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Wife Allegedly Hired Killer, Faked Carjack

Crime: Software designer Bruce Cleland died in murder-for-hire plot, police say. His parents say whirlwind romance had gone sour.

February 18, 1998|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first, the murder seemed to have all the markings of an attempted carjacking.

When Los Angeles police officers reached the scene on the dark Boyle Heights street July 26, they found affluent software designer Bruce Cleland lying in a pool of blood across the street from his new black 4Runner.

His distraught wife, Rebecca, said she had been knocked unconscious when she got out of the vehicle to check the tailgate and awoke to the gruesome sight.

But on closer inspection, detectives became suspicious.

Bruce Cleland, 43, had been shot while he sat in the passenger seat of his car, then shot again repeatedly in the head as he attempted to escape.

"Gangsters trying to jack your car don't go chasing after you," said one Hollenbeck Division homicide detective. "This person was lying in wait."

There were other clues. Investigators saw that the route the couple were taking to their Whittier home as odd. Rebecca Cleland had driven at least four miles out of the way to a freeway onramp at the end of a deserted residential street.

Although she said an assailant hit her over the head, paramedics could find no evidence that she was injured, detectives said.

And after giving a brief statement to police, detectives said, Rebecca Cleland refused to be interviewed further about her husband's death.

On Tuesday morning, police arrested Rebecca Cleland, 28, on suspicion of killing her husband, wrapping up a seven-month investigation into an apparent murder-for-hire plot with all the ingredients of a television drama.

Rebecca Cleland did not commit the crime and is devastated by the accusation, her attorney, Raul Ayala, said Tuesday.

"Her position is the same as it has been from the very beginning," Ayala said. "She doesn't know who committed this tragedy and she has been wrongly and falsely accused in her husband's death." Ayala said Cleland was distraught after her husband's death, but fully cooperated with police.

Detectives said their investigation uncovered what one called "a cold and calculated murder" allegedly orchestrated by a young woman intent on profiting from the death of her older husband--a man worth about $1 million when he was killed.

They tracked down insurance policies Rebecca Cleland had taken out on her husband and found people who said she had solicited them to kill him, homicide detectives said Tuesday. They said she had at least one accomplice and that they may make another arrest this week.

"It was a very brutal murder," said Det. Rick Peterson. "And it was motivated by financial gain. This was no carjacking."

Relatives said Bruce Cleland, a shy software engineer from South Pasadena, had fallen quickly for the woman 15 years his junior.

They came from radically different worlds. She grew up in blue-collar Maywood and was working for a spice company when they met. He went to Harvey Mudd College and Stanford University and worked as software designer for a Redondo Beach firm, where he earned more than $100,000 a year.

Family members said the quiet and affable man was close to his parents and often went to air shows and football games with his father.

"He was my buddy," said his father, Harold Cleland. "He was not only a son, but a true friend."

Bruce Cleland did not date a lot. But in December 1995, he met Rebecca Salcedo at a local air show, relatives said. He was so struck by the dark-haired, vivacious woman that he overcame his usual shyness and struck up a conversation.

Within a week, she wanted to get married, his parents said.

He held off, but his sister's death from cancer at 40 in June 1996 may have changed his mind. The couple set a wedding date for the following January.

"After his sister died, he began to think that if we died, he'd be all alone," said his mother, Theda Cleland. "He just went into marriage too quickly."

His parents were surprised by the engagement, but they took his fiancee shopping for a wedding dress. The couple were married in a big church ceremony in San Marino.

Soon, the expenses started adding up. A new, 3,200-square-foot hillside ranch house in Whittier. Two new cars. A boat for water skiing. Trips to Hawaii and Australia. Cosmetic surgery for Rebecca's lips and chest.

"He gave her everything she wanted," Theda Cleland said. "For a while, he seemed really happy. I think he really loved her."

But within a couple of months, his parents said, the marriage soured. By June, he told his parents he had given up on the relationship.

"He came to me and said, 'I can't take it any longer,' " Theda Cleland said. He asked for a lawyer to begin divorce proceedings, she said.

On the night of the killing, Bruce Cleland sat in his parent's living room and told them not to hold dinner for him. He and Rebecca were meeting, he said. They were going to try to work things out.

"She begged him for one more chance," his mother said. "He was kind of thrilled, but somehow, something was wrong. He had a worried look on his face."

That was the last time his parents saw him.

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