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Man's Long Wait Ends as Son-In-Law Faces Trial : Crime: James Stroup, once held in his wife's slaying, says authorities finally have the right family member. An alleged accomplice, already imprisoned, implicated the defendant.

February 22, 1991|JANET RAE-DUPREE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most victims hate having to take the stand in court to tell their story again and again. For James Stroup, however, the news that he will have to appear as a witness at a fourth trial in the murder of his wife was cause for celebration.

It was news he had been waiting eight years to hear.

On Wednesday, Stroup's former son-in-law, Michael W. Seawright, was arraigned on charges that he had Stroup's wife, Catherine, shot to death in 1983 as part of a murder-for-hire plot to gain control of the family business.

Seawright, who pleaded not guilty, is being held without bail at County Jail. Prosecutors are charging him with special circumstances that would allow them to seek the death penalty.

Originally, Stroup himself was charged in Catherine's death after he found her body in the couple's Hawthorne apartment. Stroup spent seven months in County Jail and was set free when a Torrance Superior Court jury acquitted him.

Several months later, investigators discovered new evidence indicating that two brothers from Twentynine Palms, Peter and Paul Leach, had killed Catherine Stroup. In a 1984 confession, Peter Leach, 29, said Seawright promised him a new truck, $80,000 cash and a half-interest in a water delivery business if he would murder Seawright's parents-in-law.

Leach later recanted the confession and accused Seawright of pulling the trigger, but jurors convicted him of murder with a special circumstance of financial gain. He is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Paul Leach's first-degree murder trial began last week but ended Tuesday afternoon when Leach, 27, abruptly pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a plea bargain with prosecutors. Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Duarte declined to explain why he decided to accept Leach's plea to a lesser charge.

Although Seawright was arrested and jailed briefly in 1984, he was released for lack of evidence. Charges were not filed then, and Seawright repeatedly denied any involvement in the killing.

A false-arrest lawsuit Seawright filed in 1985 against Los Angeles County and sheriff's homicide detectives was dismissed early this year because Seawright's attorneys did not pursue it.

For Stroup, the legal development that has mattered most of all was Seawright's Tuesday arrest.

"It still doesn't seem real yet," Stroup said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I can't believe that they've finally got this turkey where he belongs. I didn't believe they would ever be able to do it."

In the years since Catherine's death, Stroup said he has dreamed of the time when Seawright, a onetime security guard, would be held accountable for the murder.

"They want the death penalty on him, I understand, and I'll tell you, I won't fight that," Stroup said. "He betrayed my trust. He conned me good."

Two years before the murder, Stroup agreed to bankroll a water delivery business in Twentynine Palms--where the Stroups had a weekend home--if Seawright would manage it. Seawright and the Stroups' eldest daughter, Cheryl Lynn, moved into the house with their two children and began operating the company they named S & S Water.

At first, truck repair costs ate up most of the meager profits that were coming in, Stroup said.

But when it began to look like the company would return some money, Seawright hatched the plot to do away with his parents-in-law, Peter Leach said in his 1984 confession.

Stroup said he believes he would have been shot at the same time as Catherine had he returned home earlier on the day she died. Despite that, he said, he still feels pity for the Leach brothers.

"You know, I feel sorry for those boys. My God, they were just coming of age when all this . . . happened and now their whole lives are ruined," he said. "They're guilty as hell, of course, but if (Seawright) hadn't gotten that ball rolling, none of this would have happened. He just wanted the damned business."

A preliminary hearing in Seawright's case is scheduled for March 5.

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