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Gottchalk Found Guilty of Murdering Woman

March 20, 1991|GARY GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the costliest murder prosecutions in Ventura County history, one that relied almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, ended Tuesday in a guilty verdict.

Thomas Gottchalk, 49, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1986 execution-style slaying of Jean Ellen Eubanks, 34, his traveling companion.

Gottchalk, who faces a maximum penalty of life in prison, will be sentenced April 16 by Ventura County Superior Court Judge James M. McNally.

The jury of eight men and four women heard more than 60 witnesses and saw more than 300 pieces of evidence since testimony began Feb. 13.

There were no witnesses to the crime. The murder weapon was never found. And six defense witnesses testified that they had seen the victim or someone who resembled her in the Ojai area more than a week after Gottchalk supposedly killed Eubanks.

But the sheer volume of circumstantial evidence was enough to persuade jurors that Gottchalk killed Eubanks, several of them said. The jury returned the verdict after less than 10 hours' deliberation.

Gottchalk and Eubanks had met in 1983 when both lived in Middletown, near Santa Rosa, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard E. Holmes said. In June, 1986, Gottchalk accompanied Eubanks on a one-week trip to Ventura, where she looked unsuccessfully for work.

The following month, Gottchalk, Eubanks and her daughter, Jeanine Copus, returned to Ventura to pick up a car and personal items that Eubanks had left in storage.

Copus, now 19, testified that on the morning of July 31, 1986, her mother told her to pack up their belongings because they were returning to Middletown. Then Eubanks left the Ventura motel room with Gottchalk and, according to Holmes, was never again seen alive.

About three weeks later, Eubanks' body was found buried under a pile of rocks at Matilija Canyon north of Ojai. She had been shot twice in the back of the head. Her pockets had been turned inside out, and more than $2,000 that she was believed to be carrying was gone.

Holmes presented receipts, computer records, other documents and testimony showing that:

* Gottchalk owned a .25-caliber automatic similar to the one that killed Eubanks.

* Gottchalk had ammunition that had the same manufacturing defect as the bullets that killed Eubanks.

* Gottchalk frequently swam at the isolated spot where the body was found.

* Gottchalk stayed at a motel in Vernal, Utah, eight days after Eubanks' disappearance. Some of the belongings Eubanks had stored in her car in Ventura were found discarded outside Vernal.

Deputy Public Defender J. Steven Davidson presented six witnesses who said they recalled seeing Eubanks or a woman who resembled her more than a week after the alleged date of the murder.

But one juror, who asked not to be identified, said their testimony was quickly discounted. "These people were remembering something four years old," he said.

Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Thomas Odle said Gottchalk was the prime suspect almost immediately because he was the last person known to have seen Eubanks alive.

But Gottchalk had disappeared by the time the body was found, Odle said. Using several aliases, Gottchalk avoided capture until August, 1988, when Utah police officers arrested him on suspicion of selling cocaine.

He was convicted on that charge and of rape and burglary charges in Massachusetts before he was brought to California for the murder trial.

Odle said it was "the longest continuous investigation I've had."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Don Coleman said the case is "one of the costliest" ever handled by the district attorney's office.

More than $18,500 has been spent so far for expert witnesses and witnesses' travel, meals and lodging, he said. That is more than 40% of the district attorney's witness budget for the entire fiscal year, Coleman said.

Witnesses had to be brought from Northern California, Utah, Kansas and Louisiana, Holmes said, and Ventura County investigators had to make several trips.

Closer to home, Holmes found one key piece of evidence during a chance encounter at a Ventura County gas station where he was filling his tank.

The prosecutor said he noticed another motorist wearing the uniform of Halliburton Services, a Ventura County company where Gottchalk once worked.

Holmes mentioned Gottchalk, and the Halliburton employee said he remembered him. The employee then volunteered that during a company drug search a .25-caliber automatic had been found under the front seat of Gottchalk's car.

"There were a lot of crucial points in the investigation, and that was one of them," Holmes said.

Like much of the evidence, the fact that Gottchalk owned a .25-caliber handgun did not prove that he killed Eubanks. But one juror, who asked not to be identified, said it was part of "a very, very strong case" of circumstantial evidence.

"The point was, there was no other human being who fit all these circumstances except the defendant."

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