'Guilty,' Says Mt. Baldy Murder Jury

Times Staff Writer

Five years after a Korean War veteran disappeared from his Mt. Baldy cabin, a San Bernardino County jury on Tuesday convicted a woman accused of murdering the man for his money, then dismembering him with a chain saw and scattering the remains.

Marcia Ann Johnson, 44, sat calmly with her hands folded atop the defendant's table as Superior Court Judge Dennis Cole read the jury's verdict: guilty of first-degree murder and 25 other counts related to the murder of Jack Irwin, including burglary, grand theft and insurance fraud.

In wiretapped cellphone calls to family and friends and in a videotaped interview with San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives, Johnson admitted that she shot Irwin in the back of the head. She told detectives she used a chain saw to cut off his head, then cursed at it as she rolled it down a hill off Mt. Baldy Road.

Irwin's remains have never been found.

"It was very shocking to hear that intricate detail of the dismemberment," said George Medeiros, the jury foreman. "That part of the story was actually kind of irrelevant to us because we were focused solely on the specific count of murder, but I would say that, in our minds, her doing that fit her character."

Johnson faces possible life imprisonment. Her sentencing hearing is set for Dec. 15.

"Jack has to be so pleased by this," said Sandy Bailey, a longtime friend of Irwin's who said Irwin was her son's godfather.

Irwin, a 71-year-old retiree, was last seen Sept. 13, 1999.

Months earlier, Irwin was befriended by Johnson and her lesbian partner, Judy Gellert, who met him when they expressed interest in renting his cabin. Johnson and Gellert ultimately persuaded Irwin to name them in his financial trust and grant them access to his bank accounts.

San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Tristan Svare said the pair defrauded Irwin's estate of an estimated $450,000 by cashing his retirement checks, selling his car and claiming a fire insurance loss against the cabin. In her confession, Johnson said she burned down the cabin after Irwin's murder because she was seeing visions of the man.

Irwin's disappearance was first investigated as a missing-persons case by Upland police. Johnson told police that she had dropped him off at a Metrolink station and that he was headed to Seattle.

Without a corpse, the case stagnated, even as Irwin's neighbors in Mt. Baldy and near Irwin's other home in Upland told police that Johnson and Gellert should be investigated.

In 2002, San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives were assigned to the case and began a series of tactical moves to prompt Johnson to discuss Irwin's disappearance in telephone calls -- on phone lines that were wiretapped.

Following the sheriff's seizure of Gellert's vehicle, Johnson told friends and family she was going to "stop playing the games" and turn herself in for killing Irwin, according to court testimony. When detectives arrested her a few days later, she provided a detailed account of the killing, according to court testimony.

Johnson said she shot Irwin in the back of the head because he had criticized Gellert and had flirted with her and once exposed himself. After shooting Irwin, Johnson said, she cut off his head, hands and feet with a chain saw and then disposed of evidence on Mt. Baldy, in Wrightwood and in trash dumpsters.

Stephan J. Willms, Johnson's attorney, argued that his client's descriptions of the murder were delusions triggered by her ongoing battle with bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse. Johnson did not testify.

"We put no stock in her mental health [alibi]," said a Rancho Cucamonga juror.

"Everything together -- the finances, the wiretapped calls, the confession ... all of the ingredients convinced us she did it," he said.

Medeiros said Johnson's phone calls and confession "had a lot of weight with us ... because those were the only words we heard from her."

Gellert accepted a plea deal earlier this year, pleading guilty to one count of receiving stolen property in exchange for testifying against Johnson. If a judge determines Nov. 15 that Gellert's testimony was truthful, she will be sentenced to up to one year in prison, three years' probation and ordered to pay the county $150,000 in restitution.

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