Aehlert and his mother acted oddly, too. In one conversation, Jessee asked Aehlert how the investigators “knew about Brett,” causing her son to change the subject. Later, though they lived a couple of hundred feet from each other, Aehlert was recorded telling Jessee he didn’t want to talk on the phone. Instead, they each drove separate cars to a strip mall, got out, walked to the front of a closed State Farm office and talked.

Detectives arrested Schrauben. On the way to jail, Dove, who’s now with the Riverside DA’s office, told the handcuffed hit man to shut up and listen to a recording of Aehlert and Jessee holding, what police believe, was a staged telephone conversation for their benefit. During the call, the mother/son tandem had, according to Murray, “thrown Brett under the bus” by speculating that maybe Schrauben had killed Jack.

When then-sheriff’s investigator Craig Johnson told Aehlert that Schrauben murdered his stepfather, Aehlert had no audible reaction. He didn’t express relief that the case was solved or outrage that a close pal was a killer. Instead, Johnson noticed Aehlert’s eyes began darting around the room and sweat appeared on his forehead. It didn’t help Aehlert when cops found pictures of him drinking beer with Schrauben and Garrick at a 2004 Lake Elsinore party. Or that Aehlert had cited the admitted killer as a character reference on an employment application.

OC deputies set a trap that produced surveillance photos of Schrauben (left) and Aehlert
Courtesy OCSD
OC deputies set a trap that produced surveillance photos of Schrauben (left) and Aehlert
Prosecutor Michael F. Murray
Prosecutor Michael F. Murray

*     *     *

It took a Herculean, multistate police effort to get Schrauben in jail. But he didn’t crack right away. Finally, after more than 500 days of pretrial incarceration and a guilt-inspiring jailhouse visit by Jack’s daughter Chere, Schrauben confessed to Murray.

The confession: Schrauben claimed Aehlert called him one day in 1998 and said, “My mother wants Jack killed.” In another call, Aehlert said she was willing to pay $50,000. Schrauben met with Jessee in a parking lot. She handed him $5,000 cash and wanted the murder to occur after she signaled by phone that she’d run errands. Afterward, Aehlert would call him to “act like a grieving son” in case “anybody was listening.”

But Schrauben claimed he had second thoughts about doing the killing himself and, though he kept more than half the kill fee, got a replacement.

“T.J. stabbed Jack Jessee,” prosecutor Murray told the jury in his June 22 opening statement outlining the murder-for-hire conspiracy among Jessee, Aehlert, Schrauben and Garrick. Aehlert wanted the crime to look like a burglary gone tragically wrong, which, he believed, would draw police attention away from his mother, according to Murray. He says Garrick—a tall, lanky guy fond of baseball caps and wild parties—was supposed to steal a valuable coin collection from the Jessee bedroom. “But in his haste, he forgot to make it look like a burglary.”

For providing details of the conspiracy and testifying truthfully at trial, the prosecutor gave Schrauben the deal every guilty inmate in jail craves: He allowed the defendant to walk out of custody instead of facing trial and a possible life-in-prison sentence.

The confession led to the 2007 arrests of Jessee and Aehlert.

*     *     *

In Orange County’s public-defender circles, Bercher—a stocky, feisty fellow who speaks with a surfer-dude, nasal tone—is famous for his aggressive defense of accused criminals. He’s a volunteer soccer coach. The University of Texas at Austin and UC Hastings law graduate looks like a cop (his hairstyle is a flat-top), yet cops don’t normally like him. There’s no doubt why. Bercher is fearless in a courtroom. You won’t hear him apologize for deriding cops or prosecutors he thinks are dishonest. Indeed, over the years, more than a few officers have walked off the witness stand to angrily blast Bercher as anti-law enforcement.

During June’s lengthy jury selection for the Jessee/Aehlert trial, Bercher told prospective jurors he was “honored to represent” Jessee. (Mild-mannered Doug Lobato, another public defender, represented Aehlert.) He wasted no time attacking not only the cops, but also prosecutor Mike Murray and his star witness, Schrauben. Serving in law enforcement “doesn’t mean [that person] won’t lie,” Bercher told a packed courtroom. He asked prospective jurors if they would trust a snitch.

Outside the presence of the jury pool, Bercher further signaled his desire to slug it out with Murray. He complained to Sanders, running her first murder trial, that the DA was improperly influencing jurors during the selection process by “attempting to precondition the jury to validate his conduct.” Said Bercher, “I’m deeply concerned about Mrs. Jessee’s right to a fair trial.” Murray was unamused.

Perhaps sensing the coming bitter sparring between attorneys, the judge smiled after one pretrial bout and said in her South African accent, “Trials are not like choreographed ballets—far from it.”

Jurors laughed, but what they’d witnessed was far from humorous.

*     *     *

It’s not uncommon for Orange County defense lawyers to attack the credibility of police witnesses, but it’s rare when they’ll assert that the prosecutor is dirty. At trial, Bercher and Lobato, Aehlert’s lawyer, accused Murray of “making a deal with the devil,” Schrauben. Dozens of times, they told the jury that Murray had written “a script” for the hit man to falsely implicate their clients. They called Schrauben a “pathological liar.” They tried but failed to present evidence that Schrauben slept with his adult, married sister when her husband was out of town. They pointed out that police have never arrested Garrick, the knife wielder in Schrauben’s account, and that, in a 2005 preliminary hearing, a judge rejected Jessee as a co-defendant, only to see her re-charged. Bercher held little back, accusing the DA’s office of “manufacturing a motive [against Jessee and Aehlert]” because Murray was intent on assigning a “diabolical motive” to their conduct. He even tried to provoke the prosecutor and Wyatt, asking the men if they called each other in the morning to coordinate clothing.

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