YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The State

'Sausage King' Trial Takes a Back Seat in Bay Area

August 30, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Across San Francisco Bay from the sensational Scott Peterson trial, one of the state's longest-running capital murder cases grinds on in relative obscurity at the Alameda County Courthouse.

Stuart Alexander, a burly fourth-generation Portuguese sausage maker, gunned down three government meat inspectors in the showroom of his San Leandro plant in June 2000. The inspectors, two federal and one state, were the first agriculture agents killed in the line of duty since meat inspection laws were enacted nearly a century ago.

No one disputes that the 43-year-old Alexander -- onetime mayoral candidate in the Bay Area suburb dubbed by the state Legislature as the "Sausage Capital of California" -- was the killer. The shootings were all captured in grisly detail on video surveillance cameras at Alexander's Santos Linguisa Factory.

The video showed Alexander methodically loading the weapons in his office, entering the showroom with guns blazing and coming back to fire more shots into the heads of the three prone victims after chasing a fourth inspector down the street. That inspector, state agriculture agent Earl Willis, escaped unharmed and was a key witness in the trial.

"Stuart Alexander is at fault," defense attorney Michael Ogul told jurors after the prosecution showed the surveillance video. "He pulled the trigger. He killed those people."

"This is not a whodunit," said prosecutor John Laettner.

Yet four years after the crime -- 50 trial motions and more than 70 witnesses later -- the "Sausage King" murder trial still occupies a dingy fifth-floor courtroom, where it is not expected to conclude until November.

The plodding pace has been set by the government's methodical determination to avenge the first federal and state agriculture agents to be killed in the line of duty and by the impassioned -- sometimes strident -- effort by Alexander's public defenders to keep their client off death row.

According to USC law professor Michael Brennan, even when the evidence against a defendant is overwhelming, as it is in the Alexander case, the death penalty issue can make it drag on months or even years longer than a noncapital case. The trial began in March 2003. Opening arguments commenced in April of this year.

"If this individual had been charged with a noncapital offense, I venture to say the trial would not have taken more than two to three months," Brennan said.

Alexander's lead defense attorney, Alameda County Public Defender Ogul, acknowledged the main thrust of his case is to keep Alexander from being executed. "The bottom line is that we are trying to save Stuart's life," Ogul said.

This week, jurors heard from a close friend of one of the victims who mourned the loss of her former walking companion and from a psychologist who tested Alexander for signs of traumatic brain injury that defense lawyers contend led to the shootings.

"She was just doing her job, and he killed her," Janice Livner, 61, said of her friend, federal Food Safety and Inspection Service compliance officer Jean Hillery, a 56-year-old grandmother. "If he [Alexander] had just been cooking his meat at the right temperature, he would still be making sausage, and my friend and I would still be walking together."

Inspectors allege Alexander was smoking his pork, paprika and garlic linguica sausages 5 degrees below the temperatures considered safe by federal regulators. The inspectors also claimed he was improperly labeling his products "USDA approved" and selling them illegally on the interstate market.

Defense attorneys called Livner, who testified that she once made a clandestine meat buy for Hillery, to support their argument that a handful of inspectors had steadily harassed Alexander over a period of months, causing him to "snap."

Friends of Alexander say the financially strapped sausage maker had become obsessed with the state and federal regulation of his business.

"It was all he could talk about," said Rick McGregor, 59, a former butcher and bartender at the Washington Club bar, which is in the same gray stucco building as the Santos factory.

At the time of the killings, Alexander had posted a sign outside his office: "To all our great customers, the USDA (federal Department of Agriculture) is coming into our plant harassing my employees and me, making it impossible to make our great product. Gee, if all meat plants could be in business for 79 years without one complaint, the meat inspectors would not have jobs."

Alexander's clear hostility toward inspectors was one reason the state and federal officials arrived at the plant as a group, after first notifying San Leandro police they were en route. Also killed were federal inspector Thomas Quadros, 52, and state inspector William Shaline, 57.

"This is a case," Ogul said, "of a harassed small-businessman whose entire identity was trying to fulfill his family legacy in making the best linguica in the country."

Los Angeles Times Articles