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Jurors Say Trip Discredited Defendant's Story : Motel Visit Key to 'Pizza Murder' Verdict

March 05, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

A courtroom field trip to the motel room where a Glendale pizza deliveryman was murdered uncovered inconsistencies in the testimony of defendant Ruby Carolyn Padgett, which ultimately led to her conviction, jurors said.

"The trip changed my entire perspective. . . . Up to that point, I thought she had limited involvement," said Robert Prudden, a member of the jury that last week declared Padgett guilty of first-degree murder in the Dec. 9, 1985, motel room killing of Domino's Pizza deliveryman, John Steven Harrigan, 21.

Harrigan's body was found hogtied and submerged in a bathtub at the Regalodge Motel in Glendale. A washcloth was stuffed in his mouth and a pillowcase was tied over his head.

Padgett faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole because the murder was committed during the course of a robbery.

Contradictory Testimony

Throughout the seven-week trial, Padgett repeatedly insisted that her boyfriend, Mitchell Carleton Sims, 26, was solely responsible for the killing and that she was no more than an unwilling observer.

On the witness stand she told jurors that Sims alone carried Harrigan into the bathroom by grabbing the back of his shirt collar with one hand and grasping the waist of his jeans with the other. She repeatedly testified that she neither helped Sims carry Harrigan nor set foot into the bathroom.

Her testimony contradicted statements she made during a tape-recorded interview with Glendale police after her arrest on Christmas Day, 1985, in which she told Detective Jon Perkins that she was in the bathroom during the murder and watched Sims drown Harrigan.

Padgett said she had lied to Perkins to "hurt" Sims by further implicating him in the murder.

But jurors, after visiting the motel room, said they were convinced that it would have been impossible for the heavy-set Sims to simultaneously squeeze himself and Harrigan through the bathroom's two-foot doorway.

"Either he was dragged into the bathroom--and she had every opportunity to say that, and she didn't--or she helped Sims by carrying Harrigan's feet or head," juror Prudden said.

"We were all very shocked at how small the entrance was," agreed juror Betty Hegle, who said her fellow jurors expressed similar sentiments during the seven days of deliberations.

Further Evidence

Furthermore, Hegle said, evidence of cigarette ashes on the toilet seat discovered by police coupled with testimony by Padgett that she was the only smoker in the motel room was "another thing that made us think she helped carry him in."

Six jurors were reached for comment by The Times after the trial. Most said circumstantial evidence against Padgett proved stronger than her testimony.

"There were a lot of inconsistencies," said juror Karen Vardiman-Moody. "As far as I'm concerned, she was totally involved in the murder. She had both the intent and the knowledge."

Jurors also convicted Padgett, a 21-year-old South Carolina native, of two counts of armed robbery in connection with a holdup of two of Harrigan's co-workers at the Brand Boulevard Domino's Pizza parlor later that same night. However, they acquitted her of attempted murder charges in the incident in which Kory Spiroff and Edmund Secum were locked inside a food freezer and tied in such a way that they had to stand on their tiptoes to avoid strangulation.

The verdict was reached last Thursday evening after seven days of deliberation.

Padgett cried quietly and wiped tears from her eyes as the court clerk read the verdict.

Sims, 26, also a South Carolina native, will be tried in April on the same charges brought against Padgett. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Defense attorney Rayford Fountain said he was very disappointed with the outcome of the Padgett trial and surprised that the jury convicted his client on the special circumstance allegation of robbery, which makes her ineligible for parole.

"When that prison door slams, she never comes out. I don't think the facts of the case warrant at all that she should be found guilty of the special circumstance," he said. "If the case is not overthrown on appeal, she will die in prison."

Meanwhile, Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry A. Green, prosecutor in the case, said he was pleased with the verdict.

"It was a very just verdict that reflects the truth," he said.

Green called the taped-recorded statements made by Padgett to police his strongest piece of evidence against the defendant because in them, he said, she displayed a "very calloused" attitude and "indifference toward the death of John Harrigan."

'Light-Hearted Conversation'

"She was laughing when discussing the tortuous death. It was a light-hearted conversation about killing somebody," the prosecutor said.

But during the trial, Fountain painted a different portrait of Padgett and attempted to show that she was a victim of a violent family life that caused her to enter into relationships with abusive men like Sims.

Sims, who is also charged with the shooting deaths of two Domino's Pizza employees in South Carolina six days before Harrigan's death, threatened to kill Padgett if she did not flee with him from South Carolina to Florida and then to Glendale, where he alone committed the crimes, Fountain said.

"I really feel sorry for her," said juror Robert Prudden, echoing the sentiment expressed by several jurors. "But that doesn't exonerate her from her responsibilities in this case."

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