Just as his second trial was about to begin, former Los Angeles Police Officer William E. Leasure stunned a quiet, almost empty courtroom Friday when he stood, hugged his wife and pleaded no contest to two counts of second-degree murder.
The 44-year-old Leasure, once dubbed "the most corrupt cop in L.A," told Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg that he was no longer challenging the felony charges of contract murder. The court was in the process of seating a jury for Leasure's second trial on the charges when the pleas were entered.
The former traffic officer, who, friends said, turned to crime because he was bored with writing tickets, faces a term of 15 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 12.
Leasure was charged in 1986 with two counts of first-degree murder, and prosecutors intended to seek the death penalty had he been convicted in the second trial. He agreed to enter the no-contest pleas in exchange for a reduction of the first-degree murder charges and the dismissal of other felony charges against him for yacht theft, car theft and insurance fraud.
The plea-bargain offer had been extended by prosecutors before jury selection began and they were surprised Friday when Leasure announced his agreement. A no-contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is recorded as a conviction.
Leasure was accused of accepting thousands of dollars in the early 1980s while assigned to Central Traffic from two people for arranging the murders of their spouses. The key testimony against him came from the confessed triggerman, who was granted immunity in return for implicating Leasure.
Leasure gave no reason in the courtroom for suddenly agreeing to the no-contest pleas. After doing so, he turned back to his wife, Betsy Mogul, a former senior assistant city attorney, hugged her again and was then was led back to jail.
One of his defense attorneys, Richard Lasting, said in an interview that his client was trying to avoid a death sentence or life with no chance of parole. With the no-contest pleas, Lasting said, Leasure may "hopefully at some appropriate time be eligible for parole."
"He has been thinking about it and it was a very difficult decision for him to make," Lasting said.
The lawyer said Leasure was mindful that his first trial ended in June in a 10-2 deadlock, with the jury favoring conviction. He feared that a second trial, which was about to begin with the final selection of the jury this week, would go against the 17-year police veteran.
Lasting also cited public sentiment since the March 3 beating by LAPD officers of Rodney G. King, which Leasure believes has soured many citizens--and potential jurors--on police officers.
"He was concerned about his status as a former police officer and what impact that might have on the case," the lawyer said. "There's been a lot of news, not just on Rodney King, about police departments lately, and a lot of it has been negative."
Deputy Dist. Atty. James Koller said after the hearing that Leasure's crimes were particularly heinous because he was working in a position of public trust.
"I don't know anyone else in the Police Department that has committed these kinds of crimes over such a long period of time and been able to go undetected all that time," Koller said. "He committed crimes from 1977 to 1986."
When Leasure became a suspect in the murders, he had already been accused of involvement in a multimillion-dollar yacht-theft ring, trafficking in stolen cars and defrauding insurance companies. Investigators alleged that he lived a secret life beyond his means as a police officer, maintaining bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.
Leasure's alleged role in the murders surfaced after the triggerman, Dennis France, advised authorities that he carried out the slayings at the direction of Leasure, a longtime friend. He told authorities that Leasure was paid $4,500 to arrange the deaths.
France said in testimony that he shot Ann Smith of Alhambra at her mother's Highland Park beauty salon in 1980. In the second killing, France said he ambushed Antonio de los Reyes outside a Sherman Oaks bar in 1981, killing the 63-year-old businessman from Pasadena with a shotgun blast.