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Hiding Out Irks Murder Case Witness : Mother: Woman who turned sons in and fled her home in fear says she needs a job. She calls the county's protection program inadequate.


After turning in her two teen-age sons to police for murder and fleeing her home early this year because their gang member friends vowed to kill her, Marilyn Ross seems to have found the good life.

The former Azusa woman brought her young daughter back from hiding out of state and the two now live rent-free in a roomy home with a back-yard pool. Movie producers have phoned to discuss deals.

The William Morris Talent Agency represents her, and an attorney is working to get a book written about her story.

But the picture is far from idyllic.

"I need a job," Ross said recently as she opened the door on her nearly empty refrigerator. So far, all she has been able to find are temporary stints.

Her footsteps echo on the bare wooden floor of her sparsely furnished living room. She points to a mattress on the floor in a corner of one room that serves as her bed.

She has had to fend off criticism from people who questioned her motives and whether she has been a fit mother. And she has nightmares of being murdered herself--tracked down like the hunted person she is, to be shot and killed on the street.

Although Ross counts herself luckier than most crime witnesses who go into hiding, she figures that much of the help came from her own persistent scrambling and from sympathetic strangers.

The county's witness protection program, set up to aid crime witnesses facing threats, is woefully inadequate to the task, Ross said.

"I thought they were going to hide me," she said. "I thought they were going to protect me."

Instead, she had to abandon her misperceptions, as others have before her, and face the reality of the sparse help available. Under the county's witness relocation program, only first and last month's rent on a new apartment are paid.

And outside help has been narrowed, Ross believes--although some people familiar with her case disagree--by a state Assembly bill that takes effect Jan. 1.

The Right to a Fair Trial bill prohibits crime witnesses from receiving payment for information about a crime for one year after the date of the crime or until a final court judgment is reached.

The bill was prompted by revelations that some witnesses in the O. J. Simpson case had sold their stories to the media, and will cut off outside help that crime victim-witnesses might use to sell their stories, Ross said. By prohibiting payment, the state is "asking you to come forth and put your life on the line." she added.

The crime that changed Ross' life occurred about 9 p.m. on Feb. 5 when Raj Kumar Sharma, 40, of Covina, a clerk at an Azusa market, was robbed, shot and killed for $72 in cash.

Ross said that five days later, after an argument with his mother, her eldest son, Nicholas, 16, confessed to her that he and his younger brother had killed Sharma. Dumbstruck and fearful, Ross went to police and her days in hiding began. For six months, she called a hotel room home.

But after her story was published in The Times, a dizzying number of calls poured in from television talk shows, movie producers and talent agents, seeking interviews and possible story deals.

Ross was flown to New York City to appear on the nationally syndicated Rolonda Watts television show. On camera, she was confronted by her angry mother, Elsie Newman, 61, the boys' care giver for most of their lives.

Newman insisted that her grandsons are innocent, called Ross a negligent mother and accused her of abandoning her sons years ago.

Ross has not been in touch with her sons' father since the boys were infants.

After initial interest, the movie deals dried up, said Rick Rosenthal, an attorney representing Ross. Producers who came forward wanted to pay Ross only a small sum and then shop around her story to the major studios on speculation, Rosenthal said.

He said that Ross' race--she is African American--adds to her difficulty, limiting the commercial appeal of her story. Rosenthal said television producers prefer stories about perfect "Brady Bunch" families. Stories about minorities are a harder sell, he said.

At the same time, hotel staff and others who had helped Ross said they began to resent her and accused her of making too many demands. They questioned her credibility and motives.

Some talked of money they lent Ross, which she never paid back. Some called her ungrateful and complained of the star attitude she seemed to take on in response to media coverage.

But Sheriff's Sgt. Rey Verdugo, the detective assigned to the Azusa murder case, attributes Ross' behavior to stress.

Crime witnesses "suffer indignities, threats, having to relocate, get a new job, and all they've done is follow the law and do the right thing," he said. "And, suddenly, the whole world turns upside down for them."

Ross finally escaped her prolonged hotel stay when an ex-social worker heard her story on a news radio show and offered to put her up temporarily in a vacant rental home the person owned.

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