A Laguna Hills man was acquitted Thursday of killing a cancer-stricken Placentia resident in a 1998 murder-for-hire scheme organized by the victim's wife.
Thomas Joseph Garrick, 37, was the last of four defendants to go on trial for the Aug. 13, 1998, slaying of 56-year-old Jack Jessee in his home.
Garrick's wife, Lauren, red-eyed from crying, told City News Service, "I've never felt more relieved in my life. Now he'll finally get to meet his baby."
Lauren Garrick was three months pregnant when her husband was taken into custody in November 2011 during the trial of Jessee's wife, Sandra, who was sentenced nearly a year ago to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Garrick's father, Thomas Garrick Jr., called the verdict in the first-degree murder case "fantastic."
"We knew it all along," the father said of his son's innocence. "It was just a matter of due process."
Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray declined comment.
Garrick's father said he believes his son's one-time friend, Brett Schrauben, is the killer. According to the prosecution's theory of the case, Schrauben got cold feet and Garrick volunteered to do the job.
Murray made his case based partly on the testimony of Schrauben and Sandra Jessee's son, Thomas Dayton Aehlert, who both made plea bargain deals with prosecutors.
"There's no doubt in my mind" Schrauben is the killer, Thomas Garrick Jr. said.
"But they cut him a deal and he walked... It's a shame the real murderer is walking the streets. It's a horrible, heinous crime and somebody should be punished for it."
In closing arguments, O'Connell leaned heavily on the testimony of Schrauben and Aehlert, pointing out how their stories didn't always match up and that they were motivated to lie.
"The day I met (Garrick) I knew he was innocent," O'Connell said after the verdicts. "You take away the testimony of the co-conspirators and there's nothing to connect him to the crime."
Schrauben testified that he split the first payment of $10,000 with Garrick, but Schrauben bought a truck, furniture and put money down on an apartment, amounting to about $12,000, O'Connell said.
The jury foreman, who asked that his name not be used, said jurors doubted the testimony of Schrauben and Aehlert.
"There just wasn't enough supporting evidence," he said. "And their testimony didn't always match up. The prosecution put on a good case, but we just couldn't get to beyond a reasonable doubt."
When they began deliberations a few jurors were leaning toward guilty, but most of the panel felt Garrick should be acquitted, the jury foreman said.
The conspiracy to kill Jack Jessee began with his wife, who fretted that her husband's medical bills would eat away at their nest egg and so she could get her hands on his 401(k) account worth $262,582 and a life insurance policy valued at $411,858, Murray said.
Schrauben, 40, perpetuated an image of being a "tough guy," so he came to mind as someone who could do the job when Sandra Jessee and her son went looking for a killer, Murray said.
In his opening statement, Murray told the jury, "If you don't like the fact (Schrauben and Aehlert) got a deal in a cold case murder, I ask you to set that aside. Write a letter to my boss, (District Attorney) Tony Rackauckas, and say I did a bad thing ... But listen to the evidence."
When Sandra Jessee and Aehlert approached Schrauben about killing Jack Jessee for $50,000, Schrauben demanded a non-refundable $5,000 fee up-front for a meeting, Murray said.
Sandra Jessee and Schrauben met on June 24, 1998, in the parking lot of a Placentia mall, where Schrauben was given a photo of the victim and a sketch of the interior of the house, the prosecutor said.
The plan was to make it look like a burglary, with Schrauben taking a coin collection in the house, Murray said. The slaying would take place while Sandra Jessee was out shopping to give her an alibi, he said.
Schrauben recruited his best friend, Garrick, to be the getaway driver, Murray said. But Schrauben said the payment for the killing was $20,000, which he planned to split with Garrick while Schrauben pocketed the rest, Murray said.
On the day of the killing, Sandra Jessee called Schrauben and told her she was going shopping, his cue to get to work, the prosecutor said.
"The plan doesn't go well," Murray said, adding Schrauben got "cold feet," and locked the garage door leading to the house, claiming to Aehlert that his mother mistakenly forgot to leave it open.
Aehlert insisted that it was now or never because Sandra Jessee was threatening to do it herself, Murray said. She was eager to move to Arizona, where Aehlert, her son from a prior marriage, had relocated, according to Murray.
Garrick overheard the conversation and volunteered to switch places with Schrauben, Murray alleged. When they returned, they decided to kill the victim with a knife instead of a gun because it would be less conspicuous, Murray told the jury.
In December of that year, Sandra Jessee made a $90,000 profit by selling the Placentia home and moved to the Phoenix area, 200 yards from her son's home, Murray said. She also cashed in her late husband's insurance policy and retirement account.
The case went cold until 2005, when an Orange County sheriff's detective found a scrap of paper from Sandra Jessee's purse with Schrauben's last name scribbled on it, according to Murray.
Investigators set up a wiretap of the phones used by Sandra Jessee, Aehlert and Schrauben and also had surveillance teams follow them, Murray said.
Schrauben was arrested in 2005 and pleaded guilty three years later to voluntary manslaughter. Schrauben, who is scheduled to be sentenced July 18, is expected to get time served in custody, according to Murray.
Aehlert was arrested in 2007 and pleaded guilty in October 2011 to second-degree murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 26.
- City News Service