A Moorpark man was acquitted Thursday of trying to kill his wife's ex-husband and another woman with a homemade firebomb that exploded in the couple's bedroom.
James R. McKeever, 43, spent nearly six months in Ventura County Jail before a Superior Court jury found him not guilty of two counts of premeditated attempted first-degree murder and related charges.
The wheelchair-bound defendant sat quietly by his attorney as jury foreman Robert McLay read four consecutive not-guilty verdicts. The jurors also rejected an enhancement allegation that McKeever caused great bodily injury.
Outside court, McLay said 11 of the 12 jurors were ready to acquit McKeever after just 45 minutes of deliberations, which had begun late Tuesday after a monthlong trial.
"I don't think the jury felt the state proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt," said McLay, who lives in Ventura. "There were some loose ends that just weren't proved."
McKeever was arrested Nov. 22--one day after an explosion rocked the Simi Valley home of John Monroe and his wife, Charlene Mayer. Monroe was able to soften the impact of the explosion by covering the device with blankets, but both he and his wife were injured.
McKeever was a suspect because his wife, Karen Dunlop McKeever, had once been married to Monroe, and the two were engaged in a custody battle over their 7-year-old son.
McKeever was released from jail about 3:45 p.m. Thursday, when he exited a back door in a wheelchair and was driven away by Karen McKeever. Through his wife, he declined to be interviewed.
Sheriff's Deputy Dave Smith said McKeever, who has two herniated discs, was wearing a back brace but did not appear incapacitated. "He looked pretty spry going down the elevator," he said.
Karen McKeever, who teaches at a Christian preschool, said she was at home in Moorpark when Deputy Public Defender Jean L. Farley called to tell her the verdict.
"I was very relieved it's all over now," Karen McKeever said. "I just want to get my family back together."
At the same time, she said she was angry that her husband had been held in jail for nearly six months and that sole custody of her son had been given to her ex-husband during that time. She was allowed only one supervised visit with her son each week, she said.
"What we had to go through was not fair, but it's past us now and we have to look forward," she said.
Farley said her faith in the judicial system was restored by the acquittal. She said she suspects Monroe committed the bombing himself in an attempt to win the custody battle and to increase his share when the marital assets are divided.
"I personally feel that (Monroe) did set this thing up, and I personally believe his wife was involved too," she said outside court. "His motive is the custody and money."
Farley also said she fears retaliation by Monroe, who she said followed her around and intimidated her throughout her defense of McKeever.
"I'm pretty paranoid," she said. "I have security now, which I've never had in my life. Frankly, I'm frightened."
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Donna W. Thonis said she believes Farley's fears of Monroe are unfounded.
"I am positive he did not bomb himself," she said. "I've known Mr. Monroe over a period of these weeks preparing for this case. I have observed the family. I saw all of the evidence.
"I've been a prosecutor for 13 years and I guarantee you John Monroe is not following Ms. Farley," she said.
The verdicts came minutes after Judge Allan L. Steele resolved questions the jury had raised about their instructions on Wednesday. Thonis said she was disappointed with the jury's decision.
"I have no doubt that the defendant committed this crime, but I have no quarrels with the jury's verdict and I have no complaints about the judge or defense attorney," Thonis said. "I felt there was enough evidence to convict."
McKeever told investigators that his disability would have prevented him from throwing the firebomb.
But one juror was not convinced.
"I myself thought he could have done it, but it wasn't proven," said Bruce Holden of Ventura, who added that the prosecutor did not place McKeever at the scene. "Most likely somebody would have seen something."
Some jurors said the Simi Valley Police Department botched the investigation from the beginning. For instance, jurors said, the bomb was allegedly thrown through the bedroom window, but police failed to preserve the broken windowpane.
"The police really didn't do their job," said Janice LeFore of Westlake. "There was lost evidence and there were errors in some of the reports.
"They didn't look in any other direction. I think they just wanted a quick conviction."
Julius Cooper of Simi Valley said many of the jurors had a difficult time believing the bomb--which consisted of a bottle of gasoline, a propane tank and a pipe connected by duct tape--was actually thrown through the window.
"The majority (of jurors) think it was actually set off inside," Cooper said. But when asked who may have set the firebomb, Cooper hedged: "We don't know that."
McLay, the jury foreman, said at one point jurors listed 19 "strong doubts" on a piece of paper and attached it to the jury room wall.
Larry Asplind of Oxnard said the case was too circumstantial to warrant a guilty verdict.
"No matter how we approached it, the only hard evidence was the tape and the propane tank found in (McKeever's) garage," he said. "And that's not enough to convict a man."