COLUMN ONE : Time Dulls Rage Over ’62 Murder : A Central Valley town rallied against previous bids to parole a man convicted of killing a teen-ager with her sewing shears. But Hanford isn’t so tiny now--and violence is no longer a stranger.
Booker T. Hillery comes up for parole today, but there will be no communal protest from this century-old city amid the cotton fields and peach orchards of Kings County.
This fact is worth noting because the people of Hanford were not always silent on the matter. Every other time the question of parole arose, the town drew up in outrage. As recently as two years ago, thousands of citizens filled petitions demanding that Hillery remain locked up.
But Hanford is no longer the drowsy little farm town it was in 1962, when Hillery murdered 15-year-old Marlene Miller in a bloody act that most residents believed was impossible in the peaceful place they called home.
Steady growth has tripled the population to 33,000 in 30 years, and newcomers now vastly outnumber the aging generation who were touched by Hillery’s brutal deed and vowed never to forget.
Along with this transformation has come another that is mirrored in many once-small California towns--a new sensibility about crime. The clean canvas that made Hillery’s violence look and feel so shocking is quite splotched. Murder is no stranger anymore, and that, combined with the perpetual dose of mayhem delivered by television from nearby Fresno and the world beyond, has finally ended Hanford’s rural innocence.
“Hillery used to be the bogyman incarnate here--the guy parents would tell their kids about when they were warning them about not talking to strangers,” said Patrick Hart, a Kings County prosecutor. Now, he added, bogymen are everywhere, and Hanford’s most fearsome villain simply does not stand out like before.
Marlene Miller was home alone the evening of March 21, 1962, sewing a new dress for her very first date. Stitching away, the high school sophomore did not hear the screen being pried off a bedroom window, nor the footsteps of the man creeping up behind her.
An honor student and 4-H Club member, Marlene scuffled with her attacker but lost. Dragged outside and hogtied, she was stabbed in the chest with her engraved sewing shears.
When Marlene’s father--an irrigation ditch tender--and mother returned home from night school about 10 p.m., they found the iron hot and the television blaring. Corky MacFarlane, the Kings County sheriff’s deputy on duty, found blood in the moonlit back yard, but Marlene’s body did not turn up until daybreak.
“We lowered the water in the irrigation ditch behind the house,” MacFarlane, now retired, said in an interview, “and there she was, with her cutoff Levi’s ripped and one tennis shoe on.”
Before long, investigators found a boot print, tire tracks and a pair of soggy milking gloves scattered down the road from the Miller place. These clues, plus a witness’s description of a 1953 Plymouth parked near the family’s home, pointed to a local dairy hand on parole for a rape conviction--Booker T. Hillery.
He insisted that he was innocent, that he had been singled out because of his race (African-American) and criminal history. A jury disagreed, convicting him of murder. He was sentenced to death.
Longtime residents say it is difficult to exaggerate the influences that Marlene’s killing had on the community psyche of Hanford in 1962. Suddenly, children were not safe in their own homes. Suddenly, said June Barberick, owner of a local dry cleaners, people eyed strangers warily and began locking their doors.
“It was so heinous, this killing of a little girl, that it was somehow unbelievable,” said Phil West, former principal at Hanford High School, where Marlene was enrolled. “The feeling was total shock.”
Hanford’s population was about 10,000 then, and “you knew everybody in town, or believed you did,” said Mayor John Lehn, a native. “Kids rode their bikes everywhere,” and until the murder, parents never worried.
Homicide and other violent crimes had been foreign concepts in Hanford, 30 miles from Fresno across the San Joaquin Valley. When killings occurred--there were three, plus Marlene’s, in all of Kings County in 1962--they happened in the isolated camps of cotton pickers far from town.
“The only people dying (violently) then were laborers who’d get stabbed in a fight and then bleed to death before we got them to the hospital,” MacFarlane said. The sheriff, he added, didn’t even bother with night patrols until about the time of Marlene’s death.
Against this bucolic backdrop, the murder was a mighty jolt. The fact that Hillery’s case never seemed to reach a final conclusion, residents say, helped to sustain the anxious mood.
His death sentence was reversed and reimposed twice, and then in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his conviction. Concluding that Hillery had been a victim of discrimination because blacks were purposely excluded from the grand jury that indicted him, the justices ordered that he be retried or set free.
The retrial--24 years after the crime--was a colossal undertaking. Key witnesses had died, others had moved. Larry Orth, an investigator assigned to assemble evidence for the prosecution, vividly remembers the pressure he felt from a community terrified that Hillery might prevail and get out.
