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Man Convicted of Murder in Death of O.C. Deputy

The 34-year-old victim, called a hero for sparing others, was gunned down with an assault rifle in 1999. Jury will consider death penalty.

November 20, 2002|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

A jury on Tuesday convicted a Lake Forest man of first-degree murder for firing a stream of bullets into an Orange County sheriff's deputy who had pulled into a convenience store parking lot in 1999.

Jurors deliberated less than three hours before convicting Maurice Steskal in the shooting death of Brad Riches, the first Orange County sheriff's deputy murdered while on duty in more than four decades.

The deputy's mother trembled and covered her mouth as a court clerk read the verdict in a crowded Santa Ana courtroom. Later, she thanked investigators who worked on the case, saying, "It's such a relief."

The jury returns to court Thursday to determine whether Steskal deserves the death penalty.

Deputy Dist. Atty. David Brent argued that Steskal killed the deputy because he despised law enforcement officers.

Steskal, 43, took an assault rifle into a Lake Forest 7-Eleven store June 12, 1999, and opened fire when Riches arrived in his patrol car.

"Why did the defendant kill Brad Riches? Because he was a cop. Pure and simple, because he was a cop," Brent said during his closing argument. "He hated cops and that's why he killed Brad Riches."

Defense attorneys contended that long-standing paranoia drove Steskal to fear law-enforcement officers and to believe that he needed to carry the rifle for protection.

Deputy Public Defender Arlene Speiser asked the jury of 10 men and two women to convict her client of second-degree murder, which would not have carried a possible death sentence.

Steskal entered the convenience store about midnight. He told a sales clerk not to worry, that he was not going to rob the store but intended to use the weapon on "pigs."

He bought a pack of cigarettes, and walked out of the store just as Riches was pulling into the parking lot. Steskal fired 30 shots, emptying his gun's magazine into the deputy as Riches sat in his car.

The deputy managed to make one radio call, "Clear channel. Emergency traffic about ready to come," before he was struck repeatedly by gunfire. Steskal's assault rifle fired with such force that several bullets tore through Riches' bulletproof vest, sheriff's officials said.

In his closing argument, Brent suggested that the deputy activated the lights on his patrol car to attract Steskal's attention, hoping to spare another possible target.

"He is a hero cop," the prosecutor said. "He draws the defendant out at risk to his own life." Riches, 34, was the first deputy killed while on duty since 1958. He was a decorated deputy who was respected by his colleagues and those he encountered on the street.

Among a throng of sheriff's employees Tuesday was Sheriff Mike Carona, who stopped to hug the deputy's mother, Meriel Riches, before leaving the courtroom.

At the penalty hearing, jurors will be asked to decide whether Steskal deserves death or life in prison without parole. Steskal's mental illness -- he was diagnosed with severe paranoia -- is expected to become a focus of the penalty phase.

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