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Teen-Ager Pleads Guilty to Role in Ojai Slaying


A Ventura teen-ager who hid an ice pick after it was used to fatally stab a friend pleaded guilty Wednesday to being an accessory to murder.

Anthony Peterson, 18, entered the surprise plea before the start of a preliminary hearing that had been scheduled to determine if there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.

Now prosecutors plan to call Peterson as a witness in the murder trial of Ryan Dale Burchell, 19, of Ojai, who is charged with killing 19-year-old Jasper Fitzgerald during a fight at a party in Ojai on May 14.

However, Peterson's attorney, Charles Cassy, said he does not know if he will allow his client to testify.

Peterson initially was arrested on suspicion of murdering Fitzgerald, a childhood friend who had moved to Ohio. A subsequent investigation showed that Peterson did not participate in the slaying, but afterward hid the murder weapon in a bush a couple of houses down from where the stabbing occurred, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael K. Frawley said.

The prosecutor said the motive for the slaying was unclear, but essentially it happened when a fight broke out while "a bunch of 18-year-old kids" were at a party drinking beer.

"In most cases it would have been settled with fists," Frawley said, adding that he did not know where the ice pick came from that was used to stab Fitzgerald.

Cassy said Peterson was a friend to both Burchell and Fitzgerald. When the fight broke out, Peterson tried to stop it and was holding Fitzgerald from behind when the stabbing occurred, Cassy said.

"After that he did something stupid--he hid the weapon," the defense attorney said. "I don't think that he knew that the victim was dead."

When police arrived on the scene, Peterson initially denied any knowledge of the stabbing, Cassy said. Eventually, however, Peterson led police to the ice pick.

Frawley said the weapon had been stuck in the ground and covered with leaves.

Cassy described Peterson as "just a kid" with no prior criminal record. Peterson's mother was in court for the plea, having traveled to Ventura County from Texas.

Cassy said he decided to have his client plead guilty at this stage of the proceedings because the case against him was solid.

"Our feeling was that although we don't think he necessarily knew a murder had been committed, we still had an accessory case," Cassy said.

Peterson faces a maximum three-year prison term when he is sentenced June 30. Frawley said no commitments were made in exchange for the guilty plea, and he does not know what sentence the prosecution will seek.

Burchell is scheduled for arraignment on the murder charge June 8.

Both men are being held in the Ventura County Jail, with bail set at $250,000 each.

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