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A Wake-Up Call for L.A. County's Judges

The unsolved killings of a court commissioner and his wife prompt others to take personal security more seriously.


About 9:30 p.m. on March 18, 1999, Los Angeles County Court Commissioner H. George Taylor turned his Mercedes-Benz into the driveway of his darkened ranch-style home in Rancho Cucamonga.

Taylor, returning from a retirement party for a fellow judge, hadn't yet turned off the engine when three shotgun blasts, fired into the car at close range, struck the 68-year-old jurist in the head and chest.

His wife Lynda rushed outside in her nightclothes to investigate. She was felled by two shots to the chest.

Both victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

The Taylors' neighbors in the foothills of Mt. Baldy reported seeing a white compact car, possibly a 1992 Honda CRX, speeding away after the shooting. The car was never found.

In the three years since then, there have been no arrests, but San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives are convinced that the slayings were connected to Taylor's work at Norwalk Superior Court, where he presided over divorce and child custody disputes, cases in which emotions often run high.

The last time a judge was murdered in the United States before Taylor was killed was in 1989, according to newspaper databases.

Robert Vance, a federal appeals court judge, was killed when he opened a bomb-laden package in his home outside Birmingham, Ala.

His convicted killer, who is awaiting execution, was described by prosecutors as embittered over Vance's refusal to overturn his 1972 conviction for possessing a pipe bomb.

In Los Angeles County, the Sheriff's Department maintains a squad of eight deputies to protect 583 Superior Court judges, commissioners and referees as well as the five members of the Board of Supervisors.

"We probably investigate 150 threats a year against judges," said Sgt. Steve Wheatcroft, who heads the unit. Some threats come from people who are "just shooting their mouths off," he said, but many of the more serious threats grow out of decisions in bitterly contested divorce and child custody cases.

Superior Court Judge Aviva Bobb, who supervises the county's family law courts, said she knows of only one or two credible threats against family law judges in the last three years.

Robert A. Dukes, assistant presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, said Bobb may not be aware of all the threats family law judges receive because it's up to each judge to report a threat to law enforcement.

"I myself have a thick file called 'Letters from Crazies,' and I've probably referred only a handful for investigation," Dukes said.

Family law can be particularly dangerous, according to a 1997 survey by the American Bar Assn.

The association polled 11,000 members of its family law section. Sixty percent of respondents said they had been threatened by opposing attorneys' clients. Seventeen percent told of being threatened by their own clients.

"Family law cases are like no others," said Maurice Kutner, a Miami divorce lawyer and former chairman of the ABA's family law section. "You see good people acting at their worst, as opposed to criminal cases where you see bad people trying to look their best before a jury."

Kutner, who keeps a loaded .38-caliber pistol in his briefcase, said some people "get to a point where if you push them with a toothpick, they're going to boil over" into violence. "They figure, I don't care anymore. I lost my wife, I lost my kids, my house. I have nothing to live for."

Although such risks are well known, the Taylor homicides served as a wake-up call to Los Angeles County's judges to take their personal security more seriously, especially outside the courthouse.

Victor Chavez, then serving as the Superior Court's supervising judge, issued a memo to his colleagues pointing out that basic security precautions had not been taken by the Taylors.

The lighting outside their house was woefully poor, he wrote, the alarm system was not operating and the doors were unlocked. Also, he said, the Taylors drove cars with personalized license plates.

He urged his colleagues to take advantage of an offer by the Sheriff's Department to inspect each of their homes and make security recommendations.

Dukes said many judges have done just that, and have adopted other security safeguards as well, including varying the routes they take to work each day.

"We're a lot more careful these days," he said.

For months after the Taylor slayings, a team of five detectives pored over several hundred of his case files looking for likely suspects.

Though painstakingly slow, the process has yielded some leads, and detectives are continuing their investigation.

"They have some suspects they're focusing on," said Dukes, who is periodically briefed on the investigation's progress.

Dukes, speaking circumspectly, added that investigators "have not yet been able to develop enough critical evidence to proceed to prosecution."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Superior Court have posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer or killers.

"Some cases just take time," said Det. Sgt. Bobby Dean, who heads the probe. "Eventually, we're going to solve this."

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