A Full Legal Docket

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The testimony was chilling and prophetic.

Just two months before the Sept. 11 attacks, convicted Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam testified in federal court that he planned to start a holy war against the United States by blowing up Los Angeles International Airport around New Year's Day 2000.

The defendant told a jury that he had been trained at one of Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps and that other guerrillas planned to attack elsewhere in America.

Ressam, who had been convicted in Los Angeles in April of conspiring to commit an act of international terrorism, was testifying in July before the New York jury that ultimately found Mokhtar Haouari guilty of helping him.

"Mokhtar, I'm not going to America for tourism," Ressam testified that he had told Haouari. "I am going on some very important and dangerous business."

Even as such unsettling revelations about terrorism dominated news headlines in 2001, there was no shortage of other troubling crimes, court cases and legal issues that had nothing to do with jihad.

Among them: Actor Robert Blake's wife was fatally shot; former respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar was arrested in connection with six deaths at a Glendale hospital; murderer Robert Lee Massie was executed by lethal injection; and a court battle began over who owns a record-setting home run baseball hit by the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds.

Also, the Rampart Division corruption scandal within the Los Angeles Police Department seemed to be winding down, while Minnesota homemaker Sara Jane Olson was facing prison time stemming from her 1970s ties to the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

Campus Shootings Rocked San Diego

Early in the year, back-to-back incidents of school violence erupted near San Diego. On March 5, 15-year-old Charles "Andy" Williams allegedly opened fire at Santana High School in suburban Santee, killing two students and injuring 13 other people. The freshman had been threatening to do so for weeks, but his friends didn't take him seriously.

Finally cornered in the restroom where the shooting began, Williams allegedly surrendered with the words, "It's only me."

While San Diegans were still grieving the tragedy at Santana, not far away, at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, senior Jason Hoffman stopped his pickup in front of the campus and started shooting with a military-style shotgun.

The gunfire wounded three students and two teachers before an officer stopped Hoffman by shooting him in the jaw. Shortly after pleading guilty in September and agreeing to a life term in prison, Hoffman hanged himself in his jail cell.

During the summer, in suburban Sacramento, Nikolay Soltys allegedly stabbed and killed his pregnant wife, 3-year-old son and four other relatives.

Soltys, a Ukrainian immigrant, dodged a nationwide manhunt and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list before he was arrested in his mother's backyard after 10 days on the loose in August. Police said he told them his family had besmirched his name. His rampage frightened tight-knit Slavic enclaves from Seattle to North Carolina.

Three weeks later, Sacramento security guard Joseph Ferguson vowed to outdo Soltys when he armed himself with high-powered weapons and put on a protective vest before heading to a city maintenance yard to hunt down his co-workers. He killed five people and wounded two others before taking his own life. He left behind a suicide videotape blaming his job and his girlfriend for his actions.

In yet another gruesome case, Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old college lacrosse coach from San Francisco, died after being mauled by two large Presa Canario dogs, Bane and Hera, in January.

The dog owners, attorneys Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, are accused of training their animals to fight, attack or kill. A grand jury indicted Knoller on charges including second-degree murder, while Noel faces lesser counts. Their trial, which has been moved to Los Angeles, is scheduled to begin in January.

Southern California had its share of widely publicized crimes--and high-profile trials--as well.

A Newport Beach mystery came to a dramatic close in February when a jury convicted a man accused of killing his wife and dumping her body during a birthday cruise. The verdict in the Eric Bechler trial ended a riveting courtroom drama complete with tales of fast living and a confession secretly taped by his model girlfriend.

The mystery over the 1997 disappearance of Pegye Bechler was the talk of Newport Beach and drew overflow crowds to the Santa Ana courtroom. Bechler maintained that his 38-year-old wife, a strong swimmer and avid triathlete, disappeared while piloting a rented speedboat and towing him on a bodyboard. But prosecutors argued that Bechler bludgeoned his wife to cash in a $2-million life insurance policy.

The same jury later recommended the death sentence for Bechler.

Another infamous murder case--this one from 25 years ago--also was thrust into the forefront this year.

Edward Charles Allaway had spent most of the past quarter century in state hospitals after a judge declared him not guilty by reason of insanity for the July 12, 1976, shooting spree that left seven dead at the Cal State Fullerton library--the worst mass killing in Orange County history.

