Tuesday, July 7, 2009
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Man Who Killed Ex-Girlfriend
Possibility That Victim Was Still Alive Justified Warrantless Search, Justices Rule Unanimously
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the capital conviction of a San Diego man, based in part on evidence recovered by police officers after they conducted a warrantless entry of the storage rooms under his apartment out of concern that the mother of his child—who had been missing for over three weeks—was locked inside.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Marvin R. Baxter said that the San Diego Police Department had an objectively urgent need to try and locate Beatrice Toronczak, justifying their entry into the storage areas of the apartment complex at 7007 Saranac in San Diego, where Ramon Rogers worked as the resident manager.
Rogers and Toronczak had a young son together, and Toronczak moved with the child from Poland to live with Rogers.
In February 1996, shortly after Toronczak had moved into Rogers’ apartment, she disappeared. Rogers allegedly expressed no concern over Toronczak and made no efforts to locate her, according to testimony.
He also told friends and Toronczak’s mother inconsistent stories regarding her whereabouts and declined to file a missing person report.
On March 6, 1996, a missing person report was filed on behalf of Toronczak’s mother, who said she had not spoken to her daughter in three to four weeks.
Detective Richard Carlson reviewed the report five days later and telephoned Rogers to ask how long Toronczak had been gone. He testified that Rogers told him she had been gone about a week to a week and a half, then said he had to go and hung up.
The detective then called the person who filed the missing persons report, who said that Toronczak’s mother said she had witnessed Rogers threaten to lock Toronczak in the basement of the apartment complex. The mother said she believed Rogers had made good on his threat and insisted that the police look in the basement for her daughter.
Carlson went to Rogers’ apartment about three hours later, where he had arranged to have uniformed police officers meet him. He claimed he was uncomfortable investigating the case without assistance because Toronczak’s mother suspected Rogers had something to do with Toronczak’s disappearance and because of his prior conversation with Rogers.
After receiving no answer at Rogers’ apartment, Carlson and the officers proceeded to check for a storage area. Residents of the complex directed the officers to the storage rooms and told the officers that Rogers, the manager, controlled access to that area.
Shortly thereafter, Rogers arrived and identified himself to the officers. He maintained that Toronczak had been gone for a week to a week and a half and said he thought she went to Mexico with someone.
The detective told Rogers he had information that Rogers had threatened to lock Toronczak in a storage room and he wanted to see if she was being held against her will. Rogers allegedly did not deny the threat, or that Toronczak was within the storage area, but declined to grant the officers permission to enter.
Carlson testified that Rogers’ neck began to throb when the detective mentioned the storage room, causing him to become “very concerned” about Toronczak and “more and more convinced” that Toronczak was possibly in the storage area.
He ordered the officers to break the door open, and inside the storage area, the officers observed what appeared to be bloodstains, a hammer, a saw and a butcher knife.
Based on these observations, officers obtained a search warrant, re-entered the storage areas and seized those items. Toronczak’s severed fingers and parts of her jawbone were subsequently discovered in the storage areas.
Rogers was charged with the murders of Toronczak and his former girlfriend Rose Albano, who was pregnant with his child at the time of her disappearance in December 1993 and whose partial remains were found in a trash bag near Rogers’ sister’s home.
He was also charged with the murder of his one-time roommate and best friend Ron Stadt, who vanished in June 1993 and whose body was never found.
Jurors found him guilty of first degree murder as to the two women and guilty of the lesser charge of second degree murder as to Stadt, with a multiple-murder special circumstance, following a trial held in 1997 with San Diego Superior Court Judge Frederic L. Link presiding, Rogers was sentenced to death in accord with the jury verdict.
On his automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court, Rogers contended that the initial warrantless police entries into the storage rooms were unlawful, which tainted the warrant-authorized searches and invalidated the resulting seizures of evidence, but the high court disagreed.
Baxter noted in his opinion for the court that it had upheld a warrantless entry to “seek an occupant reliably reported as missing” in People v. Wharton (1991) 53 Cal.3d 522.
Wharton said the police did not illegally open a closed container to confirm their suspicion that it contained a dead body because “there existed the possibility that the victim was still alive,” and the emergency generated by the missing person report did not cease until the officers found the subject of those reports was dead.
People v. Lucero (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1006 similarly held that the warrantless entry into a home was justified by the exigency created by the disappearance of two girls and a fire of unknown origin within that house, which was across the street from the last known location of the missing girls.
Analogizing these two cases to the facts known to Carlson at the time the San Diego police entered the storage areas under Rogers’ apartment, Baxter concluded that the totality of the circumstances indicated an exigency justifying a warrantless entry.
“Because the totality of the circumstances must be considered, the fact that certain circumstances were not present here, such as certain noises or smells, or gunshots or fire, does not defeat the finding of an emergency,” he explained, adding that the length of time Toronczak had been reported as missing, “did not negate the emergency nature of the situation in light of the other circumstances known to Carlson.”
Additionally, Baxter said the possibility that Carlson could have acted more quickly in trying to find Toronczak or his subjective belief that he lacked probable cause to obtain a warrant before entering the storage areas were irrelevant as the total circumstances justified the entry.
The justices also rejected Rogers’ pre-trial, evidentiary, and instructional challenges to his conviction but agreed to modify his sentence as the trial court erred in entering a judgment imposing a sentence of death as to all three murder counts because capital punishment is not authorized for second degree murder.
Given the significant physical and circumstantial evidence against Rogers, the justices declined to remand the matter to allow the trial court to consider whether the authorized sentence on the second degree murder count should be stayed and exercised its statutory authority to vacate the death sentence imposed on the second degree murder count and ordered the judgment modified to reflect a state prison term of 15 years to life.
The case is People v. Rogers, 09 S.O.S. 4127.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company