Guilty verdicts in estate-motivated murder

Two convicted of murdering Palm Springs retiree
Kate McGinty
January 3, 2011
The Desert Sun
http://www.mydesert.com/article/20110103/NEWS0802/110103001/Jury+deliberates+today+in+Palm+Springs+murder+case

Two Bay Area men were convicted today in the financially motivated stabbing murder of a Palm Springs retiree.

The three-month trial wrapped up with the first-degree murder convictions of 61-year-old San Francisco attorney David Replogle and Miguel Bustamante, a 28-year-old former Castro District bartender from Daly City.

Both men also were found guilty of eight other felony counts, including burglary, conspiracy, grand theft and identity theft.

They face life prison terms without the possibility of parole when sentenced on March 4.

The jury handed down the verdict early this afternoon, hours after returning from a two-week holiday break.

“It suddenly struck me what was really going on, in sort of an emotional way,” said Mark Kurtich, 58, who served as jury foreman.

Kurtich, who works at The Desert Sun as operations director, made a conscious effort to look the defendants in the eyes as they heard the verdicts that could send them to prison.

“I felt that I owed it to them in an odd sort of way,” said Kurtich, an Indio resident. “It wouldn’t have been right to just not look at them or pretend they weren’t there.”

The long trial

The case stemmed from the Dec. 5, 2008, stabbing death of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert. Authorities think he was buried in the desert, but his body has not been found.

Prosecutors said Bustamante and Replogle, along with several others awaiting trial, orchestrated the murder to steal Lambert’s money and possessions.

It was part of a “massive conspiracy” to loot the retiree and to “erase” him so he could not go to police, Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria said.

Defense attorneys blamed the death squarely on the shoulders of Daniel Carlos Garcia and Kaushal Niroula, an acknowledged con man.

With so many names and 33 days worth of evidence and testimony to track, the most daunting part of the trial for jurors was how to stay organized, Kurtich said.

He jotted notes during the trial and filled about two-and-a-half steno pads, as did most other jurors. The jury also asked more than 100 questions of those testifying.

Bay Area men were convicted today in the financially motivated stabbing murder of a Palm Springs retiree.

The three-month trial wrapped up with the first-degree murder convictions of 61-year-old San Francisco attorney David Replogle and Miguel Bustamante, a 28-year-old former Castro District bartender from Daly City.

Both men also were found guilty of eight other felony counts, including burglary, conspiracy, grand theft and identity theft.

They face life prison terms without the possibility of parole when sentenced on March 4.

The jury handed down the verdict early this afternoon, hours after returning from a two-week holiday break.

“It suddenly struck me what was really going on, in sort of an emotional way,” said Mark Kurtich, 58, who served as jury foreman.

Kurtich, who works at The Desert Sun as operations director, made a conscious effort to look the defendants in the eyes as they heard the verdicts that could send them to prison.

“I felt that I owed it to them in an odd sort of way,” said Kurtich, an Indio resident. “It wouldn’t have been right to just not look at them or pretend they weren’t there.”

The case stemmed from the Dec. 5, 2008, stabbing death of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert. Authorities think he was buried in the desert, but his body has not been found.

Prosecutors said Bustamante and Replogle, along with several others awaiting trial, orchestrated the murder to steal Lambert’s money and possessions.

It was part of a “massive conspiracy” to loot the retiree and to “erase” him so he could not go to police, Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria said.

Defense attorneys blamed the death squarely on the shoulders of Daniel Carlos Garcia and Kaushal Niroula, an acknowledged con man.

With so many names and 33 days worth of evidence and testimony to track, the most daunting part of the trial for jurors was how to stay organized, Kurtich said.

He jotted notes during the trial and filled about two-and-a-half steno pads, as did most other jurors. The jury also asked more than 100 questions of those testifying.

“We really felt prepared,” Kurtich said. “I think the biggest thing that took away the feeling of being overwhelmed was this was a very dedicated and intelligent jury.”

As thoughtful as the jurors were about the case, Kurtich said he constantly reminded himself to not draw any conclusions about guilt.

“There were times when I thought there was evidence that was overwhelming or underwhelming, but I just had to keep in perspective that (there would be a) time to pull it all together,” he said.

The deliberations

It was not until the jurors walked into the deliberation room in late December that they could finally speak to each other for the first time.

The jury began sifting through their notes in a “very deliberate” way and decided how to tackle their discussions, Kurtich said.

The 12 jurors agreed easily on some charges, but there was “a fair amount of give and take” while discussing others, Kurtich said.

The biggest struggle for them came down to the felony charge of conspiracy.

“That was the one that was fraught with some direct evidence, some indirect evidence and some hearsay,” Kurtich said.

Jurors broke for the holidays and returned Monday.

They reached an unanimous verdict by early afternoon, after a total of about 14 hours of deliberation,

“I think we were able to get off to a more productive start because it was a little more planned out and thoughtful,” Kurtich said.

As the verdict was read, Bustamante, who was accused of the actual stabbing, had no reaction.

Replogle and his defense attorney, John Patrick Dolan, shook their heads when his verdict came out.

After the verdict

After the crowded courtroom cleared out, some jurors lingered for a chance to discuss the case with both the defense and prosecuting attorneys.

The attorneys asked for jurors’ critique or how they responded to certain evidence, while the jurors quizzed the attorneys on their tactics.

“I think it was sort of the piece of closure we needed,” Kurtich said.

For some involved, the case is not over yet.

The typical 20-day period for sentencing was waived so the court can prepare transcripts of a trial that lasted 33 days spread over nearly three months.

Dolan told jurors that Craig McCarthy, who testified for the prosecution, participated in the Lambert killing but will get 25 years and four months when sentenced next month, and should be out in about 20 years or so, after serving 85 percent of his term.

He will not face an indeterminate sentence that could have gone much longer, Dolan said, adding “he knows who gave (the lighter sentence) to him and who he owes,” suggesting that McCarthy’s testimony was tailored for the prosecution.

After three grueling months of jury work during the day and work at night, Kurtich is ready to put the case behind him.

Still, he is comfortable with the verdict the jury reached.

“There’s no real sense of victory, but definitely a sense of justice,” Kurtich said.

“It’s almost kind of embarrassing, but there’s a sense of pride that you get for being a part of the system and doing the work that the system intends us to do to keep law and order in our country.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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