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Words to survive witnesses

George Milina testified with labored breathing during a fall preliminary hearing for three people accused of swindling him out of his home, but he won't be around for the trial.

He's dead.

Brenda Hines testified at the same hearing a few weeks after surgeons used 120 staples to close surgical incisions. Since then, her cancer has returned and she doesn't expect to live long enough to testify at trial, either.

That's why attorneys insisted on in-depth questioning during the preliminary hearing for Lonni Ashlock, Ronald Buhler and Sue Walls. The hearing was to determine if there was enough cause to hold them for trial.

The uncommon approach turned a hearing that is typically a few hours into a monthlong ordeal, ending Nov. 17. But everything that 10 alleged victims said then can be used at trial, whether they are dead or alive.

"That's why we do it," Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said of the unusual scrutiny. "It's good to have them under oath in case something unexpected happens."

Defense attorneys, who hammered witnesses' credibility, may profit from the preserved testimony as well. It was Walls' attorney, Cort Wiegand, who reminded the judge in October why things were moving so slowly.

"Your honor, these people may die," Wiegand said.

Prosecutors often spare witnesses from appearing at preliminary hearings, relying instead on a rule allowing law enforcement officers to lay out the case. Witnesses usually must testify at trial, however. Unless they're unable.

For example, Scott Peterson's defense team taped an interview with an elderly woman recounting a possible sighting of Laci Peterson after the time that she vanished on Christmas Eve 2002. But prosecutors were not present during filming to question 80-year-old Vivian Mitchell and she died shortly before the trial began in 2004.

If Mitchell had testified at Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing three months before her death, jurors might have heard her story at trial a few months later.

Peterson was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and unborn son and remains on death row.

Several witnesses at the fall hearing for Ashlock and Buhler appeared frail as they testified that the men prayed with them, promised to rescue them from foreclosure and then duped them into signing over property deeds.

Tammy Wilkinson, saying she had brain lesions, passed out and suffered a seizure while leaving the witness stand. Milina, a heart patient with spinal disease and hepatitis, weakened at one point, was excused and left the courtroom limping and breathing heavily.

Milina wept while testifying on another day, saying he thought Ashlock "represented the Lord. He was heaven-sent, sent to my door to pull me out of this mess."

A judge eventually ordered Ashlock, Buhler and Walls to stand trial on 15 felony charges of fraud and grand theft.

A Bee review of property records in four counties last year showed that the men and their 10 companies had acquired at least 142 properties from people being threatened with foreclosure. Walls is a notary public who recorded some of the transactions.

Saying they had discovered more victims, prosecutors later added more charges, bringing the total to 56 counts for each defendant. Most of the additional counts will require a second preliminary hearing. A judge scheduled their next appearance for April 4.

Ashlock last month hired a new attorney, freeing his previous attorney to represent Doug Porter, a former Hickman pastor charged with murder. Ashlock's new lawyer said it could take a year to bring the fraud case to trial.

Hines, 51, said Monday that her doctor recently estimated that she will live six months.

She sought medical help days after testifying. "I went in the hospital thinking it was bronchitis and woke up with cancer spread everywhere," she said.

Her longtime boyfriend, Russell Jones, said they are giving up hope of spending her last days in the modest home they lost to Ashlock and Buhler. Jones' civil lawsuit, and those of 24 others, await the outcome of the criminal case.

Jones, who also testified at the hearing, said Hines has lost 60pounds, eats little more than chicken noodle soup, relies on an oxygen tank around the clock and is in too much pain to withstand a drive to the ocean.

"She's a tough girl, but it doesn't look good for the home team," Jones said.

He sold a 1969 Plymouth Road Runner, which he had owned more than three decades, to help defray expenses, he said.

Milina, who also had sued Ashlock and Buhler, ran out of time Feb. 18 at age 56. He died one month after moving from Modesto to Tracy.

But his words, such as, "We prayed to the Lord and (Ashlock and Buhler) turned around and preyed on me," uttered Oct. 18, could resurface when the defendants face a jury.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.