Murder and kidnaping charges were dropped Friday against Joe Hunt, the leader of the Billionaire Boys Club who represented himself in a trial that ended in a deadlock and who drew unusual public support from some jurors.
San Mateo Superior Court Judge Ara Serverian ordered the dismissal at the request of state prosecutor John Vance, who said charges may be refiled later after further investigation.
Attorney Douglas Gray of Redwood City, who served as an adviser to Hunt as the defendant presented evidence and argued his own case, hailed Hunt's performance in court.
"Obviously an acquittal would have been preferable, but given the odds facing Mr. Hunt . . . the result he was able to fashion was just one step short of a miracle," Gray said after the dismissal. The prosecution had contended that Hunt, 33, and other members of the club of wealthy young Southern California men kidnaped Hedayat Eslamina, 56, a wealthy Belmont businessman, in July, 1984, in an extortion plot.
Eslamina, a former adviser to the Shah of Iran, apparently suffocated after allegedly being chloroformed and forced into a steamer trunk for an auto trip to Los Angeles.
In a separate case, Hunt in April, 1987, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of Ronald Levin of Beverly Hills, whom prosecutors said had become involved in one of the club's investment schemes. An appeal by Hunt is pending before the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.
Friday's dismissal climaxed the costliest and one of the most unusual cases in the history of the suburban county, just south of San Francisco. The trial lasted nine months before the jury reported its deadlock Dec. 9 after 26 days of deliberation.
More than 120 witnesses were called and more than 600 exhibits were introduced in a trial that cost more than $3 million, according to county officials. Hunt reportedly spent about 9,000 hours in his jail cell reading law books and preparing to present his case in court with the aid of attorney Gray and others.
Courtroom observers generally credited Hunt with a masterful trial performance. When the mistrial was declared after the jury remained divided 8 to 4 for acquittal, several jurors said they were so convinced of his innocence that they were willing to perform legal research or other tasks to help him gain his freedom.
"Joe Hunt has good in him, and I can't see an innocent man being in jail for something he did not do," Sandra Achiro, 27, said after the trial was concluded. "He should have his wings again and be able to fly."
Other jurors disagreed, suggesting that the defendant was merely grandstanding in court. "Joe Hunt would do well in the vanity plates section in prison," said Harriet Kumetat, 62.
In court Friday, Hunt argued that if state prosecutors choose to refile charges, they should do so now because further delay would improperly impede his ability to defend himself. "I'm ready for retrial now," he said.
Gray said in an interview that although the state could legally refile charges, he considered it unlikely that authorities would seek to retry Hunt.
"The death of Mr. Eslamina occurred eight years ago," Gray noted. "If Mr. Hunt were now forced to wait months or even years, all of the evidence might dissipate to the winds and he simply wouldn't have the ability to defend himself at that point."
Prosecutor Vance could not be reached for comment following Friday's proceedings.
Hunt now will return to Folsom State Prison pending further action on his appeal in the Levin case.