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Money Was Motive in Death of Mt. Baldy Veteran, Jury Is Told

Prosecutors allege Marcia Ann Johnson befriended the elderly disabled man only to defraud and kill him.

September 14, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

A woman accused of killing a Korean War veteran in 1999, then cutting up his body and rolling his head down Mt. Baldy, had conned the victim into willing his life savings to her and another woman just months before the murder, a San Bernardino County prosecutor told jurors in his opening statement Monday.

Marcia Ann Johnson in a taped interview allegedly told a sheriff's detective that she shot 71-year-old Jack Irwin in the head and then scattered his body parts in the San Gabriel Mountains because the longtime mountain resident had repeatedly exposed himself to her.

However, Deputy Dist. Atty. Tristan Svare said the real motive was money. Johnson, 44, and her former partner befriended Irwin, convincing him to sign a trust leaving his belongings to the couple. After his death, they sold his car and tried to sell his home in Upland, Svare said.

"We have the evidence: the documentation of her withdrawals from his bank accounts, her false police reports, her insurance claims," Svare told jurors in San Bernardino County Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga.

Johnson's attorney, Stephan J. Willms, argued that Johnson's taped comments to police about her involvement in Irwin's death are merely "illusions" created by a mentally disturbed woman struggling with bipolar disorder and alcohol use.

Willms said the absence of Irwin's body parts and the lack of forensic evidence linking her to a slaying prove "the murder of Jack Irwin never happened ... it's something that festered inside of a disturbed woman."

Authorities have alleged that Johnson and her friend, Judy Gellert, began befriending Irwin at his Mt. Baldy cabin in January 1999. He lived in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Upland for about 25 years, said neighbors, who described him as a "well-liked guy."

Slowed by a disabled leg, Irwin welcomed the company of Johnson and Gellert, who cooked and cleaned for him and ultimately struck a deal to purchase the Mt. Baldy cabin from him when he bought a home in Upland. By August 1999, Irwin had signed a trust leaving his belongings to the couple in the event of his death.

In a preliminary hearing, a San Bernardino County sheriff's detective said Irwin was on a car ride with Johnson in September 1999, and alleged that he exposed himself to her several times, causing her to "snap" because she had been molested as a child. Yet, when Irwin was first reported missing in October of that year, Johnson told Upland police that she had given him a ride to the Upland Metrolink station, and that he was headed to Los Angeles to catch an Amtrak train to Seattle to see the city.

An Upland police detective testified Monday that he became concerned when his investigation revealed Johnson had withdrawn thousands of dollars from Irwin's bank account, apparently sold his car and listed his Upland home for sale. Irwin's cabin also burned to the ground in August 2000, and fire officials suspected arson.

Johnson and Gellert were arrested in October 2002. Gellert accepted a plea bargain from the district attorney in June, pleading guilty to one count of receiving stolen property in exchange for testifying against Johnson.

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