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1995 Murder Case Finally Goes to Trial

Courts: If convicted, Kenneth McKinzie may face the death penalty in the fatal beating of 73-year-old Ruth Eloise Avril.

September 28, 1998|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly three years ago, 73-year-old Ruth Eloise Avril was fatally beaten outside her second-story Oxnard apartment by a prowler who waited in the shadows as she walked downstairs to turn off a porch light.

A day later, her body was found slumped in a drainage ditch near the Point Mugu Navy base. Her car was stolen. Her home was robbed. And among the stolen items were several Christmas presents snatched from beneath her tree.

Starting today, attorneys handling the capital murder case will begin to pick a jury for the trial of Kenneth McKinzie, who is accused of killing the elderly woman during an attempted burglary four days before Christmas in 1995.

McKinzie, an Oxnard resident in his late 30s with a long record of drug charges and probation violations, faces eight criminal charges: murder, robbery, kidnapping for purposes of a robbery, carjacking and four counts of burglary.

In addition, the defendant faces two special-circumstances allegations that, paired with a murder conviction, could send him to death row. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

McKinzie has pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied the allegations leveled against him. He is being held without bail and has awaited trial on the charges for more than a year.

The case has been slow to come to trial for a number of reasons, Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald C. Glynn said. "The first reason is they didn't solve it for a year," he said.

McKinzie's arrest in March 1997 capped a murder investigation that had stumped the Oxnard Police Department for months.

Avril's body was found on Dec. 22, 1995, by two surfers on their way to a remote spot at Ormond Beach, near the northern end of Point Mugu Naval Air Station. Police were unable to identify the body until they received a missing-person's report more than a week later.

When officers went to Avril's home, a triplex in south Oxnard, they found it had been burglarized. Inside, they noticed a portrait of a woman who looked like Avril.

There were no signs of struggle at the residence, authorities said. Avril had been divorced for 40 years and lived alone. She had one son and a daughter-in-law who live in Northern California.

Three months after her death, Avril's black Ford Taurus was found abandoned behind the Oxnard Elks Lodge. But police still had few leads in the investigation.

The first break didn't come until July--seven months after the slaying--when a tipster called with information that eventually led detectives to McKinzie.

McKinzie was arrested at Wasco State Prison, where he was serving time for a prior conviction, and transported to Ventura County Jail.

During a preliminary hearing in June 1997, two of McKinzie's friends testified that he admitted to killing Avril during a bungled burglary.

"He said she was hollering and wouldn't shut up," one witness testified. "He said he took her way out somewhere out on a back road."

McKinzie's defense attorney, Willard P. Wiksell, raised doubts about the credibility of the witnesses.

He said that one witness was a drug user and the other had agreed to testify after prosecutors promised not to seek jail time against him in a separate drug case.

During the one-day preliminary hearing, it was revealed that McKinzie's girlfriend lived in the same apartment complex as Avril. And the defendant's teenage daughter testified that for Christmas her dad gave her a camera and other gifts.

An investigator later testified that when the film in the camera, which was seized by authorities, was developed, it revealed pictures taken by Avril.

McKinzie's trial in Ventura County Superior Court was further delayed because attorneys Wiksell and Glynn were handling another capital murder trial. That case, against Alan Brett Holland, also involved the alleged murder of an elderly Oxnard woman, 65-year-old Mildred Wilson.

Holland was convicted of murder in February and sentenced to life in prison without parole during a penalty phase.

A spring date for McKinzie's trial was delayed by the defense, which sought a six-month postponement to allow Wiksell more time to prepare.

Jury selection is expected to take about three weeks. The trial is expected to last less than two weeks.

If McKinzie is convicted of murder and at least one of the special-circumstances allegations, the trial would proceed to a penalty phase in which the same jury would be asked to decide whether McKinzie should be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

It is expected the sentencing phase of the trial would last about a week.

During the guilt phase of the trial, jurors are expected to tour the crime scene and the secluded spot where Avril's body was found. The jury will also be able to examine the stolen car.

Prosecutors, who won a pretrial motion, will be allowed to exhibit about 30 autopsy photos showing the blunt-force injuries Avril sustained during the attack.

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