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Death row inmate, 58, dies of cancer

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- More than a quarter-century after he was sentenced to death, a man convicted of carrying out the contract killings of three people in a Fresno grocery store has died of natural causes at a hospital in Bakersfield.

Billy Ray Hamilton, 58, used a shotgun in the Sept. 4, 1980, murders of Douglas Scott White, Bryon William Schletewitz and Josephine Linda Rocha at Fran’s Market.

Hamilton died Monday after a long battle with cancer. He had been transferred this year from San Quentin State Prison to the medical facility at Corcoran State Prison, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“It’s not unusual now to have inmates on death row die before the lawful justice can be executed,” said Ward A. Campbell, a supervising deputy attorney general who had worked on the case since it started. “I think it’s regrettable for the victims and for the system.”

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Hamilton committed the murders on behalf of Clarence Ray Allen, a friend he had met while the two served time at Folsom State Prison in the 1970s. Allen, in prison for arranging a previous murder, paid Hamilton $25,000 to kill eight witnesses to that crime. Of Hamilton’s victims, only Schletewitz, 27, the store owner’s son, was on the hit list. White, 18, and Josephine, 17, were employees.

Patricia Pendergrass, 57, Schletewitz’s older sister, said she would have preferred to see Hamilton put to death. She witnessed Allen’s execution last year.

She said she was not happy about Hamilton’s death.

“The whole thing is very sad and ugly,” Pendergrass said. “He lived a very hateful, ugly life and died a pretty sad death, I think.”

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Hamilton, caught after he was arrested as a suspect in a Modesto robbery, was convicted in 1981 in the grocery store killings on three counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances, and a jury sentenced him to death. He entered death row at San Quentin on Oct. 19, 1981.

Allen was executed on Jan. 17, 2006. Another accomplice, Connie Sue Barbo, is serving life without parole at the California Institution for Women.

Hamilton’s case was caught up in challenges to the death penalty in the 1980s; his sentence was reversed by the state Supreme Court in 1985 but reinstated in 1988.

Executions in California have been halted since February 2006 because of legal challenges to the use of lethal injection.

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com


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