An ex-convict allegedly tied to the Aryan Brotherhood was acquitted Wednesday of the eight-year-old murder of a Long Beach man whose kneecap had been shot off--a shooting style police claim is the "calling card" of the white racist prison gang.
After the verdict was read in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, Joseph Michael O'Rourke, 35, who was in custody but dressed in a dark blue suit, grabbed his wife and mother across the front row railing of the courtroom and hugged them. Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Goethals, stunned by the verdict, left without speaking to anyone, including jurors who had wanted to talk to him.
Arrested Last Year
O'Rourke and Terrence J. Cosgrove, 36, were arrested last year and charged with the murder of an acquaintance, Ricky Helt, whose body was found in a car parked at the Huntington Beach Central Library on Oct. 9, 1977. Prosecutors claimed that O'Rourke killed Helt after questioning him about some drugs allegedly stolen from O'Rourke's girlfriend.
Even though O'Rourke was out of prison, police believe he was still tied to the Aryan Brotherhood from a previous prison term.
Cosgrove, whose trial is pending, is accused of aiding and abetting O'Rourke.
O'Rourke had been a suspect in the shooting almost from the time Helt's body was found. Ten days after Helt's slaying, O'Rourke was arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer while attempting to steal a van. He was convicted in the van incident and sent to prison for five years.
In 1979 Ken Waterman, under arrest on bank robbery charges, told police he had participated with O'Rourke and Cosgrove in killing Helt.
O'Rourke was not arrested then because police could not verify Waterman's story. But last year two state prison inmates--Michael Thompson and Steve Barnes--told police that O'Rourke had told them that he killed Helt. That led to the arrests of O'Rourke and Cosgrove last December.
Treatise on Brotherhood
O'Rourke's four-week trial became a treatise for jurors on the inner workings of the Aryan Brotherhood, with details presented by both the defense and the prosecution.
Thompson, a former leader of the gang still in prison on a murder conviction, described how the Aryan Brotherhood had ordered the death of Barnes' father because Barnes had testified against a gang member. O'Rourke's attorney, Robert Chatterton, brought in evidence of gang members testifying in half a dozen different murder cases in which gang members were defendants.
One woman juror, who did not want to be named, left the courtroom in tears. She said later, after calming down, that it had been an emotional trial for her.
"I guess I should have known that things like the Aryan Brotherhood existed," she said. "But I've always blocked things like that from my mind."
Some jurors said the three key prosecution witnesses--Thompson, Barnes and Waterman, who all had ties to the Aryan Brotherhood--lacked credibility as witnesses because of their criminal records and their demeanor on the witness stand.
"We thought there was strong evidence that Mr. O'Rourke was guilty," said jury foreman Patrick A. Long of Santa Ana. "But there was evidence it could have happened another way, too. We just couldn't get past 'reasonable doubt.' " Judges in California instruct juries they must find defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before returning a guilty verdict.
Jurors said they thought prosecutor Goethals had done an excellent job, but that his case was hurt by the type of witnesses he had.
"Look what we had to work with," said juror Michael Watkins of Huntington Beach. "As prosecution witnesses were a parade of murderers, robbers and thieves. What a messy, messy case."
Several jurors agreed that defense attorney Chatterton's extensive homework on the Aryan Brotherhood and the backgrounds of the prosecution witnesses helped sway them in O'Rourke's favor.
Cosgrove Case Linked
Goethals had said before the verdict that an acquittal of O'Rourke could affect the pending prosecution of Cosgrove. The prosecutor was unavailable to comment on it after the verdict, but Chatterton predicted the case against Cosgrove would be dismissed.
O'Rourke's mother, Marguerite O'Rourke, said his family was planning a huge celebration for him.
"I've known from the beginning he was innocent," she said. "He has never lied to me, not since he was this high (indicating a small child)."
O'Rourke's wife, Mary, said he had a marine maintenance business before he was arrested. "Everything is gone. This trial has been a tremendous financial drain on us."
Family members refuse to say whether O'Rourke was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Chatterton said O'Rourke probably associated with Aryan Brotherhood members as a means of survival. Chatterton quoted former gang member Thompson, who testified that inmates joined the gang because "in here, you are either the predator, or the one preyed upon."