Jeff Jardine

When murder cases past and more recent have plenty of appeal(s)

1984 file photo of Elbert Easley photographed in a Salinas, Calif. court room. The State Supreme Court reversed Easley's death sentence, ruling the defense lawyer had a conflict of interest.
1984 file photo of Elbert Easley photographed in a Salinas, Calif. court room. The State Supreme Court reversed Easley's death sentence, ruling the defense lawyer had a conflict of interest. Associated Press

Hang around long enough in this business and you’ll be able connect the dots between any two stories or events. A case – or cases – in point:

A couple of weeks ago, the documentary film arguing for a new trial for convicted killer Scott Peterson debuted in Palm Springs, where The Bee’s Garth Stapley attended both the showing and the question-and-answer session involving Peterson’s attorneys, past and present. Who knows? Peterson could, indeed, get a new trial if the appellate attorneys can prove Judge Alfred DeLucchi made significant errors that skewed the jury or that his attorney, Mark Geragos, performed incompetently.

Meanwhile, on Monday morning I received a call from Al Girolami, a retired Stanislaus Superior Court judge who now lives in the Bay Area.

“Hey, I heard Easley died,” he said.

Easley ... Easley ... Easley ... . Hmmm ... I was pretty certain Girolami referred to a defendant in a specific case from the county’s past, and the name did seem familiar. The specific details did not.

So he – and The Bee’s archives – brought me up to speed. Before Scott Peterson, Cary Stayner or any of the other more high-profile defendants from the Valley went to prison, Modesto experienced Elbert Lee Easley. In fact, Easley’s 1979 trial was outsourced to Monterey County because the case drew so much media attention here in Modesto. And that was long before the invention of the Internet and social media.

Just one problem, unless you’re Easley: He’s still alive at 76, riding out his life prison term in the California Health Care Facility in Stockton. The rumor, which Girolami heard from Easley’s trial attorney, turned out to be wrong. No matter. Easley’s case is one of the more engrossing ones the area ever encountered, perhaps as much by what transpired after his conviction as what led to it.

In October 1978, Easley bound and gagged both 38-year-old Reiner Junghans and his 26-year-old wife, Sigrid Angelika Junghans, in their Modesto home. Then Easley used an ice pick to kill both by stabbing them over 100 times, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

Why? Because he’d been hired to do the job for $4,000. The man who paid the tab was Reiner Junghans’ business associate, Joe Charles Penka, who not only owned an insulation company in Riverbank but also owned stock in another insulation company in Stockton that was run by Junghans. After Junghans beat Penka in a civil lawsuit for control of the Stockton company, Penka first hired a hitman from Texas who took $5,000 from Penka and then bolted. What was Penka going to do – call the cops and tell them he’d been ripped off by a hitman he hired to off his competitor?

So Penka enlisted the help of three middlemen, including two brothers, to find someone else to kill Junghans. They found Easley, a Fresno resident just 18 months out of a federal prison in Washington state after serving time for counterfeiting. Jobless and living in subsidized housing beforehand, investigators discovered that within days following the murders, Easley paid off one car loan, bought another car, got a new apartment, paid off other bills and bought new clothing with his ill-earned windfall.

His arrest led to the arrests of Penka and the middlemen, the three of whom negotiated immunity to testify against Easley and Penka in the 1979 murder trial. The tattling trio walked and never did time for their part in the crime.

Penka got a life term without the possibility of parole. Easley was convicted and sentenced to death, but that was just the beginning of his court odyssey. The California Supreme Court, which included Justice Rose Bird, in 1983 overturned Easley’s death sentence, ruling that the judge in Monterey County erred when he told jurors they could not consider any sympathy for him as they deliberated his fate. The sides retried the penalty phase and a second jury sentenced him to death as well.

Then, in 1989, the court overturned the second death sentence, too. On what grounds? Girolami still marvels at the case. He was a prosecutor in the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office at the time, handling the second penalty-phase trial for the county. Easley’s attorney – Roger Hanson – simultaneously represented a Nevada bordello owner, Walter Plankinton, in a case that eventually generated a book titled “The Nye County Brothel Wars.” Plankinton accused Easley of firebombing his cathouse just four months before the Junghanses were murdered.

An article in Hustler magazine referred to Easley as “an accused arsonist, and assassin,” per a 2014 story in the Pahrump Valley Times publication. In fact, when investigators searched Easley’s apartment in Fresno during the murder investigation, they found evidence indicating he’d been hired by the owner of a rival brothel to burn down Plankinton’s Chicken Ranch bordello (no, not in any way related to the casino near Jamestown).

Easley knew of Hanson’s other case and wanted him anyway. Maybe Easley had an ulterior motive, since Hanson represented the cathouse owner.

“When he was in jail up there (Monterey County), he wanted me to get (authorities) to bring him a woman in for a little bit,” Hanson said, with a combination of astonishment and bemusement in his voice.

The court overturned the second death sentence as well, citing Hanson’s conflict of interest. The state panel ordered a third death penalty phase trial. But by that time, six witnesses from the original trial – including one of the investigators – had died. Chief Deputy DA Jim Brazelton, who later became Stanislaus County’s DA, decided not to pursue a third penalty trial. Easley’s sentence was converted to life without the possibility of parole.

Girolami had lunch last month with Hanson in Southern California. That was when Hanson told him he’d heard Easley had died. Not so.

So how do the dots connect Easley’s case with Scott Peterson’s?

Their criminal trials both had to be moved. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death, but appealed. Girolami, who helped prosecute Easley, went on to become a Stanislaus Superior Court Judge.

Girolami handled the Peterson case after Peterson’s arrest in March 2003 until he granted the change of venue that sent the trial from Modesto to Redwood City.