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Friendship Led Police to 2 in Fresno Slayings : Crime: The alleged triggerman and the heir to a family fortune are accused of killing three people in 1992. Detectives say their brazen behavior was their undoing.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The gunman who executed the Ewell family on Easter Sunday, 1992, in Fresno was a stickler for detail. He had gone so far as to shave his entire body before entering the Ewell house.

Inside, authorities say, he waited for the victims for 12 hours, sitting on a plastic sheet so that he would not leave behind even an errant eyelash. His weapon of choice was a 9-millimeter assault-style rifle from a little-known Colorado arms manufacturer, the better to confound investigators.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 17, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 17, 1995 Valley Edition Part A Page 3 Zones Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong photo--A photo of Peter Radovcich was incorrectly identified as Joel Radovcich, his brother, in Tuesday’s Times. Joel Radovcich has been charged with three counts of murder in the killing of a family in Fresno. Peter Radovcich was detained by police but released after agreeing to testify against his brother.
PHOTO: Joel Radovcich
PHOTO: Peter Radovcich

But the gun barrel eventually turned up, buried under two inches of dirt in a Reseda field. Unearthing the barrel brought to a close a three-year chase that ranged up and down California, leading to the arrests in March of Dana Ewell, sole heir to an $8-million estate, and Joel Radovcich, his best pal from the San Fernando Valley and the alleged triggerman.

Both are being held without bail in Fresno County Jail. Each has pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder. Prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty. A preliminary hearing is set for May 22.

Despite the attention to detail, court records and interviews show that the assailants made some glaring slip-ups. The murder weapon featured a ballistics signature so distinctive that detectives considered it as good as a fingerprint. And, sources said, although the gun was broken up and other parts tossed down storm drains and into dumpsters never to be seen again, the barrel was buried where it could be found.

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But what launched the case, court records make clear, was the brazen behavior of Ewell and Radovcich.

After the killings, they refused to hide a close friendship that began when they were in college. Radovcich moved in for a while with Ewell at his dead parents’ ranch house. Ewell paid for Radovcich’s helicopter pilot lessons. They took trips together to Mexico.

All of it, according to court records and interviews, was subsidized by the Ewell estate. All the while, authorities say, the two college whiz kids took meticulous steps to avoid detection.

They made purchases in cash. They used only pay phones. They paged each other through a system of codes that spelled out time and place. Radovcich even had a special way for Ewell, and a few carefully chosen others, to remember his pager number: Dial KILLA-J-R.

“Just play the game,” Radovcich advised one day from a pay phone, according to court records. “I think it’s going well.”

As Fresno County Sheriff’s Department detectives John Souza and Christian Curtice trailed the suspects from a 7-Eleven in Canoga Park to a leafy campus in Santa Clara, they initially worked on the theory that the Ewell estate was the sole motive for the crime. But as they dug deeper, they came to focus as well on the men’s relationship, which blossomed when they were dorm mates at Santa Clara University.

“Their relationship went far beyond a contract to kill Dana’s parents and sister,” a law enforcement source said. “They were very close and they continued to remain close after the murders. . . . It was more than money. It was that closeness that led to their undoing.”

In court affidavits, detectives took pains to note that Radovcich and Ewell appeared to be “extremely close friends whenever they were together.” The implication appeared to be that the two were lovers and intended to share the wealth.

Defense lawyers said they are aware of the suspicion and consider it a poor substitute for evidence.

“When you talk about rumors that he’s gay . . . [here’s] the answer: They’re on a campaign of character assassination to try to prejudice as many people as possible,” Dana Ewell’s longtime attorney, Fresno lawyer Richard Berman, said of authorities.

“Because they can’t prove the case in a court of law,” he said. “They just don’t have it.”

Added E. Terrence Woolf, Radovcich’s attorney: “They were arrested on the basis of basically what could be called suspicious telephone calls. I think that what [prosecutors] have now, what they have presented, is a long way from proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ewell had a strong alibi. He spent the day of the slayings--April 19, 1992--in the Bay Area with a female friend and her FBI agent father.

And, initially, the killings looked like the work of professionals.

Dead inside the adobe-style ranch house were Dale Ewell, 59; his wife Glee Ewell, 57, and their daughter Tiffany Ewell, 24. The gunman missed only once, sources said, and picked up the expended shells. Rumors swirled in Fresno about drug smugglers and foreign mobsters.

Investigators kept digging and turned their attention to the son and his best friend. Ewell, they learned, had an obsession with money, Radovcich a fascination with guns, silencers and explosives.

When detectives first interviewed Radovcich, court records show, he claimed to be a casual friend of Ewell’s. After that first meeting with police, Radovcich moved to Fresno, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa. He took costly helicopter lessons, despite having no job.

A roommate in Huntington Beach, truck driver Rick Memmen, said Radovcich never used the apartment phone: “I remember one day, I came home and he heard on the [message machine] that there was one call. I said, ‘Wonder if that’s for you or me?’ He said, all paranoid, ‘It couldn’t be for me. Nobody knows that number.’ ”

Instead, Radovcich used pay phones at 7-Elevens or grocery stores. Often, Fresno detectives--who had obtained a clone of his pager--were at the next phone over, listening to his half of the calls and using a radio transmitter to record them.

They overheard him making such comments as: “Got a lawyer,” “Twenty-five thousand big ones for doing nothing,” and “I didn’t tell them anything,” court records reveal.

In one affidavit, detectives assert that Radovcich called Dana Ewell with fears that a female friend “was going to talk” to detectives.

In another call, detectives heard Radovcich say: “They are going to lock you up,” “I can’t be around you,” “They will play on your fear,” and “I love you too.”

At one point, Radovcich sensed that something was up. He went to his pager dealer, “paranoid that police or someone was receiving his pager messages,” an affidavit says.

Ewell, meanwhile, was back in Fresno, carrying his dad’s briefcase and trying to learn the ropes at the airplane dealership that he had inherited.

For detectives, a case was taking shape. “Their behavior after the murders put the spotlight back on themselves,” said a Fresno law enforcement official. “Everything they did was like they had taken it out of some movie.”

The big break came when Souza determined that the murder weapon was no ordinary rifle. It came from a limited stock out of Feather Industries of Trinidad, Colo.

The company’s model AT-9 features what experts call a “one in 12 twist,” meaning that it spins a bullet through one complete revolution in each 12 inches of travel inside the barrel. Such a spin keeps a bullet stable and accurate in flight, like a spiraling football.

A one in 12 twist is distinctive, Feather Industries President Merv Chapman said, because the industry standard is one in nine.

In 1992, only a few AT-9s were sold to customers in California, Chapman said. On that short list was Jack Ponce, a best friend of Joel Radovcich’s older brother, Peter.

Souza confronted Ponce, who said he had bought the gun as a birthday present for himself and had received it only 11 days before the killings.

Confronted with three charges of murder, Ponce provided extensive details of the crime. He led investigators to the gun barrel, buried near Peter Radovcich’s apartment.

Peter Radovcich, 26, was detained but then released after agreeing to testify for the prosecution against his brother. Ponce, 26, has agreed to testify for prosecutors. Charges against him are expected to be dropped, and he is due in court for a hearing today in Fresno.

“It was a good case going in,” a law enforcement source said. “But the arrest of Ponce and his agreeing to turn over made it 200% better.”


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