at that time and will appeal the case if necessary. Prior to the start of the trial, Exarhos denied the attorney's request to present evidence that Vickie Eddington was killed by a California Highway Patrol officer whom she was dating at the time.
In the meantime, the murder victim's family is planning a memorial service Oct. 17 in Jamul.
"Now it's over and we don't have to worry about that anymore," said her mother, Alice Vess. "So once we put her in the ground, thank God we can finally say we've done it."