OCDA Seeks to Retry Man for Murder in Bizarre Stove Death. Plus, Other Local Stories

There’s no dispute the California Highway Patrol (CHP) doctored a traffic-fatality report involving a stolen residential stove that accidentally fell off a pickup truck on the 91 freeway in Anaheim.

There’s no question CHP bosses quietly destroyed the original report, or that the replacement document helped the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) win a controversial, first-degree murder conviction against Cole Wilkins, the driver who—everyone agrees—hadn’t intended to kill anyone.

Nor can anybody claim Wilkins’ defense lawyers were informed about the missing evidence until years later, when whistleblowers emerged.

It’s also indisputable that the trial judge, Richard Toohey, issued bad jury instructions tripping the defense and misleading jurors about the law, according to a 2013 California Supreme Court ruling that overturned the conviction, including the 26-years-to-life sentence.

The mess has prompted Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross, Wilkins’ attorney, to initiate efforts to block prosecutors from retrying the case, which is scheduled for the end of the month. Ross believes outrageous government conduct precludes her client, who has already been incarcerated for nine years, from receiving a fair, second trial. She insists prosecutors, who deny any wrongdoing and say trial errors were harmless, shouldn’t benefit from suspected cheating by getting a second chance.

According to court records, John Heckenkemper, a veteran CHP officer, responded to the 5 a.m. July 2006 freeway scene after the stove fell off the pickup truck and resulted in numerous collisions, as well as the death of a motorist, David Piquette. Heckenkemper’s report concluded that Piquette, who’d been driving to work as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy in Whittier, was to blame for swerving into another lane and slamming into a cement truck as he approached the appliance that had been blocking the road for five minutes. While Heckenkemper took vacation, other CHP officials erased his finding to blame Wilkins, a move that helped Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray file charges based on a felony murder theory. In other words, a defendant committing a burglary of an expensive stove can be deemed a killer, if he inadvertently takes a life while executing that felony.

The supreme court overturned Wilkins’ 2008 conviction because Toohey refused to inform jurors of an “escape clause” in the felony murder rule: The killing has to be a continuous part of the burglary. According to the justices, that wasn’t the case because the stove accident occurred an hour after the Menifee crime and 60 miles away, while Wilkins drove to Long Beach at a safe speed without any police pursuit.

“Given the evidence, there is a reasonable probability that a jury properly instructed on the escape rule would have concluded that the defendant had reached a place of temporary safety before the fatal act occurred and was not guilty of felony murder,” the high court stated.

Illustration by Mark Dancey

As OCDA and Ross battle for a second trial, Superior Court Judge Marc Kelly in December agreed prosecutors violated discovery rules, but he declined to declare outrageous government conduct. Kelly, a 12-year veteran in OCDA before grabbing a 2000 bench appointment, also refused Ross’ request to question law-enforcement officials under oath about the doctored report. On Jan. 22, the judge will entertain what could be her last attempt to derail the case.

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You may recall our August 2015 cover story on the messy divorce between an ultra-wealthy Orange County Republican couple, Thomas Phillips and wife Randall, who spent more than $262,000 per month on living expenses. According to court records, Thomas—once the owner of a successful conservative publishing empire that routinely attacked gays—harbors secret, less-than-consistent heterosexual desires. Those same files accuse Randall, once a reporter for the Reverend Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, of being a gold-digger who enjoyed a lengthy sexual affair with R&B singer Chuckii Booker, godson of Grammy Award winner Barry White.

Turns out that a week after our article published, the parties reached a confidential settlement that, not surprisingly, included language that neither person could speak to the other without written permission, and “those communications” must only involve the “peaceful exchanges” of the parties’ two minor children, Reagan and Parker. But they now can’t agree on that settlement, so a hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 22 in Orange County Superior Court.

Here are terms of the pending deal:

• Randall surrenders ownership rights to a $13 million Corona del Mar house and agrees to give up an expensive burial plot at Pacific View Memorial Park, plus drop a lawsuit against Thomas’ allegedly hostile household servants, who worked at the couple’s $21 million, ocean-view, Newport Coast mansion at 9 Pelicans Drive.

• Thomas, who was close pals with legendary OC Republican Party boss Tom Fuentes, keeps that estate; control of numerous investment accounts; a 2002 Rolls-Royce; 105 gold coins; buffalo nickels; a massive wine collection; dozens of paintings; a model-train collection; and all rights to his remaining businesses, including Healthy Directions, Leopard Media, 7811 Investors LLC and 7811 Montrose Limited.

• He must pay “high-quality PPO” costs for their kids’ medical insurance, as well as $265,000 annual premiums for their life-insurance policies.

• Randall—whose lawyers include former Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit and Wayne Gross, an ex-U.S. Department of Justice boss in Santa Ana—gets a BMW 650-i; a Mercedes GL-550; a Regal Express Cruiser boat; a Hummer golf cart; a painting of a ship; $29,500 per month in ex-spousal support; $13,000 per month for child custody; a $3 million home, plus furnishings and moving expenses; paid health insurance; $1,000 per month for home maintenance; and all the “clothes, jewelry and shoes” he bought her during the marriage.

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Michael J. Schroeder, onetime chairman of the Republican Party of California, wears many hats: lawyer, insurance-company owner, wine connoisseur, adviser to elected officials, world traveler and USC football booster. In recent years, Schroeder added explorer to his résumé, visiting the Earth’s poles and most of the planet’s highest peaks in life-risking adventures. He’s now planning a 2017 trip to Mount Everest.

In the meantime, however, Schroeder craves a major political feat. As U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s California political director and co-state chairman, he is working to help the Texan win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Past consulting for Mitt Romney (2008) and Newt Gingrich (2012) didn’t end as he’d hoped, but the Newport Beach resident says he believes Cruz is on track to land in the White House.

It’s unclear how, or if, California’s June Republican primary will impact the race, but the Field Poll reported a surge in Cruz support here. According to the firm, the senator jumped from 6 percent support in October 2015 to 25 percent earlier this month—two points ahead of Donald Trump. That movement doesn’t surprise Schroeder. He says voters are attracted to Cruz because he’s a “principled conservative.”

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Beginning Jan. 22 and for the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, UC Irvine is sponsoring a free, three-day conference titled, “Freedom of Expression In a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.” Participants will include cartoonist and Weekly pal Lalo Alcaraz; commentator Sandra Tsing Loh; and, via Google Hangout, Moscow resident Edward Snowden, the famed NSA whistleblower. For details, visit sites.uci.edu/freedom.


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