“Imagine being the investigator who let that happen,” Orth said. “I don’t think I would have been welcome around here anymore.”
The jury’s verdict was again one of guilty, and this time Hillery got a life term. Now 62 and in the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, up the valley from Hanford, Hillery is No. 2 on the list of longest-serving inmates in the state penal system.
Hillery, a native of Texas who has two sons living in Stockton, declined to be interviewed. But his attorney, Patricia Cassady, said Hillery maintains his innocence and wants to clear his name.
“He’s been in there a good long while,” said his father, Booker Hillery Sr., who visited his son until he suffered two strokes. “We’re thinking maybe this time things might go his way.”
The retrial and the parole hearings--which come up every two years--have rekindled old memories and kept emotions raw for some in Hanford. Dr. Brent Madill, an optometrist and former mayor, said, “It seemed the trauma of that case just wouldn’t go away.”
Marlene’s mother still lives in town and tends flowers grown from cuttings taken at her daughter’s funeral. Marlene’s father, who fought a deep depression after the murder, has passed away. Marlene’s brother, Walter, who was 19 when his sister died, is a Hanford developer and joined previous campaigns to keep Hillery locked up.
The Millers declined to be interviewed, but in 1989, Walter Miller recorded a videotape for the parole board, summing up the family’s anguish and arguments on why Hillery should not be released.
“The trauma that a family goes through when this happens is indescribable,” Miller says on the tape, his voice low and hollow and his eyes avoiding the camera. Time, he noted, “is typically an ally in a normal death,” because “you do not allow these thoughts to be brought forward again.”
The “sad thing” about Marlene’s killing, her brother said, “is that it continually is dredged up again through the various trials and parole hearings.”
Vacaville officials call Hillery a model prisoner, and his attorney argues that he is “very suitable for parole. He has acquired a vocation, has an excellent discipline record, has family support and has done his time--a huge amount of time. He’s an old man now.”
A three-member panel of the state Board of Prison Terms will weigh such arguments as it considers the key question at the parole hearing today: Would Hillery pose an unreasonable risk to the community if released?
The Kings County district attorney contends that he would and will send a representative to make that case. Walter Miller’s videotaped statement will be resubmitted with a note declaring that the family’s feelings have not changed.
At Hillery’s past parole hearings the board also was given petitions signed by up to one-third of Hanford’s residents. But the board will hear no public outcry today. A spokeswoman said no new letters, petitions or community requests to testify about Hillery had arrived.
Explanations, residents say, lie in the changes that have occurred in their city over three decades. In the most basic sense, the community has outgrown the murder. The fixtures of Marlene’s childhood--her house, her high school--are long gone. Additions include a new mall, a Wal-Mart store, sprawling housing tracts and a quaintly restored downtown marketed as a tourist destination.
Meanwhile, the community of people affected by the murder has shrunk. “We’ve buried a lot of them,” said MacFarlane, the former sheriff’s deputy who works for the local funeral home, “and the rest are getting old or have moved away.”
The physical metamorphosis, however, is only part of the story. Along with the new people and the new schools and the new stores has come a new perspective on crime. What once was shocking, residents concede sadly, is almost commonplace.
There was, most notably, the 1984 case of Kevin Yocum, the teen-age son of prominent farmers who hired two friends to murder his parents.
“After that one, you just sort of threw up your hands,” said Barberick, the owner of the dry cleaners. “Imagine, a local boy having his parents killed? What had the world come to?”
Presently, the Kings County district attorney has nine homicides in the hopper. Prosecutor Patrick Hart ticks them off from memory: the elderly man stabbed 76 times, the woman accused of torturing her two children and poisoning one of them, the housewife-poet who was raped and strangled with a jump rope. . . .
“Should I continue?” Hart asked. “I can’t remember a time when we’ve had this many.”
The news from Fresno is even grimmer. Reports of gang killings, carjackings and other viciousness, Hanford residents say, make them fearful of visiting their closest big city. Many recall their relief when the shopping mall opened here last year, making Fresno trips less necessary.
At the Hanford Chamber of Commerce, Ralph Tucci considers the effect of all this and says that Hillery’s crime has, in essence, been eclipsed.
“It’s not that (Marlene’s) murder is no longer an outrage--it is and always will be,” he said. “It’s just that there are so many other outrages all around us now, that one just sort of blends in.”
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