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Man Goes On Trial in Wife's Fatal Beating : Crimes: Robert J. Peernock is accused of bludgeoning the woman and their daughter in an elaborate plot to kill them both for financial gain.

July 09, 1991|JAMES QUINN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former pyrotechnical engineer for a movie studio was trying to secure "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in life insurance proceeds when he killed his wife and tried to kill his daughter at their home in Saugus, a prosecutor charged Monday.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig R. Richman also told jurors in San Fernando Superior Court that Robert J. Peernock, 54, beat his victims, doused them with gasoline and then staged a car crash in Sun Valley in an elaborate plan to obtain sole title to three houses and more than $200,000 in cash belonging to the couple, who were divorcing.

Authorities say Peernock, whose murder trial began Monday, bludgeoned to death his wife, Claire, 45, of Saugus and also tried to beat to death his daughter Natasha Peernock Sims, then 18.

Richman said Peernock also force-fed them alcohol, soaked them in gasoline, placed them in his car and somehow caused the vehicle to crash into a telephone pole about 4:30 a.m. on July 22, 1987.

The car's gas tank was rigged to explode in what a Los Angeles Fire Department investigator, testifying at an earlier hearing, described as the "most elaborate way I've ever seen."

But the device failed and Sims, who was found by passersby unconscious from head wounds and alcohol, survived what Richman termed an "evening of terror at the hands of her father."

At a preliminary hearing in the case in December, 1987, Sims testified that her father had handcuffed her and forced her to swallow large quantities of liquor about 12 hours before she and her mother were found in the crashed car in a remote section of Sun Valley.

She also testified that she recalled being carried to the car and placed alongside another person who was breathing slightly. She said she could not identify that person. Sims said she had no recollection of being beaten on the head.

A medical examiner testified at the hearing that Claire Peernock died prior to the car crash from head wounds similar to those suffered by her daughter.

Contending that "only the wicked flee when no one pursues," Richman said Monday that after his wife's death, Peernock fled to Las Vegas, where he lived under an assumed name and had plastic surgery to change his face.

He was arrested about six weeks after the slaying.

In his opening argument, defense attorney Donald J. Green steered clear of revealing the full defense strategy.

But he served notice that he plans to challenge Sims' credibility.

If her father is convicted, "then the money in the estate of Claire Peernock is not going to go to Mr. Peernock. It is going to go to others."

He promised jurors that he would introduce evidence that someone wanted to "make it appear as if Robert Peernock had killed his wife and bludgeoned his daughter. . . ."

Peernock is charged with murder for financial gain, attempted murder, kidnaping and arson. He also is charged with two counts of soliciting murder, based on what Richman said was an attempt by Peernock, who has been in jail for nearly four years, to hire other prisoners to kill his daughter and her attorney.

The murder charge against Peernock carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The case has been delayed for more than three years while Peernock underwent psychiatric examinations to determine if he was competent to stand trial and while he appealed to higher courts his failed attempts to represent himself at trial.

On Monday, Peernock sought once again to fire his attorney, charging that Green "is working to rig a conviction."

But Judge Howard J. Schwab, noting that the issue has been examined by appeal courts, cut him off and ordered that the trial begin.

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