|Death Row inmate John C. Abel|
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Death row inmate hoping California Supreme Court sides with him
He robbed banks and convenience stores, grocery marts and check-cashing joints. He terrified people with Uzi-style Mac 11s and .22-caliber handguns, Browning pistols and Dirty Harry-style Magnums. His stickup jag dated to the 1960s and sliced through the country from Massachusetts to California.
"Even a couple islands up there by Seattle," he adds, in the genial voice of an old ballplayer reminiscing about a far-traveling career.
Fifteen years ago, a jury concluded he deserved to die for killing a man outside a Tustin bank. Now 68, gray-bearded and diabetic, he waits in his cell on San Quentin's death row and insists he doesn't belong there.
"I'm the furthest thing from John Q. Citizen, but it bothers me to be called a killer," says Abel, chewing a Hershey bar in one of the visiting room's mesh cages.
He is accustomed to lockup — he has spent most of his life in cells — but describes death row as a particularly lonely place of loathsome company: mass murderers, child-killers, serial rapists.
"The psychos and the weirdos," he calls them. "I don't talk to none of them creeps."
Abel's lawyers, who say his notorious reputation made him a convenient fall guy for the Tustin killing, are asking the California Supreme Court for a new trial.
At the heart of their case is something few condemned men possess: a signed confession by another man admitting to the murder.
On an overcast morning in January 1991, 26-year-old Armando Miller left the Sunwest Bank in Tustin with a bag containing $20,000 in cash. He'd just withdrawn the money for his family's nearby check-cashing business and was walking to his van.
A robber pumped a .22-caliber slug into his forehead and disappeared with the cash. A witness described the shooter as a sharp-featured, middle-aged man with a mustache and wearing a cuffed watchman's cap.
Abel, who roughly fit the description and sometimes wore a similar cap during holdups, had been paroled the year before on bank robbery charges and was drifting around Southern California.
He gambled heavily at blackjack and poker tables. He chased a cocaine and heroin habit. By his own admission, he was a man desperate for money.
Abel said he had been part of a planned armed robbery of some Colombian drug dealers in Northern California in early '91, a potential "humdinger" of a score that fell apart when an accomplice — who plotted the job — died of a heart attack.
"That's when I more or less went south," he said. "I ran out of money. In come the weapons, in come the robberies. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't the plan of a mastermind or none of that."
He robbed banks in Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights, a pizzeria in Lakewood, a pharmacy in San Pedro, a flower shop in Harbor City. He planned the jobs hastily, he said, giving himself an hour or so to stake out the target.
"I just go by feeling," he said. "Pretty much played it by ear. I guess I wasn't that good at it."
In October 1991, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies tracked Abel to a Simi Valley parking lot. He was walking to his Toyota Tercel, where a loaded .22 waited under the seat. "If I had made it to the car, there would have been a shootout," Det. Steve Rubino recalled Abel telling him.
The string of robberies sent him to Folsom State Prison for a 44-year term.
Source: LA Times