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Orange County : REFLECTIONS ON 2001: JUSTICE

A Full Legal Docket

* From an imported terrorism threat to home-grown crime suspects, state and local police agencies were busy this year.


The testimony was chilling and prophetic.

Just two months before the Sept. 11 attacks, convicted Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam testified in federal court that he planned to start a holy war against the United States by blowing up Los Angeles International Airport around New Year's Day 2000.

The defendant told a jury that he had been trained at one of Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps and that other guerrillas planned to attack elsewhere in America.

Ressam, who had been convicted in Los Angeles in April of conspiring to commit an act of international terrorism, was testifying in July before the New York jury that ultimately found Mokhtar Haouari guilty of helping him.

Los Angeles Times Friday December 28, 2001 Orange County Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Sentencing--A story in Thursday's editions incorrectly stated the sentence that convicted murderer Eric Bechler received. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.

"Mokhtar, I'm not going to America for tourism," Ressam testified that he had told Haouari. "I am going on some very important and dangerous business."

Even as such unsettling revelations about terrorism dominated news headlines in 2001, there was no shortage of other troubling crimes, court cases and legal issues that had nothing to do with jihad.

Among them: Actor Robert Blake's wife was fatally shot; former respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar was arrested in connection with six deaths at a Glendale hospital; murderer Robert Lee Massie was executed by lethal injection; and a court battle began over who owns a record-setting home run baseball hit by the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds.

Also, the Rampart Division corruption scandal within the Los Angeles Police Department seemed to be winding down, while Minnesota homemaker Sara Jane Olson was facing prison time stemming from her 1970s ties to the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

Campus Shootings Rocked San Diego

Early in the year, back-to-back incidents of school violence erupted near San Diego. On March 5, 15-year-old Charles "Andy" Williams allegedly opened fire at Santana High School in suburban Santee, killing two students and injuring 13 other people. The freshman had been threatening to do so for weeks, but his friends didn't take him seriously.

Finally cornered in the restroom where the shooting began, Williams allegedly surrendered with the words, "It's only me."

While San Diegans were still grieving the tragedy at Santana, not far away, at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, senior Jason Hoffman stopped his pickup in front of the campus and started shooting with a military-style shotgun.

The gunfire wounded three students and two teachers before an officer stopped Hoffman by shooting him in the jaw. Shortly after pleading guilty in September and agreeing to a life term in prison, Hoffman hanged himself in his jail cell.

During the summer, in suburban Sacramento, Nikolay Soltys allegedly stabbed and killed his pregnant wife, 3-year-old son and four other relatives.

Soltys, a Ukrainian immigrant, dodged a nationwide manhunt and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list before he was arrested in his mother's backyard after 10 days on the loose in August. Police said he told them his family had besmirched his name. His rampage frightened tight-knit Slavic enclaves from Seattle to North Carolina.

Three weeks later, Sacramento security guard Joseph Ferguson vowed to outdo Soltys when he armed himself with high-powered weapons and put on a protective vest before heading to a city maintenance yard to hunt down his co-workers. He killed five people and wounded two others before taking his own life. He left behind a suicide videotape blaming his job and his girlfriend for his actions.

In yet another gruesome case, Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old college lacrosse coach from San Francisco, died after being mauled by two large Presa Canario dogs, Bane and Hera, in January.

The dog owners, attorneys Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, are accused of training their animals to fight, attack or kill. A grand jury indicted Knoller on charges including second-degree murder, while Noel faces lesser counts. Their trial, which has been moved to Los Angeles, is scheduled to begin in January.

Southern California had its share of widely publicized crimes--and high-profile trials--as well.

A Newport Beach mystery came to a dramatic close in February when a jury convicted a man accused of killing his wife and dumping her body during a birthday cruise. The verdict in the Eric Bechler trial ended a riveting courtroom drama complete with tales of fast living and a confession secretly taped by his model girlfriend.

The mystery over the 1997 disappearance of Pegye Bechler was the talk of Newport Beach and drew overflow crowds to the Santa Ana courtroom. Bechler maintained that his 38-year-old wife, a strong swimmer and avid triathlete, disappeared while piloting a rented speedboat and towing him on a bodyboard. But prosecutors argued that Bechler bludgeoned his wife to cash in a $2-million life insurance policy.

The same jury later recommended the death sentence for Bechler.

Another infamous murder case--this one from 25 years ago--also was thrust into the forefront this year.

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