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Gottchalk Gets 27 Years to Life in Prison : Crime: The sentence stems from the 1986 execution-style slaying of his woman companion. Her body was found north of Ojai.

April 17, 1991|CAROL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 49-year-old man who eluded capture for years was sentenced Tuesday to the maximum prison term possible for the 1986 execution-style slaying of his traveling companion.

Thomas Gottchalk was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison by Ventura Superior Court Judge James M. McNally for the shooting of Jean Ellen Eubanks, whose badly decomposed body was discovered under a pile of rocks north of Ojai several weeks after she disappeared.

During the sentencing, Eubanks' daughter, Jeanine Copus, described the effect that her mother's murder had on the family. Copus was visiting Ventura with her mother and Gottchalk when her mother disappeared. All three lived in Middletown near Napa.

"It's caused my grandparents to have heart attacks," she said. "It's caused me nightmares every night and every day.

"I would like him to have to pay for this."

Gottchalk has denied killing Eubanks, saying in a probation report that if he had committed the offense, he would have killed her daughter as well, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard E. Holmes said.

Holmes said Tuesday that the murder of Eubanks, 34, left Copus, then 15, and her older sister without the parent they needed.

"The 27 years to life seems quite appropriate," Holmes said in his argument. "It was the execution-style slaying of a person he had known, it seems, fairly well. It was a coldblooded killing with two shots to the back of the head."

The penalty for first-degree murder is 25 years to life in prison. In addition, two years were added to his sentence because a firearm was used during commission of a murder.

Gottchalk will be eligible for parole in about 18 years, but the district attorney's office will fight his release, Holmes said.

Gottchalk's attorney, Deputy Public Defender J. Steven Davidson, declined to comment on the case. However, he said in court that he plans to appeal the case, which was built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence.

No one witnessed the crime, and the murder weapon was never found. Indeed, 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 jury returned the first-degree murder verdict after less than 10 hours of deliberation, saying the circumstantial evidence against Gottchalk was very strong.

Gottchalk and Eubanks met in 1983 in Middletown. In June, 1986, Eubanks and Gottchalk came to Ventura for a week, and she unsuccessfully looked for work.

The next month, Gottchalk, Eubanks and her daughter returned to Ventura to pick up some of the belongings that she had left in storage.

Copus, now 19, testified that on the morning of July 31, 1986, her mother told her to start packing so that they could return home. Then Eubanks left the Ventura motel room with Gottchalk. According to the prosecution, she was never seen again.

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

By the time Eubanks' body was found, Gottchalk--the prime suspect--had disappeared.

Gottchalk used 21 aliases--including the name Dick Clark--to elude authorities until August, 1988, when Utah police arrested him on suspicion of selling cocaine, prosecutors said.

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

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