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Teen Held in Irvine Murder Was Prime Suspect All Along : Crime: Police say they didn't want to tip hand until they built strong case in January slaying that had mystified residents of usually safe city.

October 23, 1994|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — The murder of Turtle Rock resident Patricia Lea Pratt--killed inside her home more than nine months ago--had remained a baffling mystery to residents of this city, where homicides are unusual.

What people didn't know was that police had fingered University High School student Earl Rhoney as the prime suspect just two weeks after the slaying.

"We kept it real close to the vest," Irvine Police Chief Charles S. Brobeck said Saturday. "We didn't want to tip our hand and say that we were focusing on one individual at the time."

Weeks after the killing, police booked Rhoney into Orange County Juvenile Hall on other charges as they continued to gather forensic evidence and build their case against the 18-year-old, Brobeck said.

On Friday, Irvine police arrested Rhoney at The City shopping center in Orange on suspicion of murdering Pratt--shortly after he was released from Juvenile Hall, where he served time for a parole violation and on burglary and weapons charges.

The biggest break in the case came in early February when another University High School student brought a gun onto campus, which police say was traced back to Rhoney. Police discovered that Rhoney and three other students had burglarized another Turtle Rock home two weeks before Pratt's slaying, Lt. Sam Allevato said.

"Rhoney was probably the most sophisticated of them all and had some experience with (burglary)," Allevato said. "They were all arrested and placed into Juvenile Hall."

Police allege that Rhoney was in the process of burglarizing Pratt's home on Jan. 20 when the 46-year-old woman returned home from a walk and surprised him. Her husband, Paul Pratt, found her bludgeoned to death when he returned home from a business meeting just before midnight.

Brobeck said homicide detective Larry Montgomery has worked virtually full time on the case since Pratt's death. Pratt, a customer service manager for PacTel Cellular in Irvine, was the fourth person to be murdered in the city since 1990.

"It's been a long, arduous investigation where we had to pull together some key forensic evidence and conduct a lot of interviews," Brobeck said. "We feel really good about the case."

Police portray Rhoney as a troubled teen-ager with a criminal history and a drug problem. He had been sent to live with his grandparents in Irvine.

Brobeck said police will turn their case over to the Orange County district attorney's office on Monday. He said it will be determined later whether Rhoney will be tried as a juvenile or an adult. He was 17 years old at the time of the killing.

Rhoney is being held at Orange County Jail on suspicion of murder. His bail has been set at $250,000, police said.

"There is a sense of relief in this department and hopefully a sense of relief in the community," Brobeck said. "We just couldn't share any of our information until now."

Pratt's aunt, Jo Ribnick of Orange, said Saturday that family members, including the victim's husband, Paul Pratt, had been aware "for quite some time" that police had a prime suspect in custody for burglary.

"We're very glad and relieved they have arrested someone," said Ribnick, the sister of Pratt's mother, Beatrice Kell. "But, I think a trial will be very traumatic for my sister and for Paul. (The Pratts) had only been married for a short time. They had all kinds of plans."

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