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'Secret Witness' in 3 Killings Loses Appeal

Justices reject claims by murderer who collected rewards after reporting his crimes to a tip line.

April 25, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Robert Maury called in a tip to a secret witness hotline in hopes of getting a reward for helping lead police to the body of a murder victim. He called the Shasta County hotline again with a tip on a burglary, and yet again with tips on the location of two more murder victims.

Hotline operators got suspicious. When Maury went to collect his reward for locating the third body, police photographed him. He eventually was arrested and sentenced to death as a serial killer.

Maury, who collected $2,500 for tips involving crimes that he had committed, appealed, contending his constitutional rights had been violated because the secret witness program promised confidentiality to tipsters.

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court rejected the claim.

The secret witness program "only guarantees anonymity to witnesses, and not criminals or tipsters who the police suspect are providing information about their own criminal activities," the court ruled.

"Defendant's desire to provide information to obtain a reward was entirely self-motivated," Justice Ming W. Chin wrote for the unanimous court.

The Shasta County Secret Witness hotline was established by a private organization to help police investigate crimes. A flier for the program promised rewards and assured witnesses that they could remain anonymous when they called.

Maury's calls began in 1985. In his first call, he told the operator that he had information on the location of a woman's body. Based on his tip, a body was found. The victim, Averill Weeden, had rented a room in her home to Maury. The hotline paid Maury $500 for the information.

Police at the time suspected Maury might be the killer, but did not have enough evidence to arrest him.

A year later, he called the hotline about a burglary. This time Maury identified himself by name. The operator thought he was the same person who had called the year before about the Weeden murder.

The following year, two more women disappeared from Shasta County. The hotline received several calls from an unidentified man whom the operator thought to be Maury. He told the operator where one of the bodies could be found in exchange for a $500 reward. He picked up the money at a prearranged location. The body of Dawn Berryhill was found.

A couple of months later, Maury called the hotline again and negotiated a reward of $1,250 for information on the location of the body of Belinda Jo Stark. By this point, police were monitoring the calls.

When Maury went to collect his reward money, police photographed him. As police began pressing him more about the murders, Maury called the hotline back and protested that the operator had broken a promise of confidentiality.

"The caller was extremely upset that his anonymity had not been guaranteed and complained that the police had taken photographs of him picking up the Secret Witness reward money," the court related.

Maury later met with the hotline director, complained that his identify was revealed, but then couldn't resist asking for an additional reward. The hotline agreed to pay him $250 for the location of a purse of one of the victims. In November 1987, two years after he started calling the hotline, Maury was arrested. He was convicted of three murders and rape.

Maury, now 45, had supported himself selling marijuana and working at a golf course.

"He is very bright," said Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen. Stan Cross. "He enjoyed the game of killing, and then playing with the police."

He said Maury would visit the bodies of his victims and report them only after they had decomposed substantially. He apparently strangled his victims with a boot lace, Cross said.

Shasta County prosecutors suspected that Maury had killed "many more people," Cross said. "People he became acquainted with had a tendency to disappear."

During his trial, Maury's lawyers argued that he had accidentally stumbled upon the bodies while taking walks and reported them for the rewards. A jury convicted him anyway.

During the penalty phase of the trial, defense lawyers said Maury suffered from depression, abused marijuana and as a child had been beaten by his father.

Maury contended in his appeal that many legal errors were committed during the trial, including the fact that the jury was told about his calls to the hotline. His appellate lawyer could not be reached for comment Thursday.

"It appears," Justice Chin wrote for the court in People vs. Maury, S012852, "that defendant is really arguing that Secret Witness program's promise of anonymity and its breach by law enforcement violated his reasonable expectation to privacy proscribed by the 4th Amendment."

But the court said tipsters to the hotline do not have a right to expect their calls to remain private, adding, "Any reasonable caller would know that the information provided would be passed on to law enforcement."

Maury is expected to file further appeals in state and federal court.

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