When the California Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of convicted double murderer Jeffrey Young last July, the number of San Diegans on death row went down by one, to 37.
Young, 44, had been convicted of the 1999 shooting deaths of Teresa Perez and Jack Reynolds, both employees of a parking lot near San Diego International Airport, during a botched robbery. He was sentenced to die on November 28, 2006.
Nearly 13 years later, the state’s high court tossed the conviction because, it said, the prosecutor focused on Young’s white supremacist beliefs and Nazi tattoos rather than the actual crime. Young now faces either a new trial or a reduced sentence of life without parole.
While 37 other prisoners who were convicted and sentenced to death in San Diego remain on what is officially known as the “Condemned Unit” at San Quentin State Prison, neither they nor the 695 other Californians who have been condemned to die at the state’s hands are likely to do so.
Even though California voters three years ago rejected a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, Governor Gavin Newsom in March signed an executive order that suspends any further executions for as long as he is in office.
The move was largely symbolic: California hasn’t put anyone to death since January 17, 2006, when 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen was executed after 22 years on death row. He had been convicted on three counts of first-degree murder. At the time of his execution, he was legally blind, diabetic, and confined to a wheelchair, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Even before Allen was put to death, California was far from a killing state. Of the 1493 convicted murderers who have been executed in this country since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, only 13 were put to death in California. Experts say this is largely due to the protracted appeals process. Every prisoner who is sentenced to death gets an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court, a process that can take five or more years. The state court ruling may then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Prisoners also can file “habeas” appeals to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions, as well as “last chance” appeals to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
In February 2003, the San Diego Reader published a story noting that 31 of the 616 inmates who at the time were on death row in California had been convicted and sentenced in San Diego. Four particularly brutal killers were profiled: Susan Eubanks, who in 1997 shot her four children to death after a breakup with a lover; Ivan and Veronica Gonzalez, convicted of torture and murder for the 1995 death of Veronica’s four-year-old niece; and Bernard Lee Hamilton, who in 1979 murdered a young mother of two boys, cut off her head and hands, and dumped her body near Pine Valley.
Hamilton died of natural causes in March 2016 at the age of 64. Counting Young, nine other killers from San Diego have been added to the list since the 2003 Reader story, leaving one of the original 31 unaccounted for (the Reader story did not list the names). The killers, their crimes, and their fate:
Eric Anderson - condemned to die on October 28, 2005.
Fourteen years after he was sentenced to death for killing an El Cajon racetrack owner during an attempted home invasion robbery, Anderson has built a new life for himself in San Quentin. He has self-published three books that are available on Amazon.com. Two are compilations of short stories from death row; the third is a series of sketches, a throwback to his former life, on the outside, as a tattoo artist.
Amazon calls him a “gifted author” and a “talented artist.” “People on death row are very limited in their activities,” the author’s description reads. “Almost 24 hours a day — day in, day out — he has to stay alone in a small cell. His writing and art are a way for him to reach out to others. The purpose of his published books, and his art in general, is to share his talent with the outside world. It’s his legacy….”
Anderson was sentenced to death for the April 14, 2003 murder of Stephen Brucker, the owner of the Cajon Speedway. The quarter-mile track, located between Gillespie Field and State Route 67, had been opened in 1961 by Brucker’s grandfather, Earle Brucker Sr., also the founder of El Cajon Stock Car Racing Association. Brucker, who ran the track with his brother Kevin, lived with his wife and two children on Medill Avenue, just east of the El Cajon city limits near Interstate 8.
Believing Brucker had a safe in his house with up to $2 million in cash, Anderson and two others, Brandon Handshoe and Apollo Ryan Huhn, met in Handshoe’s mobile home in Rios Canyon to plot the crime. The afternoon of the murder, Anderson drew diagrams of the house and talked the others through the plan. They left the mobile home in Anderson’s Ford Bronco; a witness testified that before they left Anderson pulled a black, semiautomatic .45-caliber gun from his waistband, cocked it, and said, “Let’s do this fast.”
When they arrived at the Brucker home, Handshoe remained in the car as a lookout. Anderson, his gun tucked under his arm, and Huhn walked toward the front door. Handshoe heard a shot and then a scream; Anderson and Huhn promptly returned to the car, telling their partner only that something had gone wrong. They raced off.
A short time later, a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the Brucker residence, responding to a 911 call. He found a mortally wounded Brucker, still clutching the phone and drenched in blood. Brucker was rushed to Sharp Memorial Hospital but died of a single gunshot wound to his chest that had penetrated his heart.
After the shooting, Anderson shaved off his mustache and ditched the Bronco for a white truck. He told his girlfriend he was leaving San Diego because of a parole violation. He wound up in Oregon, where on May 16 he was stopped by police for a traffic infraction. Police searched his truck and found a stolen handgun. Anderson was arrested and sent back to San Diego for a parole violation. In the meantime, detectives, responding to tips, had fingered Anderson and Handshoe as key suspects in the Brucker killing. Handshoe was arrested first and testified against Anderson in a plea deal. During the penalty phase of the trial, Anderson dared the jury to sentence him to death, which they did.
