A Costa Mesa man who held off police with a rifle while he barricaded himself and two young children inside his apartment--and whose wife's body was later found in an automobile trunk--was found guilty of second-degree murder Friday by a Superior Court jury.
If jurors decide next week that the defendant, Austin Elliot Beal, 52, also tried to kill a previous wife in Tennessee 15 years ago, five more years could be added to the 16-year-to-life sentence he is facing after Friday's conviction.
Beal pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of his former wife five years ago, according to Tennessee court records.
In the more recent case, the body of Beal's second wife, Gretchen Spritz Beal, 32, was found stuffed in the trunk of the family car on March 11, 1984, after Beal ended a seven-hour holdout and surrendered to Costa Mesa police. She had been beaten and strangled, officers said.
Law enforcement officials alleged that Beal had called family members in Florida earlier that morning and asked them to pick up his children because he had killed his wife. He called them back about six hours later to see if they were coming, and the family then called the police.
When police arrived at Beal's home, he was barricaded inside with a rifle and his two children, Elliott, 4, and Meghan, 6 months. Sgt. Allen Kent, a Costa Mesa police hostage negotiator, tried to coax Beal into surrendering and was in telephone contact throughout the incident. Police at the time described Beal as tearful and despondent.
The holdout ended when Beal sent out his son first, then came out to give up his rifle. He reentered the apartment and was arrested there. Police took the youngsters to the Albert Sitton Home.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade said he was pleased with the jury's verdict Friday, even though he had asked for a first-degree murder conviction.
Defense attorney Donald Rubright had argued to jurors that Beal was drinking heavily when his wife was killed and could not have demonstrated the intent to kill required in a first-degree murder conviction.
Jurors in the Beal case have not yet been told of Beal's conviction for the attempted murder of his first wife 15 years ago. Under state law, the jury must reconvene to decide whether Beal's prior record should add any time to his sentence.