NEWPORT BEACH — A judge sentenced Lawrence Raymond Cowell to 25 years to life in prison Friday for the airplane murder of a young Anaheim man, ending nearly eight years of trials and court hearings for the victim's family which spurred their involvement in a statewide court-reform movement.
Cowell, 41, formerly of Anaheim, has been convicted of first-degree murder twice now for the April 17, 1982, death of Scott Campbell, whose body was dropped from an airplane and never found. A co-defendant, Donald P. DiMascio, 42, was convicted on the same charges at a separate trial.
"It's been seven years, nine months and nine days. That's a long time to go through a funeral every day," said Collene Campbell, the victim's mother.
Gary and Collene Campbell of San Juan Capistrano once counted up that they had appeared before more than a dozen judges in the two killers' pretrial hearings over the years.
Their frustration at the many delays, as well as numerous court decisions which went against them, led the Campbells to become leaders in an initiative--which will be on the state ballot in June--which would make California courts operate more like the federal system. The time between arrest and trial is usually much shorter in federal court, and defendants are granted fewer pretrial hearings.
The Campbells have faced another tragedy since their son's disappearance.
Collene Campbell's brother was 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.
The Campbells also count among their losses the end of their close friendship to Eugene and Laverne Cowell, the defendant's parents, who had been among their closest friends.
The friendship ended with Cowell's 1983 arrest in connection with Scott Campbell's death.
"I feel badly for both families," Superior Court Judge Ragnar Engebretson commented before sentencing Cowell: " . . . I would hope that someplace along the line, the rift between you would disappear, because there is a saying in my church, 'You don't love the sin, you love the sinner.' "
Cowell and DiMascio both confessed to undercover police agents in separate meetings in 1983 that they had killed Campbell and dropped his body from a small private plane flying 2,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, more than a mile past Catalina Island.
According to their confessions, Cowell was the pilot, and the actual killer was DiMascio, who said he broke Campbell's neck and dropped his lifeless body from the plane's door. But prosecutors contend that it was Cowell who hired DiMascio because Cowell was convinced that Campbell would be carrying a large amount of either money or drugs.
DiMascio's conviction and life-without-parole sentence were upheld last year by the 4th District Court of Appeal's Santa Ana division. But the same appellate court reversed Cowell's conviction two years ago. The justices claimed that Cowell's confession had been coerced and should not have been used as evidence against him.
Without Cowell's confession at his second trial last fall, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas M. Goethals had to rely primarily on evidence from the Campbell family's own investigation into their son's disappearance.
It was Gary and Collene Campbell who discovered that Cowell had rented a plane from Fullerton Municipal Airport on the morning that their son disappeared and that Cowell then got two other people to lie for him about where he had been. It was the Campbells who found their son's car in the parking lot at the Fullerton airport, after searching airports around Southern California for more than a week.
The Campbells knew that their son was leaving that morning for North Dakota for a business meeting and thought he would be flying on a commercial plane. What they did not know was that Campbell was on his way to Fargo, N.D., to sell a pound of cocaine. He apparently did not want to take the drugs on a commercial flight.
Campbell himself was unaware that he would be flying into a trap. The man in North Dakota planning to buy the drugs was a federal undercover narcotics informant, Greg Fox. Federal agents planned to arrest Campbell after the transaction.
Fox testified that the night before Campbell was to meet him, Fox called him at his home. But the call was forwarded to Cowell's auto body shop. Cowell told Fox that he would be flying Campbell on the trip.
Cowell's first trial was conducted before Judge Donald A. McCartin without a jury. His lawyers feared that a jury trial would result in a sentence of life without parole, which DiMascio eventually received. Cowell's lawyers had learned from the judge at a pretrial hearing that McCartin would give Cowell the 25-year sentence.
At Cowell's second trial last December, jurors took less than a day and a half to reach a verdict, unusually short in a murder case, where five to six days of deliberations is more common.