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'I Am Not a Murderer' : San Pedro Resident Returns to Nervous Neighborhood After His Acquittal in Death Case

December 08, 1985|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

He walks with a cane and spends much of his time hobbling around his small San Pedro home, which he has shut off from the world with concrete walls, wood fences and palm and yucca trees.

Some of his neighbors call him eccentric; he says they simply don't understand him.

Two weeks ago, 53-year-old Jaroslav Skoda returned to his home on Kerckhoff Avenue a free man. He had been in jail nine months awaiting trial, accused of murdering a neighbor by shooting him through the heart with a handgun Skoda had strapped to his hip. He defended himself and was acquitted.

Despite the prosecution's contention that he deliberately shot Stephen Overbey during a heated argument, the Czechoslovakian immigrant maintained he acted in self-defense.

"In no way do I feel remorse," Skoda said last week as he sat in his home. "I sleep well; I feel well about myself. I don't think of Mr. Overbey at all." Later, he added: "I want people to know I am not a murderer."

Found Innocent

A slight man who speaks with a thick Eastern European accent, Skoda was freed from Los Angeles County Jail three days before Thanksgiving after a jury found him innocent of murdering Overbey, a 27-year-old auto mechanic who lived in an apartment next door to Skoda's home.

The two men had carried on a bitter feud for a year, often threatening one another and complaining to the police, Skoda said. Last year, Skoda placed Overbey under citizen's arrest for trespassing on his property. The fatal shooting in February was sparked by an argument that began, according to Skoda, when Overbey shook a steel rod that Skoda was using to build one of the walls around his house, almost causing a concrete block to topple on him.

As he defended himself during his three-week trial before Long Beach Superior Court Judge Charles D. Sheldon, Skoda, a high school graduate, wore dirty sneakers and chose to stay dressed in blue jail coveralls. He carried a plastic bag as a briefcase. He quoted Aristotle to the jurors.

He said he used the jail's library--not so much to study law books but to use the phone. Most of his knowledge of the law came from earlier dealings with the city attorney's office, he said.

"He did a very good job. He represented himself well," Sheldon said. "His legal motions were quite good. He cited the right cases. He is a very intelligent man."

Skoda's acquittal, however, has left some of his neighbors uneasy.

"You can imagine that we aren't too happy about the verdict," said one woman who asked that her name not be used. "I'm scared. Put it this way. How would you like a man who is capable of killing a person living in your neighborhood?"

Another neighbor, who also asked for anonymity, said: "I may wind up spending a lot of money and moving my family," adding that he has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.

Those same neighbors and several others say that most residents on the quiet street have long made it a point to avoid Skoda, who they say has occasionally provoked arguments over politics with a few residents.

Some recall an incident nearly five years ago when he beat a neighborhood dog. During his Municipal Court trial for cruelty to an animal, evidence showed that he beat the dog with his cane and, when the cane broke, a piece of clay pipe. He then threw the animal in a trash can, according to testimony at the trial. Skoda admitted in court that he beat the dog, which had to be put to sleep.

He said he beat the dog because of its incessant barking, describing the animal as a "tool of torture" that prevented him from sleeping. He was convicted on the charge and served about two weeks of a 30-day sentence. His conviction was later overturned by a higher court that ruled the jury had been improperly instructed by the judge, Skoda said.

Skoda said he feels no animosity toward his neighbors. Many, he said, simply do not understand him because of his strong political beliefs and his penchant for privacy, manifested in the eight- and nine-foot-high walls that he began building around his house four or five years ago to keep noise, neighbors and animals from his property.

"I am sort of a hermit, and every hermit is kind of suspicious to others," he said. "They have the same feelings as a domesticated animal does toward a wild one. They themselves do not know why they are afraid of me."

Skoda said he has cried since the shooting, shedding tears not for Overbey specifically but for having to kill a human being to protect himself. But he said he will use a gun again for the same purpose if he is forced to.

"If someone tries to hurt me, it could happen again and again and again," he said. "If nobody tries to hurt me, nobody will get hurt. I have the right to defend myself in any way I can."

Skoda said he came to the United States in 1968 to escape repression in his native country. On two occasions he was arrested in Czechoslovakia after attempting to illegally leave the country and spent almost three years in prison there, he said.

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