But this year, Allaway made his most serious bid yet to be released from a state hospital. He won the backing of some of his doctors, who said he no longer poses a threat to society.

Victims' rights groups and the families of those killed at the library immediately moved to oppose Allaway's release. Allaway took the stand in his own defense, saying he couldn't remember the shooting spree but insisting that he no longer suffers from mental illness. A judge, however, rejected Allaway's bid for freedom.

Judge Frank Fasel referred to the release proposal as an "experiment" he was unwilling to conduct.

Robert Blake, best known for playing a police detective in the 1970s television series "Baretta," was in the middle of a real-life crime story in May.

The actor told police he found his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, shot in the head in his Dodge Stealth, parked on a street in Studio City. The couple had just dined at an Italian restaurant and had returned to their car about a block away when, Blake said, he left briefly to retrieve a gun he had left at their table.

No one has been arrested in the slaying.

In August, a standoff between federal agents and a former Arcadia police officer terrified residents of an upscale Santa Clarita Valley neighborhood. The daylong siege began as authorities tried to serve a search warrant on James Allen Beck, who they thought was stockpiling illegal weapons at his home. Beck refused to come out and started firing.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Hagop "Jake" Kuredjian was fatally shot during the gun battle, and a massive fire consumed Beck and his home.

High-Profile Cases Find Home in L.A.

Several high-profile cases landed in Los Angeles area courtrooms this year.

In October, Sara Jane Olson, who was arrested two years ago near her Minnesota home after 23 years of living under an assumed name, unexpectedly pleaded guilty to attempting to blow up LAPD cars in an effort to kill officers in 1975.

But Olson, formerly known as Kathleen Soliah, later decided that she wanted to withdraw her plea. At an unusual hearing complete with a defense attorney not showing up because of bad karma and a prosecutor displaying a life-size replica bomb, Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler called Olson a liar and declared her guilty. He scheduled sentencing for Jan. 18.

White supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. cut a deal to save his life by pleading guilty in federal court to fatally shooting postal worker Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American, and seriously wounding five people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in August 1999. Furrow was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

And the lurid mystery of the "Wonderland Murders" came to an end when former Hollywood nightclub owner Eddie Nash pleaded guilty in September and was sentenced for racketeering and conspiring to murder four people in a drug den 20 years ago.

Several legal decisions in 2001 are expected to be far-reaching.

In one case, a federal appeals court ruled that a 50-year prison term for a repeat offender who stole $154 worth of videotapes constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision could affect hundreds of defendants who were sentenced under the 1994 three-strikes statute.

In another case, the California Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of a juvenile crime initiative that gives prosecutors--not judges--the power to decide if certain youths should be tried as adults.

Among the early beneficiaries of Proposition 36 was actor Robert Downey Jr., who was sentenced to treatment for a cocaine possession charge.

"The courts are now starting to look at that wave of legislation that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s and are saying, 'Maybe we've gone too far with these punitive measures,' " Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco, said in an interview.

And a far more rehabilitative initiative, which requires judges to sentence many nonviolent drug offenders to probation rather than jail, took effect in California in July.

The year also brought the June death of California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk, an influential and widely acclaimed senior member of the court. Gov. Gray Davis appointed U.S. District Judge Carlos Moreno to replace Mosk, and in October he became the first Latino on the court in 12 years and its only current Democrat.

Perhaps one of the year's most memorable stories involved a clever escapee and a picture of entertainer Eddie Murphy.

Just hours after Kevin Pullum's July conviction in Van Nuys for attempted murder, he breezed unnoticed past armed guards and escaped from the downtown Twin Towers jail, wearing a makeshift fake ID bearing a picture of Murphy. Pullum spent 16 days of freedom shopping and visiting his family and girlfriend before being captured near skid row. He was eventually sentenced to 65 years to life in prison for the attempted murder.

Sheriff's Department officials, surprised by Pullum's ingenuity and bravado, revamped inmate security.

"It certainly prompted a review of our security measures," said Capt. Rick Adams, who oversees the Men's Central Jail. "Never in our wildest imaginations did we believe he escaped by walking out through a front door."

Times staff writers Maura Dolan, Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione contributed to this report.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Friday December 28, 2001 Orange County Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction Sentencing--A story in Thursday's editions incorrectly stated the sentence that convicted murderer Eric Bechler received. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°