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May 17th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Jailhouse Crock

Bruce Samuelson may have been a thief, a forger, an abusive husband and a snitch. But did he wrongly send a California man to his death?

     
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Convicted killer Michael Morales sits in a 5-by-8-foot cell in California's San Quentin prison waiting to die.

Six hundred and thirty-five miles north, in Vancouver, Wash., lives a man who some believe lied to seal Morales' fate.

At 45, Bruce Samuelson is by all appearances a typical business and family man. His 1950s ranch-style home sits on a quiet corner in a working-class neighborhood dotted with domestic cars and American flags. From the running shoes on the front stoop to the fake owl guarding the weedy backyard vegetable garden, it's a perfect picture of ordinariness.

"He's a quiet man, living with a quiet family in a quiet neighborhood," according to one neighbor.

But two decades ago, Bruce Samuelson's days of stealing cars and forging checks caused his path to intersect with Morales'. And to this day, some believe that Samuelson gave false testimony to save his own skin and ensure Morales got the death sentence prosecutors desperately wanted.

Even by California standards, Morales' murder case had more than its share of tabloidy details. Its salacious elements included a gay love triangle; a pretty high-schooler who was savagely beaten, stabbed and raped; and racial tensions arising from the fact that the accused murderer was Latino and his victim white.

The story was so highly publicized that proceedings were moved from central California to a Ventura County courtroom more than 350 miles south, where it was hoped a more impartial jury might be impaneled.

On the night of the murder, Jan. 8, 1981, Rick Ortega piloted his 1977 Monte Carlo down Interstate 5 near Lodi, Calif.

Next to him sat Terri Winchell, a vivacious, 17-year-old brunette. He met up with her at about 6 pm at the local mall.

Then they picked up his cousin Mike—Michael Morales—who sat in the back seat. Morales had never before met Winchell, a straight-A student with a mellifluous singing voice whose father called her "Mookie."

"He was just asking what her name was, and he was making fun of her last name because of Winchell donuts," Ortega told police two days later.

Unbeknownst to Winchell, Ortega was having a stormy love affair with her boyfriend, Randy. Jealous, he recruited his cousin to help him get revenge.

It was dark when the car turned off the interstate. Morales, 21, asked Ortega if he planned to get an eight-track cassette player installed in the car—their pre-arranged signal.

From behind, Morales slipped a belt around Winchell's neck. She flailed. After 10 or 15 seconds, the belt broke and Morales resorted to Plan B: a hammer.

"When he was hitting her with the hammer, I said, 'That's enough,'" Ortega told police. "I kept saying, 'Mike.' I kept saying, 'Mike.'

"He said, 'Rick, just keep driving. Just keep driving.'"

They crossed the Mokelumne River bridge and turned right onto Bender Road. Winchell was unconscious, but Ortega could hear her breathing.

Ortega pulled over by a vineyard, and Morales got out and dragged Winchell off, telling his cousin to come back in 15 minutes.

When he did, Morales tossed a knife onto the seat between them before getting in himself.

"I asked him, 'Is she dead?' And he said, 'Yeah,'" Ortega told police. "He said that he 'boned' her.... I imagine that is why he wanted me to leave."

It didn't take police long to put the pieces together. When they searched Morales' home, they found a claw hammer in the vegetable crisper in the refrigerator, a knife with a broken tip in a kitchen cabinet, a broken belt under a box spring and Terri Winchell's purse in the closet (minus the $11 Ortega and Morales used to buy wine and cigarettes). Morales was arrested and sent to the San Joaquin County Jail to await trial.

A postmortem examination showed 23 blows had shattered the back of Winchell's head, cheekbones and jaw. She was raped and stabbed four times in the chest, and she had defensive wounds on her arms and hands.

And in that rural farming community's thirst for justice, Bruce Samuelson, a small-time hood with a 10-year track record of delinquency and criminal behavior, found a way to make most of his own legal troubles go away.

Born in Glendale, Calif., in 1960, Bruce Alan Samuelson officially started his criminal record two days before his 12th birthday, when he was arrested for breaking a neighbor's Christmas lights.

Young Bruce's second run-in with the law occurred a little over six months later, when he was placed in the Sycamore Boys Home in Altadena for stealing a 10-speed bike and violating curfew, according to a 1983 probation report that details his criminal history.

He ran away from the home after six months and was caught shoplifting a handball and bowling gloves from a JC Penney department store. After three escape attempts between Christmas and the end of January 1974, he was sent to another facility, Rancho San Antonio, where he also ran away.

By April he was in trouble again for breaking a windshield and scratching up a counselor's car.

