Attempts to win a conviction in Orange County's oldest cold case failed Wednesday when jurors deadlocked over whether Larry Donnell Paige murdered a Santa Ana man 25 years ago as the victim's stepson watched.
The case, which relied on cutting-edge technology that sharpened blurry fingerprint images, is the oldest of dozens of unsolved murders that detectives now claim to have solved. In many of those cases, forensic advances have provided authorities with remarkable breakthroughs. Not all juries, however, have been easy to convince.
Jurors in the murder case deliberated less than three days before announcing that they were hopelessly divided. The panel determined that Paige was not guilty of first-degree murder and they split on a second-degree murder charge, with eight of 12 jurors leaning toward not guilty.
The jury foreman said that a lapse in time between the crime and the trial was one factor in their discussions. The crime scene had been torn down, witnesses had died, and evidence was very old.
The biggest sticking point, though, was whether jurors believed the prosecution's charge that Paige helped in a robbery that resulted in Wheelock's shooting death. Prosecutors charged that although Paige did not fire the murder weapon, his participation in the alleged robbery made him guilty of first-degree murder.
"I think most of us felt that the evidence presented in court did nothing to prove there was a robbery," said jury foreman Tom Malatesta, 50, of Rancho Santa Margarita.
Prosecutor Chris Kralick argued that Paige, 44, was one of two men who sought to rob Wheelock, and that Paige assisted by distracting Wheelock's 4-year-old stepson by playing with him.
The stepson, Jacob Scott, now 29, testified last week that the man who played with him shouted at the gunman to stop when he raised his handgun. Prosecutors say that the shout came too late and that Paige was already an accomplice by then.
Paige, who sat bowed over the defendant's table for much of the trial, cocked his head toward the courtroom audience and smiled when jurors announced they were deadlocked.
Paige's legal struggles are far from over. After the jury's announcement Wednesday, Judge Francisco P. Briseno said he will schedule a new trial for Oct. 9. For now, Paige will remain in jail.
Prosecutors have yet to decide their next move. A spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office said officials were reviewing the prospect of a second trial and would announce their decision in early October.
Paige's lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Ed Eisler, said he hoped prosecutors would learn from the mistrial and decide not to retry the case.
"I don't think this guy should be allowed to be tried at all," Eisler said. "In the light of the split, it is an indication that the evidence is 25 years old. It's too old."
Wheelock was gunned down in the family's Santa Ana apartment on Oct. 18, 1975. Fingerprints found at the Bristol Street home were smudged and barely readable, though, and without a match, the case gathered dust.
Last year, new digital technology helped police produce clearer, larger images of the prints, which were lifted from Wheelock's car and a paper bag containing beer cans. Investigators said they matched those images against fingerprints from Paige, a Long Beach man with a criminal record of minor thefts and drug sales.
In the quarter of a century it took authorities to make the arrest, 12 witnesses from the original police investigation have died, 95 have moved, and the car from which one of Paige's prints was reportedly found is gone, according to defense attorneys.
After the jury's decision Wednesday, Wheelock's stepson said he was disappointed at the outcome. "You wait that long for justice and it just doesn't come through," Scott said.
Though advancements in DNA and fingerprint technology are allowing detectives to revive cases previously thought unsolvable, convincing juries has been another matter.
In Santa Ana, police in 1999 and 2000 made arrests in 22 cold murder cases. One has resulted in a jury conviction, detectives said. But jurors in another case recently acquitted an alleged gang member accused in a 1989 shooting.
Four more cases, police said, resulted in guilty pleas and four were cleared when police identified suspects and discovered they were dead or already serving life terms. The remaining 12 cases, including the Paige case, are still working their way through the courts.