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California and the West

Janitor Convicted of Rape and Murder

Crime: Man found guilty in student's slaying faces death penalty. Crime led to curbs on hiring felons.

August 31, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A janitor was found guilty Wednesday in the 1997 rape and murder of a popular high school senior, a crime that prompted California legislators to tighten employee screening and prevent hiring felons convicted of serious crimes.

Alex Dale Thomas, a convicted felon and Los Angeles gang member, now faces a Sept. 18 hearing to decide if he will be sentenced to death for the daytime slaying of Michelle Montoya at a rural Sacramento County high school.

Montoya, a popular 18-year-old at Rio Linda High School, was discovered dead in the wood shop, her throat slashed. Thomas, on parole for manslaughter at the time of the crime, was arrested by police within hours.

Somber friends and members of Montoya's family said they gained a small measure of vindication from the verdict by a jury in Sonoma County, where the trial was moved because of intense publicity about the case in the Sacramento media.

"Justice was served today," said Montoya's mother, Pam Schleeter. "But it's still a big hole in our hearts. It's still a loss. It still doesn't bring her back."

Schleeter said she believes in capital punishment and believes that her daughter's murderer "doesn't deserve to live."

"Michelle went through a lot at his hands before she died," Schleeter said. "She was my best friend, and he took her away from me."

The trial opened in early July with a surprise twist as defense attorney Bradley Holmes admitted that Thomas had killed Montoya, but argued that they engaged in consensual sex. The tactic was designed to keep Thomas off death row. If he had avoided the special circumstances crime of rape, Thomas would have at worst faced life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Thomas had worked at the school, which draws from a mix of rural and suburban communities in the northwest corner of Sacramento County, for three days before his arrest. Although he was a parolee at the time, he was allowed to start the job before a background check was completed.

A member of the 107th Street Hoover Crips gang in Los Angeles, Thomas also had served time for armed robbery. In a job interview with school officials, Thomas covered a "107" tattoo on his forehead with cosmetics. He was hired under a state law that allowed districts to employ temporary and substitute workers for nonteaching positions before criminal background checks were completed.

The shocking murder on a school campus prompted the Legislature to push through new state laws banning the hiring of felons and requiring completed background checks of school employees before they go to work.

Schleeter said she has gotten some solace out of the legislation and the reality that it may help save other lives.

"Michelle is living forever through those laws, protecting other kids so no felons can work in the schools," she said. "But it's pretty bad you have to give up a life to pass a law."

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