NEWPORT BEACH — Lawrence Raymond Cowell, whose conviction in the death of a 27-year-old Anaheim man was overturned because his confession was coerced, Wednesday was found guilty of first-degree murder for a second time.
Cowell, 41, who had been free from prison on $200,000 bail for more than a year, was immediately taken into custody.
The jury's verdict brought tears to Gary and Collene Campbell of San Juan Capistrano, whose diligent, private investigation after the April 17, 1982, disappearance of their son, Scott Campbell, had led to his killers' arrests.
"Maybe this is finally over," Gary Campbell said as they walked out of the courtroom with their daughter, Shelly.
Cowell and Donald Philip DiMascio, 41, had made separate confessions to undercover agents that they had killed Campbell in a rented airplane on April 7, 1982, and tossed his body into the Pacific while flying at 2,000 feet more than a mile past Catalina Island.
Cowell, who operated an auto body shop in Anaheim, claimed DiMascio wanted Campbell dead because of a drug deal turned sour. DiMascio said he killed Campbell by breaking his neck after Cowell had hired him for the job. Prosecutors believe Cowell wanted to kill Campbell to rob him of either drugs or money he might have been carrying. Campbell's body has never been found.
DiMascio's conviction was upheld by the 4th District Court of Appeal, which found that his admissions had been voluntary, even though he was talking to drug dealers instead of the police.
But last year, the same appellate justices ruled that Cowell's confession had been coerced. The justices believed the undercover agents had forced Cowell to admit his role only after threatening him. Without Cowell's confession, the police agents would never have known DiMascio existed.
The jurors in Harbor Court in Newport Beach, who were not permitted to hear evidence of Cowell's confession, took less than a day and a half to reach a verdict, an unusually short time in a murder case based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. The jurors also found Cowell guilty of conspiracy and robbery.
Cowell had testified he had flown to Palomar to make a drug deal that morning and was with neither Campbell nor DiMascio.
Wednesday afternoon, Cowell's mother, LaVern, had kissed him on the lips as they entered the courtroom before the verdict and told him: "Good luck, son." After the verdict, Superior Court Judge Ragnar R. Engebretson cleared the courtroom to allow the Cowell family time to say goodby to their son.
"It was a very sad scene," said Cowell's lawyer, Gerald J. Reopelle. "Larry's mother was especially devastated."
Before the verdict, Collene Campbell had told friends: "I'm worried about LaVern. This is so difficult for her."
The Campbells and the Cowells had been close friends, taking many holiday outings together. But their friendship ended when Cowell was first a suspect in Scott Campbell's death.
More than a week after Campbell disappeared, his parents discovered his car at the Fullerton Municipal Airport and also learned Cowell had rented an airplane there that morning.
It was the Campbells' investigation that led Anaheim police to discover that Cowell had asked two people to lie for him about where he had gone that morning. Cowell testified he had them lie to try to cover up his own drug deal in Palomar.
It was also the Campbells who rented the same small airplane later and discovered blood on the curtain and back passenger seat. Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas M. Goethals, however, was unable to get the blood evidence into the trial because it had been obtained without a search warrant.
Further, it was the Campbells who convinced investigator Greg Fox to come to California--at the Campbells' expense--and pose as a drug dealer working for the mob who needed to verify Scott Campbell's death.
Collene Campbell was a sister to racing entrepreneur Mickey Thompson, who, along with his wife, Trudi, was shot to death in front of their home in Bradbury on March 16, 1988. Their murders are still under investigation.
"We've been through so much the past few years I was prepared for anything today," Collene Campbell said after the Cowell verdict.
When the first "guilty" was read, the Campbells' daughter, Shelly, broke into tears and buried her head on her mother's shoulder.
Cowell attorney Reopelle said later he had prepared Cowell for the jury's verdict. "I can't quarrel with the decision based on this evidence," Reopelle said. "But I also thought a verdict showing reasonable doubt would have been fair too."
Cowell now faces an automatic sentence of 25 years to life in prison when sentenced Jan. 26, 1990.