Anderson’s initial brief on direct appeal was filed on November 4, 2013, more than 10 years after the murder of Stephen Brucker and eight years after he was sentenced to death. His appeal was denied and in June 2018 the California Supreme Court affirmed both the judgment and the sentence of death. Last April, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Anderson’s petition for a writ of certiorari, refusing to review the California court decision.
Manuel Bracamontes – condemned to die on December 14, 2005
He appeared to be a family man. He worked as a bus driver and then as a pipe fitter, and lived with his girlfriend and children, including a young daughter, in an Otay Mesa condominium. Also living in the same condo complex was the Arroyo family. One week after he moved out, Bracamontes returned one night and kidnapped 9-year-old Laura Arroyo, whom he sexually assaulted and then murdered in a nearby business park.
“There are some cases that even the most ardent death penalty opponents, if they knew the facts and saw the scene and saw what it did to the relatives and saw what the guy did to the victim, would agree with the penalty,” said Garland Peed, who prosecuted Bracamontes for the crime and now works as a Deputy District Attorney in Riverside. “It’s easy when you’re talking theory, but most prosecutors and law enforcement officials who have worked really bad murders like this one will tell you there is evil in the world — there’s no other explanation — and nothing short of whatever the number one penalty is, is what we have to go for,” Peed said. “I don’t care if the Supreme Court overturns it – this is so bad I’ve got to do everything I can to make sure this guy never sees the light of day. I couldn’t talk to the father without crying. And when the father was testifying in court about his little girl, there was not one person in the courtroom, not even the judge, who wasn’t crying.”
Laura and some friends had been playing in the front yard of their condo complex on the evening of June 19, 1991. After she had gone inside, the doorbell rang, around 9 pm. Laura answered the door. When her parents came to see who was there, they found the door wide open and little Laura gone.
Early the next morning, Laura’s battered and bruised body was found in an industrial complex on Bay Boulevard in Chula Vista, about three miles away. She had been stabbed 11 times in the chest, abdomen and neck, suffered six chop wounds to the head, and had been suffocated. The attack, with a pickaxe, was done with so much force it chipped the sidewalk underneath Arroyo’s body.
Five witnesses said they had seen Bracamontes near the condo that evening, including one of the children with whom Laura had been playing. But there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime until DNA samples taken from Laura’s body were re-tested in October 2003 at the urging of the San Diego District Attorney’s Cold Case Unit. By then, Bracamontes’ DNA was in the system thanks to a prior conviction on domestic abuse charges. Sperm DNA was found underneath her finger nails, on her pink “dancing bear” night shirt, and in her mouth. This led authorities to conclude that she had also been forced to fellate Bracamontes, something that investigators didn’t realize back in 1991.
At Bracamontes’ trial, an expert witness testified that an agricultural tool called a “pick mattock” might have been the weapon used to inflict many of the wounds on young Laura’s face and shoulder blades. Workers at a construction company where Bracamontes worked as a pipefitter said he had access to such a tool. Bracamontes initially denied being at the condo complex the night of the murder, but later said he went there late at night at the behest of his girlfriend.
After Bracamontes was found guilty, Laura’s mother, also named Laura, urged Superior Court Judge John Thompson to sentence her little girl’s killer to death. “She did not deserve to die in such a cruel way,” Arroyo said through a Spanish interpreter. Before handing down the death sentence, the judge called Bracamontes a “sadistic, sexually violent predator.” The case was profiled on television’s Cold Case Files, in an episode titled, “Danger at the Door.”
Bracamontes applied for 38 extensions before finally filing his opening brief on direct appeal before the California Supreme Court in January 2018. The prosecution filed its response in September 2018. A year later, on September 9, 2019, Bracamontes filed his reply brief.
Adrian Camacho – condemned to die on February 7, 2006
A gang member — and illegal immigrant — who dealt drugs for a living, Camacho was sent to death row for shooting a rookie Oceanside cop during a traffic stop. When the sentence was pronounced, Camacho teared up and dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. His attorney, Kathleen Cannon, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Mr. Camacho is very disappointed.”
Camacho was sentenced to death for the June 13, 2003 murder of Tony Zeppetella, who had recently joined the Oceanside police force. The murder occurred during a gun battle that began after Zeppetella pulled up behind Camacho’s car in the crowded parking lot of the Navy Federal Credit Union at Avenida de la Plata and College Boulevard in Oceanside.
Zeppetella got out of his car and walked up to Camacho’s car window. Camacho had drugs in the car, along with a semiautomatic firearm, and, according to court testimony, was terrified of being arrested and deported for what would have been the third time.
As Zeppetella approached, Camacho pulled out his gun and fired at the officer. Camacho got off four more rounds before a wounded Zeppetella could return fire. Although he had fallen to the ground and was bleeding to death, Zeppetella shot back, hitting Camacho in the leg as he got out of the car. Camacho fired more bullets into Zeppetella, one of them severing the bone in his upper arm. No longer able to shoot back, Zeppetella tried to crawl for cover, but Camacho caught up with him, pistol-whipped the officer and then stole his gun, which he used to fire the final shots into the doomed rookie cop.