From then until early adulthood, he was constantly in trouble for an escalating run of mischief and criminality.

Samuelson dropped out of high school in 1977, but earned his diploma while in the custody of the California Youth Authority, according to his probation report. He worked as a landscaper, tractor driver, assistant head cook and laborer in the glass business.

On Nov. 3, 1982, Samuelson was arrested in Kingman, Ariz., in a stolen car. Inside the car, police found checks that had been taken from a California real-estate office.

In a handwritten statement included in his probation file, Samuelson claimed he forged checks to help a hard-working, Christian family of five afford groceries and pay their bills—though he refused to reveal the family's name.

After the arrest, Samuelson, who was still on parole from previous convictions, was extradited to California and charged with six felonies, including car theft and forgery.

He was checked into the San Joaquin County Jail and put into a cell across the hall from Morales, who was awaiting one of the most publicized murder trials of its era.

Ostensibly, Samuelson was placed into the single-occupancy, maximum-security cell for his own protection. But in court filings, Morales' defense attorneys argue that given the jail's crowded conditions, it was an unusual placement for a newcomer who was not a gang member and who was charged with nonviolent crimes.

"Bruce Samuelson was a state agent," says a clemency petition filed by defense attorneys. "He delivered on his promise. And for his macabre work, this serial felon was handsomely rewarded...."

Prosecutors dispute the defense's account. But there is no dispute that after a month in jail, Samuelson wrote a note to Deputy District Attorney Bernard Garber explaining he could help deliver a death sentence for Morales. In order to be eligible for a death sentence in California, "special circumstances"—a technical legal term for aggravating factors such as torture or ambush—must be present. In his note to the DA, Samuelson said he could "guarantee a murder 1 conviction w/ special circumstances."

"What I have to tell you in regards to Morales will be quite a bit more than you expected," wrote Samuelson.

In return, Samuelson said he wanted a car, new glasses, witness protection and all his charges dropped. Garber apparently made a lesser counter offer—four of Samuelson's six felony charges would be dropped in exchange for his testimony against Morales.

Still, the DA's office had a tough time persuading the judge presiding over Samuelson's case to agree to a deal. The judge eventually caved, because the prosecution argued that his testimony was crucial in their case against Morales.

Prosecutors' notes referred to Samuelson as a "key witness" in proving the crime "w/ specials."

During the trial in the spring of 1983, Samuelson's testimony was indeed dramatic. He told the jury how he had gained Morales' confidence when the two were in jail together and how Morales had recounted the crime in lurid detail, adding that as he walked back to his cousin's car, he turned around and called Winchell a "fucking bitch."

Samuelson added that Morales solicited him to murder two women who might testify against him.

His testimony helped paint a portrait of a heartless killer who, nearly two years later, wasn't sorry for what he had done and who refused to take responsibility for his crimes. It undermined Morales' statements of contrition.

David Senior, Morales' current defense attorney, says Samuelson's testimony was "a turbo-charge, an extra boost that sent the penalty phase to where Morales could never get out from under a death sentence."

And indeed prosecutors relied heavily on Samuelson's testimony when trying to persuade the jury to return a death sentence.

In closing arguments, jurors were told, "And then finally we have Bruce Samuelson out in the jail and [Morales] is telling Bruce Samuelson the belt broke [as he choked her], she fell forward unconscious, he grabbed her hair, pulled her back, started beating her over the head and so forth.

"And then finally after all this he drags her out into the vineyard, and he tells Bruce Samuelson she was just too good to pass up so he had sex with her.... It's almost as though he's bragging to everybody. He's proud of it."

On April 25, 1983, the jury sentenced Morales to die.

Soon after, Samuelson was a free man heading north, where he met his wife-to-be and started a new, not-quite-crime-free life. Samuelson managed to stay out of trouble until October 1993, when he was convicted of grand theft in Idaho and was placed on probation.

He was convicted in 1993 and again in 1994 of domestic assault, Clark County, Wash., court records show, for which he was fined a total of $500 and spent three days in jail. Details of the cases are not available; the sheriff's office has destroyed the files due to their age.

Samuelson never stayed put for very long. Records show he bounced around the West, moving back and forth mostly between central California, Idaho and the Portland-Vancouver area. He bought his current house in 1999.

In 2005, he applied to Washington state for a notary public's license, which allows him to authenticate legal documents. Samuelson didn't have to disclose his prior criminal history in his application because it only asks for convictions from the past 10 years.

Samuelson, who now runs a business serving court papers, settled into a comfortable suburban life.

