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2 Schoolteachers to Plead Guilty in Bizarre Car Firebombings

October 25, 1986|JANE APPLEGATE | Times Staff Writer

Two Dana Point schoolteachers, facing 100 years in prison for hiring a band of mercenaries to firebomb cars, agreed Friday to plead guilty to two of 10 federal charges.

Charlotte Ruth Wyckoff, 52, and Elizabeth Leta Hamilton, 39, are both scheduled to plead guilty Monday to one count of racketeering and one count of being an accessory to a firebombing, Assistant U.S. Attys. David W. Wiechert and Charles S. Stevens said Friday. The pleas will be entered before U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler. Both women have been held without bail since their arrest May 20.

By accepting the government's plea bargain, the women, who operated a chain of private schools in Orange and San Bernardino counties, face maximum sentences of 20 years and up to $375,000 in fines.

"We believe that a 20-year possible period of incarceration will give the court sufficient flexibility to mete out any appropriate punishment with additional time for probation," Wiechert said in an interview.

Three other defendants in the case are scheduled to go on trial Tuesday.

One Revelation After Another

But the expected pleas will close one chapter in a story that has unfolded in the last 14 months with one bizarre revelation after another.

First, on Aug. 13, 1985, homemade firebombs concocted from soap, gasoline and flares blew two cars to smithereens in San Bernardino County. Nine months later, to the astonishment of their Dana Point neighbors, the two south Orange County school administrators were arrested and charged in the case.

Federal prosecutors charged that the women hired the owner and chief instructor of an Alabama mercenary training camp to intimidate six former employees who had complained to state officials about problems at the schools. The man, Frank J. Camper, 39, was arrested and charged with masterminding the blasts.

Concerned About Threats

Testimony during a six-hour bail hearing last May, as well as other statements and records on file in federal court, portray Hamilton and Wyckoff as close friends who became deeply concerned about threats against their schools.

State records show that some teachers filed complaints with the state Department of Social Services about overcrowding, understaffing and inadequate food service in the schools. Three teachers who made similar complaints to Wyckoff and Hamilton were then fired.

At the same time, beginning in late 1983, the pair's five schools in San Bernardino County were hit by a wave of vandalism that has never been explained.

Additionally, although the schools' Yellow Pages ads boasted "credentialed teachers," Hamilton, who worked as a teacher and administrator, didn't have a valid California teaching credential.

According to the former teachers' attorneys, law enforcement officials and others who know them, Hamilton and Wyckoff lived in fear that their schools could be closed as a result of the complaints by teachers, the vandalism and the fact that Hamilton did not have a valid California teaching credential.

They decided to hire Camper, the government alleged, after watching a cable television interview with him in July, 1985.

Wyckoff, who also goes by the name Roth, holds a lifetime California teaching credential issued in 1982, and a lifetime child development programs permit issued in 1977.

A friend said Wyckoff became a teacher because her adopted son, Joey, 17, suffered from learning disabilities and his public school teachers told her there was nothing they could do for him. Joey was being trained by Camper and his associates to protect his mother and Hamilton at the time of their arrest, according to court testimony.

A native of Kansas, Wyckoff, 52, built up her business until, by 1985, she owned seven private schools in San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, Rancho Cucamonga, Alta Loma and Upland. She made a comfortable living and purchased a four-level home with an ocean view in 1983.

Hamilton Changed Life

But Wyckoff's life began to change when Elizabeth Hamilton, 39, who goes by her middle name Leta, came to work for her as a teacher around 1981, according to Wyckoff's daughter, Shirley Wright.

Hamilton pretended to be Wyckoff's daughter and called her "Ma," according to several sheriff's deputies who testified at the bail hearing.

In mid-August, 1985, Camper, owner and chief instructor of "The Mercenary Association," a survival and mercenary school near Hueytown, Ala.; his girlfriend, Lee Ann Faulk, 27, and three teachers from his training camp, Paul Johnson, 42, James Larosa Cuneo, 22, and William Dean Hedgcorth, 23, arrived in California after being summoned by Wyckoff and Hamilton, according to the indictment. The women allegedly paid Camper's expenses and several thousand dollars in cash. They paid his associates $1,000 each, the indictment said.

Posing as an attorney's investigator, Camper collected home addresses and other information about six former employees. He put together a booklet of pictures of the employees and their children, according to government records.

The firebombings took place on Aug. 13, two days after the mercenaries spent the day at Disneyland, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.

The owners of two cars that were bombed were former teachers who had been fired after complaining about working conditions at the schools. The government alleges that a third former teacher was also targeted, but that the attack was aborted when a sheriff's patrol car drove by.

Camper, Faulk and Hedgcorth are scheduled for trial Tuesday.

Camper's Alabama training camp, once bustling with an international clientele and the chatter of submachine gun fire, is empty, according to Richard J. Palmisano, group supervisor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Birmingham, Ala., post.

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