The last four shots could be heard on a 911 call made by a witness, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report.
Camacho fled the scene and hid in his mother’s Oceanside home, about a mile away. He slit his wrists and scrawled “I’m sorry” and other apologetic messages, in blood, on the bathroom tile. He surrendered to police about four hours after a SWAT team surrounded the home.
During Camacho’s murder trial, his attorneys argued that their client was in a drug-induced psychosis when he shot Zeppetella and thus should not be held accountable. This psychosis was fueled by a mix of heroin, methamphetamine, and the prescription antidepressant Paxil. Camacho’s defense also argued that the suicide attempt indicated remorse. Prosecutor David Rubin (now a Superior Court judge), however, called Zeppetella’s shooting “a cool, deliberate act of murder.” He noted that after his arrest, Camacho wrote threatening letters to his jailers, vowing in one to “send one of ’em home in a… body bag.”
The jury convicted Camacho of first-degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced him to death. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported at the time that Zeppetella’s young widow, Jamie, “smiled softly as the judge read the verdict.”
Since February 5, 2015, Camacho’s case has been fully briefed on direct appeal before the California Supreme Court.
Scott Erskine – condemned to die on September 1, 2004
One of San Diego’s most notorious killers, Erskine was sentenced to death for the March 27, 1993 murders of two young boys in the south San Diego neighborhood of Palm City. His badness began at an early age, triggered, defense attorneys said, when he was hit by a car at the age of 5 on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach and suffered a traumatic brain injury. At the age of 10, Erskine started molesting his 6-year-old sister. When he was 15, he pulled a knife on a 13-year-old girl and raped her; the very next day, he assaulted a young female jogger. At the age of 18, he tried to rape a 14-year-old boy and beat him unconscious. While in prison, he raped a fellow inmate.
Erskine was sentenced to die for killing 9-year-old Jonathan Sellers and 13-year-old Charlie Keever on a rainy spring Saturday in March 1993.
Keever and Sellers’ older brother were friends. The brother had to go to a band recital, however, so Charlie decided to hang out with little Jonathan. According to court documents, witnesses saw the boys at an arcade and pet adoption center, and then at a Rally’s hamburger stand. Later, another witness saw them riding their bikes in the Otay River bed, near a washed-out bridge.
Driving his blue Volvo across a field, Erskine approached and then blocked the bike path. Moments later, the two boys rode up. Erskine lured them into an igloo-like fort made of brush, where he bound and gagged them. He molested both boys for hours, and then strangled them with a rope. Jonathan’s body was found by a jogger two days later, hanging from a castor bean tree branch near the entrance of the fort. He was nude from the waist down, and his genitals showed signs of sexual assault. Charlie’s body lay nearby, also half naked, with dried blood on his genitals from bite marks. The ropes were still around their necks.
In October 1993, seven months after the killing the two boys, Erskine lured a woman he had met at a bus stop to his home and, over several days, repeatedly raped her. The victim testified that she willingly accompanied Erskine to his home for a beer. After they both snorted methamphetamine, Erskine choked her to the point of passing out before raping her orally and vaginally. After the assault, he gave her clothes to wear and cooked her a steak before driving her to a meeting with a classmate at the Hyatt Regency hotel. She waited five days before calling police. Erskine was arrested later that day as he was returning to his apartment. Given his prior record, he was sentenced to 70 years to life in prison.
Meanwhile, the San Diego murder case remained unsolved. Rick Carlson joined the San Diego Police Department’s homicide team shortly after the two boys were killed and befriended Charlie Keever’s mother. “It was such a big case, and so tragic,” said Carlson, now retired. “Mrs. Keever used to come down to PD all the time, and then she’d go patrol the canyon, looking for suspects.”
In 1994, Carlson created a mosaic as a memorial for the two boys at Montgomery Middle School. “Getting to know her got my emotions up,” Carlson recalled. “What a big trauma it is... to have two moms and both of them lost their children.”
As the 1990s progressed, advances in DNA technology led to the establishment of the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which allows federal, state, and local forensic laboratories to exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically. In March 2001, scientists retested DNA samples that had been taken from the two young boys’ mouths eight years earlier and discovered that someone else’s DNA was left in Keever’s mouth. The sample was entered into CODIS and was matched to Erskine.
Erskine was brought to trial in September 2003. In the meantime, Florida police matched Erskine’s DNA to the unsolved murder of a 26-year-old woman killed in 1989. He admitting raping her, breaking her neck, and leaving her to drown in the Intracoastal Waterway near Palm Beach. For that murder, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life.
A jury found Erskine guilty of murder on October 1, 2003. In April 2004, after the first jury failed to agree on a penalty, Erskine was sentenced to death, which a judge subsequently affirmed on September 1. The obligatory appeals were filed, with the latest action occurring in May 2019, when the California Supreme Court upheld Erskine’s conviction and death sentence.
Part 2 next week.