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Ex-Policeman Unbowed After Prison Time

April 21, 1991|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The gold ring on his finger bears a replica of the badge he once wore. The buckle on his thick leather belt says, "Law Enforcement: To Protect and Serve." And his business card proclaims him an expert on officer survival.

Billy Joe McIlvain--the former San Gabriel policeman out on parole after serving 13 years of a life sentence for murder--believes he's got nothing to hide.

"Nothing to be ashamed of," he said last week. "I'm proud that I'm free."

Since he walked out of the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad on Feb. 4 with an American flag pinned to his lapel, the blond, blue-eyed McIlvain has, indeed, cherished the spotlight.

His first champagne toast was broadcast nationally on "Inside Edition." Movie deals are being discussed. Next month, he hopes to speak before the National Assn. of Chiefs of Police in Miami. He even wrote a letter of solidarity to embattled Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, urging him not to resign.

Above all, McIlvain continues to insist that he is an innocent man, railroaded because he dared to defend himself against the threats of San Gabriel street hoods.

Although a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last month refused to overturn McIlvain's 1977 conviction for the first-degree murder of a teen-age gang member, the 46-year-old ex-patrolman has vowed to appeal until granted a new trial.

"He stood for truth, he paid a terrible price and he's not going to give up now," said John J. Reed, a Long Beach attorney who has donated his services to McIlvain's cause.

But prosecutors, who argued against his release from prison, see McIlvain as "Crazy Hutch," a vigilante cop whose life was no different from the fantasy world of his favorite TV series, "Starsky & Hutch."

They worry that he never admitted his guilt, even though they say the evidence was overwhelming that he abducted 18-year-old David Dominguez, blasted him repeatedly with a .12-gauge shotgun, then tried to make it appear as if the youth had abducted him.

"To sink into the woodwork? Oh, no, that wouldn't be Billy Joe," said Deputy Dist. Atty. John F. Hayes, one of two prosecutors in McIlvain's original trial. "I don't think the guy has changed a bit."

McIlvain's push for a new trial is based on the contention that jailhouse informants lied about him to win leniency for themselves, a practice that was detailed last summer in a Los Angeles County Grand Jury report.

But in a March 8 hearing, Judge Michael Harwin concluded that any use of informants was a small part of the case against McIlvain.

"He's a very dangerous man," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Marsh Goldstein, who argued against a new trial.

McIlvain is also battling parole officials, who so far have denied his requests to lecture out of state. McIlvain contends that they are trying to muzzle him, but Gary Pena, a parole supervisor in Pomona, said it is standard practice to wait at least six months before approving such trips.

"There has to be an adjustment period," Pena said. "You can't measure a person's adjustment in just two months."

McIlvain insists that he is adjusting fine. He stays busy enjoying some of the gadgets that were not in common use when he went behind bars: microwave ovens, answering machines, camcorders and VCRs.

He's walked on the beach, stomped in the snow, visited Disneyland, gobbled an In-N-Out burger and seen "The Silence of the Lambs." He says people occasionally wave to him when they see him strolling through shopping malls or cruising in his new charcoal-gray Trans Am.

"He's like a little kid learning everything all over again," said his wife, Kittie, a former model who married him in 1987, four years after his first wife filed for divorce. He has a 15-year-old daughter who lives with his ex-wife.

He receives a small disability pension but relies on Kittie's grown children for help in paying the rent. Because he fears retribution by gangs, McIlvain asked that the location of his home not be revealed.

The one legacy of jail that sticks with McIlvain is difficulty falling asleep. It's a habit he developed in Soledad, where he bunked in the same isolation wing with such infamous felons as Sirhan Sirhan, Juan Corona, Charles Rothenberg and Dan White.

Now, on the outside, he's afraid sometimes to close his eyes for fear of waking up and finding his freedom is all a dream.

"I'm jamming everything into a short period of time," he said. "Like the world was going to end tomorrow."

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