He might have been an all-but-forgotten footnote in a long-settled affair if events hadn't taken an unusual turn in January, as Morales' defense attorneys pursued last-ditch efforts to save his life.

It's common for a defense attorney to appeal a client's death sentence, and Morales' defense team was no different. For years, they have been arguing that Morales should not be put to death because Samuelson lied in order to hand prosecutors the death sentence they sought and win himself an early release.

Their main evidence is that Samuelson had said he and Morales avoided being overheard by other prisoners in the cell block by conversing in Spanish.

"Unbeknownst to Samuelson, or the Attorney General, Mike Morales grew up in an English-speaking household and it is undisputed that he does not speak Spanish," Morales' team argues in a plea for clemency.

Prosecutors contend the conversation took place in pidgin Spanish or Spanglish, but in a tape-recorded interview with investigators, Samuelson said Morales spoke "fluent" Spanish.

The Spanish issue notwithstanding, prosecutors maintain that most of Samuelson's testimony was corroborated by others at Morales' trial. "Most of the jurors didn't consider the testimony of Bruce Samuelson that important," San Joaquin Deputy District Attorney Charles Schultz says. "They didn't hang him based on what he said. They went after Michael Morales based on the evidence they heard in his trial."

Indeed, some of the jurors who condemned Morales agree with Schultz.

"Bruce Samuelson's testimony played only a small part in the trial," wrote one juror whose name was not publicly released. "Because Bruce Samuelson was a jailhouse informant, I took his testimony with a grain of salt. His testimony was by no means the difference between life and death for the jury."

Even if it could definitively be proven that Samuelson lied, Morales wouldn't be entitled to a new trial or a reprieve unless it could be shown that prosecutors had known he was lying, Schultz says. And so Morales' appeals failed, one after another.

It would have been great if the district attorney's office could have put a business leader or banker on the stand, but witnesses in criminal cases are not often pillars of the community, he says.

"Mr. Samuelson is Mr. Samuelson," Schultz says. "I'm not going to try to make him into something he's not."

In January of this year, however, the judge who sentenced Morales to die did an about-face. After re-examining the evidence, retired Superior Court Judge Charles McGrath concluded that Samuelson had probably lied and the death sentence hinged on Samuelson's testimony.

As Morales' Feb. 21 execution date loomed, McGrath wrote Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asking him to spare Morales' life.

Samuelson's "credible" testimony "was the only evidence to support the single special circumstance—lying in wait—that made Mr. Morales eligible for the death penalty, as well as the rape conviction," McGrath wrote.

"It had nothing to do with anything to do with [Morales'] character or how he is now," McGrath said in an interview earlier this year. "It had to do with the perjured testimony entirely. I'm worried about the integrity of our system."

It was an extraordinary move by a judge. In fact, it was the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1977 that a judge has taken such a step, says Natasha Minsker, director of death-penalty policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

In February, despite McGrath's plea, Schwarzenegger denied Morales executive clemency, his last hope to avoid the needle. Now all that postpones the inevitable is a separate federal challenge over whether Morales might feel pain during the lethal-injection process. A hearing on that question is scheduled in September.

Last month, WW called Samuelson at his Vancouver office.

At first he said we had the wrong Bruce Samuelson and that he had no idea what we were talking about. He denied ever having been in the San Joaquin County Jail.

Roughly a week later, after WW tried to talk to him in person at his office, Samuelson called WW and left a voicemail reversing that position.

He said he would be willing to set up an interview "on my terms, not on yours. There's going to be some pretty strict requirements, and you'll be required to sign a contract, as well as your managing editor."

In the message, Samuelson said he'd call back. He didn't. Nor did he respond to WW's subsequent calls or emails.

"I don't have anything to hide, the facts are the facts," his message said. "The testimony's been the same for 25 years, hasn't changed, isn't going to. Some people make mistakes in their lives—some of us learn from them."

Sacramento-based investigative reporter Stephen James contributed to this report. He can be reached via his website, www.stephenjames.us.

Family Court

Bruce Samuelson's ex-wife, Sarah, declined to talk to WW because of the ongoing custody battle over their 14-year-old son. But in a sworn declaration earlier this year, she urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute Morales' sentence to life without the possibility of parole because "I know that [Samuelson's] word should not be trusted when someone's life is at stake."

She says she has "personal knowledge of Bruce's extensive history of deceit, physical violence, theft, drug use and dealing, and sexually predatory behavior."

Daughter Sabrina Samuelson, a 21-year-old beauty-salon manager, says in a separate declaration that her father has "physically, emotionally and financially damaged just about everyone who has come to trust him."

 
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