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Murder Plot Thickens With a New Suspect in the Family : Trial: A woman's husband is exonerated in her 1983 shooting death. The prosecutor will try to show that their son-in-law was responsible, but two key witnesses are admitted liars.

April 09, 1992|JANET RAE-DUPREE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seemed so simple back in 1983 when a distraught James Stroup told neighbors that his wife lay dead of gunshot wounds in their Hawthorne apartment.

He killed her, investigators believed, during a struggle over a gun after a family argument. When a jury acquitted him nearly nine months later, detectives believed that Stroup had gotten away with murder.

They were wrong.

Nine years after Catherine Stroup's death, her husband has been completely cleared and a prosecutor has set out to prove that her death was the result of a far more complicated plot involving greed, conspiracy, murder-for-hire and perjury.

Based on evidence that surfaced months after James Stroup's trial, two brothers have been convicted of murdering the woman. And now Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Duarte hopes to persuade a Torrance Superior Court jury that the Stroups' son-in-law, Michael W. Seawright, 38, was the man ultimately responsible for her murder.

In opening arguments this week, Duarte told jurors that the case boils down to Seawright's greed for a water delivery company that he and his father-in-law had created in 1981 in the desert community of Twentynine Palms.

At Seawright's urging, Duarte said, James Stroup agreed to bankroll the creation of the business if Seawright would manage it. Stroup hoped one day to retire on his share of profits from the business, but in the meantime he continued to work a graveyard shift at a Los Angeles dairy to pay for the water company's start-up costs.

At first, Stroup believed Seawright's explanation that truck repair costs for the company they named S & S Water Co. were swallowing up most of the meager profits that were coming in, Stroup testified Tuesday.

One or two weeks before she died, Catherine Stroup went to Twentynine Palms to go over the company books with her daughter, Sherryl Lynn, and her son-in-law and was infuriated by what she found, her husband said.

"She called me at work and she was angry, very angry," Stroup testified. "She wasn't coming back to Los Angeles, (she said); she was going to stay there and run the business."

Stroup, 56, persuaded his wife to return to Hawthorne, but she was killed before they had an opportunity to discuss details of what she had found.

Duarte told jurors that he intends to prove that Seawright, possibly alarmed by his confrontation with Catherine Stroup, decided to offer two friends cash, an interest in the company and a new truck if they would murder James and Catherine Stroup.

To make their job easier, Duarte said, Seawright gave them a gun he had taken from the Stroups' weekend home in Twentynine Palms, instructions on how to find the Rosecrans Avenue apartment where they lived during the week and detailed information about their work schedules.

To prove his case, however, Duarte has been forced to admit to jurors that his two star witnesses--Peter and Paul Leach, the brothers convicted of killing Catherine Stroup--have lied in the past about what happened April 5, 1983, the day of her murder.

At his own trial in 1988, 30-year-old Peter Leach suddenly recanted a 1984 taped confession in which he admitted shooting Stroup four times and outlined Seawright's offer. Instead, Leach testified, Seawright was with them at Stroup's apartment that day and he was the one who pulled the trigger.

Peter Leach "lied on the witness stand, under oath . . . because he wanted to take his chances," Duarte said. "He thought he could beat the case. He lied. He'll tell you that."

Now that Leach has been convicted and sent to prison, however, Duarte said, he and his brother will testify that Seawright promised to pay them for the murder, and that it was Peter Leach who pulled the trigger.

But Seawright's attorney, Gerald Moriarty, said the Leach brothers have strong motives to lie now about his client.

Although Peter Leach was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole after his 1988 conviction, an appellate court last year overturned the special circumstances that made the sentence possible.

Prosecutors have not set a date for a new trial on the special circumstances issues. Moriarty said he suspects that they will allow Leach to become eligible for parole at some point if he provides the testimony they want.

"One can certainly read between the lines . . . that they're waiting to hear what he says on the stand," Moriarty said. "If you were faced with a chance that someday you could get out of prison when you thought for a while there that you wouldn't be able to, what would you do?"

In addition, Moriarty said during his opening statement Tuesday, Seawright had had an affair with Peter Leach's wife, creating a possible reason for Leach to want to seek revenge. Seawright and his wife, Sherryl Lynn, are estranged, and she has not been implicated in any wrongdoing. Moriarty said Lynn does not believe her husband is guilty.

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