Monday, April 20, 2015
C.A. Upholds Conviction in Cold-Case Murder of Covina Woman
Panel Says Earlier Conviction for Receiving Victim’s Stolen Car No Bar to Subsequent Prosecution
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district Friday affirmed a former San Dimas’ resident’s conviction and life-without-parole sentence for the murder of an aspiring model whose body was found in Azusa Canyon 26 years before the charge was filed.
Div. Four said that Stafford Joel Spicer’s earlier conviction for receiving stolen property—the murdered woman’s car—was not a bar to the subsequent murder prosecution. The defense maintained that Spicer was subjected to multiple punishments for the same crime, in violation of Penal Code §654 and the Double Jeopardy Clause.
Spicer was found guilty of murder in the first degree—with special circumstances of rape, robbery, and kidnapping—in the 1985 death of Joanna Jones, 23. While Spicer was an early suspect in the murder, prosecutors ultimately concluded that they had enough evidence to proceed only on the stolen-property charge.
Spicer pled guilty to that charge and was sentenced to 44 months in prison, following which he moved to Las Vegas, where he was arrested in 2011 after a cold-case detective reopened the investigation.
Jones, who worked for a travel agency when she wasn’t modeling, disappeared after leaving her boyfriend’s Long Beach apartment to go to work in the early morning hours of April 29, 1985. Police found her Camaro in a market parking lot days later.
Jones’ boyfriend told police he had seen the car after Jones disappeared, and was able to identify three people he said ran from the vehicle after he pursued in his vehicle and yelled that he knew the owner.
One of the three, a man named Gerald Kuhnke, was found at a nearby residence. Spicer was with him, but fled and was later arrested.
He claimed that a man named “Sean” gave him the car to sell. Sean wanted $1,500 and was going to pay him $300, Spicer said.
He said he suspected the car was stolen, and decided to abandon it when he saw that he was being followed. He claimed that a drug dealer named Bill Brummet was trying to frame him for the murder.
In early June 1985, hikers found Jones’ body in a drainage tunnel in the canyon, about 48 miles from where she had disappeared. An autopsy showed she had been stabbed in her neck, chest, and torso while living.
In October 1985, Spicer gave police a more extensive statement, identifying the man he originally called Sean as Rick Castle, whom he said was a close associate of Brummet. Police were unable to find Castle, and they concluded that fingerprints taken from the Camaro did not belong to Castle or Brummet.
In a 1987 statement, given while he was in prison, Spicer claimed that he had previously dealt drugs for Brummet, but had stolen Brummet’s gun, and Brummet had threatened to kill him. He also claimed the reason he abandoned the Camaro was that he was using it to transport drugs, and that he thought the person pursuing him was a “narc officer.”
In 2007, several of the fingerprints in the Camaro were confirmed as matching Spicer’s. The following year, Sheriff’s Detective Stephen Davis was assigned to reinvestigate the case.
He found Castle, who denied knowing Spicer or Brummet. He also spoke to Spicer, who said in a recorded interview that a “big black dude” brought him the car, later saying that the “black dude” introduced him to Sean, and that he got the car from Sean and intended to sell it to Brummet.
He also admitted that he had visited Azusa Canyon. He subsequently gave Davis a DNA sample, and testing suggested that blood found in the car may be Spicer’s, while blood taken from the trunk likely belonged to Jones.
Kuhnke testified that he had given up drug use and become a Christian pastor after being shaken up when a fellow drug user, whom he knew as “Joe the Plumber,” told him he had “killed a girl and buried her” in the hills or the woods. Kuhnke was unable to identify Spicer as “Joe the Plumber,” but two other friends of Spicer’s testified that he was known by that nickname or as “Plumber Joe.”
Prior to trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Tia Fisher denied a defense motion to dismiss under Penal Code §654(a) which prohibits successive prosecutions under different statutes “for the same act or omission.”
Fisher found that the “unavailable evidence” exception applied. The exception, she held, requires a showing that prosecutors, at the time the less-serious charge was brought, had a good faith basis to believe that they lacked sufficient evidence to convict on the more-serious charge, despite having used due diligence in the investigation of the charges.
The trial judge found that there were three critical pieces of evidence that did not become available until after Spicer’s conviction on the original charge—Spicer’s 2009 statements, which conflicted with his earlier version of events; his admissions that he was familiar with Azusa Canyon and knew it as a place to obtain sex; and the DNA test results.
On appeal, the defense argued that Fisher erred in the §654 ruling and that trial counsel was deficient in failing to seek dismissal under the Double Jeopardy Clause.
Justice Nora Manella, writing for the appellate court, said that Spicer was not subjected to double jeopardy because the elements of receiving stolen property and of murder do not overlap. The appellate jurist also endorsed Fisher’s analysis under §654, rejecting the defense argument that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to charge Spicer with murder once they found Jones’ body.
The good-faith requirement, she explained, does not require prosecutors to proceed as soon as there is probable cause, but allows them to exercise reasoned judgment as to how likely a jury is to convict on the basis of the evidence available.
While the prosecution had probable cause to charge Spicer with murder in 1985, she said, it “lacked evidence regarding certain key issues, namely, when Jones was murdered, why she was taken to Azusa Canyon, and how and when she was taken there.” Without that evidence, Manella said, prosecutors could not have rebutted a defense claim “that someone else — for example, Brummet — kidnapped Jones, gave her car to Sean, and murdered her.”
The necessary evidence, she said, was not obtained until after 2008, a delay she said was not due to a lack of due diligence, but because Spicer had previously told police a different version of events and because DNA technology was not yet available. The later-discovered evidence, she said, “provided concrete support for the theory” that Spicer killed Jones in the canyon the day she disappeared, likely after having used the Camaro to take her there, explaining why there was some, but not a tremendous amount, of the victim’s blood in the trunk.
Attorneys on appeal were Neil Rosenbaum, by appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorneys General Steven D. Matthews and Timothy M. Weiner for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Spicer, 15 S.O.S. 1894.
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