Presumed guilty: Frank O'Connell's fight for justice
Nick and Frank O'Connell (CBS News)
A convicted killer's son believes his dad is innocent, but can he find the evidence to prove it? Correspondent Troy Roberts reports.
Produced by Judy Rybak
"All I can say in my professional capacity is that it appears to us that -- justice was -- correctly dealt back in 1984," said Lt. Dave Dolson.
"A decision was made by the judge that Frank O'Connell was guilty of the murder of Jay French," said Detective Steve Lankford.
"...to date we haven't found anything that ... exonerates him," added Lt. Dave Dolson.
"I think what we have is a failure at many levels. And [my father] was a casualty in this situation," Nick O'Connell said. "I just -- I've always had that the inner belief that the truth will come out. You know, you can only suppress somethin' like that for so long."
January 5, 1984, was just another sunny day in Pasadena, California.
But for 27-year-old Jay French, it was the last day of his life.
Daniel Druecker and Jay French were neighbors and on that fateful afternoon in 1984. They were both in the parking garage of their apartment complex; Druecker was washing his car and Jay French was loading old mattresses onto a truck.
"Garage was as empty as it is right now except for the pickup trick, you know, that was parked there," Druecker said, pointing to the garage.
Just after 1 p.m., a car sped through the property's open gate and pulled up right behind Jay. Then someone got out and shot him in the back.
"You must've been scared out of your mind," Roberts commented to Druecker.
"I was," he said. "I know I froze because I don't remember ducking down behind my car."
Minutes later, with police and an ambulance on the way, Jay French's wife held him in her arms as he lay dying. She says his final words are proof that Jay knew his killer.
"What did he say to you before he was taken away by E.M.T.?" Roberts asked Gina French.
"This had to do with Jeanne. It looks like somebody she hangs around
with," she replied.
Jeanne was Jay's first wife and the mother of his son, Jay Jr. The couple had been battling over custody of the boy for six years. Jeanne lost custody when she ran off with out of the state with their son for more than a year without permission.
"Jay had full custody. She had visitation rights. She was the one that kept bringing us back into court to try to get more custody back," said French.
But just weeks before another custody hearing, Jay was shot and killed execution style.
"When your husband was murdered, what was your first thought? Who was responsible?" Troy asked Gina French.
"Jeanne," she replied. "Yeah. ... I knew it was Jeanne's doing."
The case went to Los Angeles County Sheriff's homicide detectives, who interviewed Jeanne the day after the murder. She told them her side of the custody battle. Then, out of the blue, she brought up the name Frank O'Connell. That was the first time detectives had heard of him.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Steven Lankford says that Jeanne told the detectives on the case back in 1984 that O'Connell had been staying with her and her third husband ... and later confessed there was more to their relationship.
"Frank had a short-term relationship with Jeanne," Det. Lankford told Roberts.
"Do you know how long -- they saw each other?"
"I believe it was a few months -- according to the reports -- back in 1984," Lankford replied.
Detectives believed that Frank O'Connell was so in love with Jeanne, he was willing to commit murder so she could have custody of her son.
"It was more than just friends. You know, I think nowadays, you call that kind of 'friends with benefits.' It wasn't a love relationship," Frank explained. "...they try to put this love triangle, and love -- theory into it. And it -- it was nothing like that."
But when detectives looked at Frank they saw a likely suspect. In 1984, he couldn't hold down a job and was sleeping on a friend's couch. But just eight years earlier, life was very different for Frank.
He had been a local hero -- a high school football superstar and the pride of middle class Glendora, Calif. Frank's mother, Rosemarie O'Connell was so proud that she kept every memento.
"He was very good. He was their top football player," she said as she and Roberts looked through a scrapbook. "He was a wide receiver, number 80."
"Everybody looked up to him. His coaches, his teachers--friends," she continued. " He was that happy-go-lucky kid."
"...the town put me up on a pedestal. You know? They-- they treated me like a hero everywhere I went," said Frank.
As a senior, Frank O'Connell had his pick of six universities with strong football programs, all offering generous scholarships. He chose a full ride to San Jose State.
"I thought I was gonna become a professional football player," he explained.
But in his freshman year, Frank got his girlfriend, Leslie, pregnant and dropped out of college.
"I just ... wasn't ready for school," he explained. "I was kinda homesick. And -- just kinda threw it away."
"Guys just don't think what the future holds for you and what you can do with a college education," Rosemarie told Roberts.
In October 1980, Frank's son, Nicholas, was born. But Frank says he still wasn't ready to settle down and get married.
"I was young, immature, didn't -- didn't plan for the future," he explained.
That's when Frank met Jeanne. She was 26 and on her third marriage.
"I thought she was a beautiful girl," Frank said. "I knew she was married. She talked about her husband. ... we exchanged numbers and stayed in contact for the next couple weeks."
But it was more than that. Frank says he lost his apartment and moved in with Jeanne. "She offered me a place to stay, and I took her up on it."
According to Frank, Jeanne threw him out after just six weeks... and the affair was over. Five months later, Jay French was murdered.
Ultimately, it wasn't his affair with Jeanne sealed Frank's fate -- it was Dan Druecker, who told police that he saw the man who killed Jay French.
"I heard what I thought was firecrackers or a backfire of a car ... and it caught my attention..." Druecker recalled.
After he was shot in the back, Jay French managed to run for safety. But the shooter followed and took a second shot right in Dan Druecker's line of sight.
"How far away was the shooter from you?" Roberts asked Druecker.
"I remember right-- if you see where that post is, that's where I was crouching, little further over there. He was somewhere here, like this," he explained, pointing fingers as if he were holding a gun.
Days later, detectives showed Druecker six mug shots. The police report notes that Druecker positively identified Frank O'Connell as the man who shot and killed Jay French.
"... he identified him just not one time. He identified him on multiple occasions," said Lankford.
But that's not all. Two other witnesses reported seeing the getaway car. They described a yellow Pinto station wagon. They said the driver, a woman, was a blonde and the passenger, a man. One of the witnesses said a photo of Frank O'Connell looked like the shooter.
"That set of facts led the detectives back in 1984 to believe that Frank O'Connell was, in fact, the suspect," said Lt. