Two 15-year-old boys pleaded guilty Friday to killing the estranged husband of an Escondido high school teacher's aide, saying the woman promised them $100,000 and two cars to carry out the crime.
Anthony Pilato and Isaac Hill, both freshmen at Orange Glen High School, admitted in separate hearings in San Diego Juvenile Court that they murdered Robert (Wayne) Pearce at the behest of his wife, Roberta.
Both sat resolutely with their hands folded as they answered a series of questions from Judge Gil Smith pinning down the circumstances of the killing. Pearce, a 40-year-old construction worker, was attacked outside his Cardiff apartment as he left for work Jan. 31.
The pair acknowledged that they used a hatchet and a kitchen knife to slay Pearce, who suffered nearly 50 slash and stab wounds before his assailants fled. Both said they plotted the scheme along with Roberta Pearce, a popular teacher's aide for students with learning disabilities at Orange Glen High.
Hill told the judge that the murder was committed with the promise that they would get the money to share and the two used cars. Pilato was to get the couple's 1972 Corvette and Hill another car.
Prosecutors contend that Roberta Pearce, who faces a preliminary hearing Tuesday, solicited the murder of her husband of 14 years in an attempt to reap $200,000 in life insurance money and hold onto her Valley Center home, which she faced losing because of the couple's imminent divorce.
Josephine Dedina and Jeffrey Reilly, attorneys for the youths, declined to comment on the reason their clients pleaded guilty during Friday's session, a routine pretrial hearing.
But the chief prosecutor in the case said he believes the pair decided to admit their roles in the slaying because the weight of evidence against them would have been too great to surmount in a trial.
"We had a very strong case against them, and I think they recognized there was nothing to be gained by going to trial," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Carlos Armour, chief of the juvenile division.
Armour agreed during the hearing, however, to drop weapons charges against each boy, which could have added a year to their prison time.
Because both were not yet 16 when they killed Wayne Pearce, they could not be tried as adults. Under sentencing rules for Juvenile Court, Pilato and Hill can only be held in a California Youth Authority facility until the age of 25. They face sentencing May 22.
Both would be eligible for parole in as little as seven years after sentencing. They could, however, be incarcerated past age 25 if they are deemed to be a threat to society, a charge they could challenge in adult court.
The parents of Pilato sat through their son's hearing, but were ushered out of the courtroom through a side door so they could avoid reporters gathered outside. Hill's mother attended the session for her son and was also whisked past the press.
After the hearings, Armour said he was not surprised by the guilty pleas, noting that he was aware "they were considering this for the last few weeks."
Although the weapons charges were scratched by prosecutors, the boys did not promise to testify against Roberta Pearce as part of a plea bargain, he said. None of the allegations lodged in court by the two boys can be used in the prosecution of Pearce, Armour said.
Their testimony against Pearce, however, might "make a difference" in where they are placed within the youth prison system, Armour said.
"If they want to testify, that's great, but there's absolutely no hold on them to testify," Armour said. "There are certain elements these guys would pull into a trial, but we can obviously proceed without them. We had intended to proceed without them all along."
William Fletcher, Pearce's attorney, said late Friday afternoon that he had been told by Tim Casserly, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case against the teacher's aide, that the two youths will testify in the upcoming court case. Casserly could not be reached for comment.
Fletcher said Pearce has consistently maintained that "she was not the motivator of this killing." Moreover, he suggested that the testimony of Hill and Pilato might turn out to be "a mixed blessing" for the defense.
Once on the stand, the pair can be cross-examined "in an adversarial" atmosphere, Fletcher said, allowing "12 people of the community to weigh their credibility as witnesses."
He said the timing of the guilty pleas "is not mere happenstance," suggesting that Hill and Pilato "have a motivation to implicate Mrs. Pearce" to increase their chances for an earlier parole date.
Hill and Pilato were among a cadre of teen-agers who began frequenting Pearce's sprawling, tile-roofed house in Valley Center after the teacher's aide and her husband separated, according to court papers filed in the case.
The group began to develop a month before the murder, when Pearce took in a troubled 16-year-old girl she had befriended at Orange Glen High School. Soon the house was regularly filled with six or eight youths.