Federal prosecutors dropped their plan to seek the death penalty against white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. after getting access to voluminous medical records showing that he had tried for a decade to get treatment for homicidal and suicidal urges, U.S. Atty. Alejandro N. Mayorkas said Wednesday.
In agreeing to allow Furrow to plead guilty and receive a mandatory life prison term for his hate-motivated shooting rampage in the San Fernando Valley, prosecutors were following Justice Department protocols that require them to weigh mitigating factors, such as mental illness, when seeking the death penalty.
Mayorkas said his prosecutors did not possess those records when they obtained permission from former U.S. Atty. Janet Reno early last year to bring a capital case against Furrow for killing a Filipino American mail carrier and seriously wounding four children and an adult at a Jewish community center in Granada Hills on Aug. 10, 1999.
After surrendering the next day, Furrow told FBI agents that he killed Joseph S. Ileto because the postal worker "looked Asian or Latino" and that he shot up the North Valley Jewish Community Center to send a "wake-up call for Americans to kill Jews."
Furrow, a 39-year-old engineer from Washington state, entered his guilty plea early Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Nora Manella. He showed no emotion during the proceedings and calmly answered most of her questions with a "Yes, Your Honor," or "No, Your Honor."
Manella set sentencing for March 26.
Mayorkas said afterward that Furrow, a follower of the racist and anti-Semitic group Aryan Nations, "is a pathetic, cowardly man. What he did was remind us that we are all one."
While sharply condemning Furrow's "racial bigotry and religious intolerance," Mayorkas said the defendant had a long history of mental problems. He said his office did not know how extensive or serious those troubles were until late last year, when the federal public defender turned over Furrow's complete medical files.
Two government psychiatrists reviewed and analyzed more than 2,000 pages of medical records going back 10 years. They showed that Furrow had checked into psychiatric hospitals on three occasions and made frequent visits to hospital emergency rooms, complaining about everything from panic attacks to wanting to kill himself and others.
In October 1998, Furrow tried to commit himself to a private psychiatric facility. While being interviewed, he became angry and threatened staff members with a knife. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to six months in jail.
The psychiatrists also studied records of Furrow's outbursts at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center, where he has been in solitary confinement since his arrest. Even while behind bars, Furrow continued to threaten to kill nonwhites, including a Latino inmate and several guards, according to court records.
He also was said to have threatened violence against his former wife, vowing to deliver her son's head to her on a platter.
Furrow, wearing handcuffs and leg irons, was brought into Manella's courtroom shortly after 8 a.m Wednesday. He smiled and joked with his lawyers before the judge took the bench.
In response to one query by the judge, Furrow said he was taking five medications, and rattled off their names. But, he said, "I feel clear-headed enough to follow" the proceedings.
Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein read into the record a chronological account of Furrow's odyssey--from the day he left Washington state with seven automatic weapons and several thousand dollars stolen from his father to the day he surrendered to the FBI.
She disclosed one new detail: When Furrow arrived in Las Vegas after fleeing Los Angeles, he looked up the names of synagogues there, and considered attacking one of them.
"However, because his picture was being broadcast on national television and because he believed he had already succeeded in making the statement he wished to make, the defendant decided to 'get it over with' and turn himself in to the FBI in Las Vegas," Bernstein said.
She told Manella that Furrow was not insane when he killed Ileto or when he fired 70 rounds into the community center, wounding a receptionist, a teenage counselor and three boys, ages 5 and 6.
Manella told Furrow that by agreeing to plead guilty he was also agreeing to spend the rest of his life in prison. The plea agreement bars him from appealing the sentence or seeking a presidential pardon. Furrow said he understood.
"Are you pleading guilty here because you are in fact guilty?" the judge asked.
"Yes, your honor," he said.
"I find the pleas to be freely and knowingly made," Manella said. "The pleas in this case are accepted."
The Ileto family sat in the back row of the courtroom. A few young women fought back tears. Later, the family joined Mayorkas, the prosecution team and other law enforcement officials at a news conference.
"We are just relieved that this is closed, that we don't have to go to court to hear any testimony," Ileto's brother Ismael said on behalf of the family.
Relatives of the North Valley Jewish Community Center victims did not attend the court hearing. But Nancy Parris Moskowitz, the center's president, said afterward: "I think it means that a door has closed finally."
Like the Ileto family, she said, many members of the center are relieved that a possibly lengthy trial has been averted.
"There are some individuals who had trepidation about going to the courthouse, seeing this individual, and just reliving the pain of having to see him," she said. "This allows us to not have to go through that."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, said he was satisfied that Furrow will go to prison for life.
"In one respect Buford Furrow was right when he said he was trying to register his crime as a 'wake-up call to America,' " Hier said. "What these haters are doing in this country and all over the world is showing how much damage a single individual bent on destroying society can accomplish."
Furrow's parents, who live outside Olympia, Wash., could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but a neighbor who is close to them, Clint Merrill, said the couple have taken all the publicity about their son "pretty hard."
Debra Mathews, Furrow's ex-wife, had no comment.
In addition to the federal charges to which he pleaded guilty, Furrow faces murder and hate-crime charges filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. A spokesman for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Wednesday that in light of Furrow's federal court plea, it appears as if any local prosecution would be considered double jeopardy under the state penal code.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A Hater's Odyssey
1961-75: Buford O. Furrow is born to Buford Furrow Sr., a career Air Force man, and his wife, Monnie. Graduates from Timberline High School near Olympia, Wash., in 1979. Few remember him, except to say he was an awkward loner who was good in math and liked engineering.
February-October 1980: Enlists in Army, reportedly repairs helicopters at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Ala. Knee injury forces him to leave, friends say.
1989: Reportedly attends Aryan World Congress in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
1990-93: Works for Northrop Grumman Corp. at its B-2 Stealth bomber facility in Palmdale.
1993-95: Moves near Aryan Nations compound in Idaho and volunteers for guard duty.
Oct. 28, 1998: Goes to private psychiatric facility and tries to commit himself. He argues with staff, threatens them with a knife. Is arrested and tells police he is a white separatist.
October 1998-May 1999: Sent to a Washington state psychiatric facility. Returned to jail to await trial. Pleads guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. Is released after getting time off for good behavior. Moves in with parents in Olympia.
Aug. 10, 1999: Enters North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills and begins shooting. Wounded in the attack are 68-year-old receptionist Isabelle Shalometh, 16-year-old camp counselor Mindy Finkelstein, 6-year-olds James Zidell and Joshua Stepakoff, and 5-year-old Benjamin Kadish, the most seriously injured.
Soon after, kills postal worker Joseph Ileto in Chatsworth. At 8 p.m. hails a cab and pays the driver to take him to Las Vegas.
Aug. 11, 1999: After seeing his face on television, turns himself in at the FBI office in Las Vegas, confessing, "You're looking for me. I killed the kids in Los Angeles."
Feb. 18, 2000: Federal prosecutors announce they will seek the death penalty.
Oct. 2000: Federal public defenders file a sealed notice with the court of their intention to raise a mental illness defense during his trial.
Jan. 24, 2001: In a deal sparing him a possible death sentence, he pleads guilty.
Source: Times news files
Times staff writers Kim Murphy, Josh Meyer and Richard Fausset contributed to this story.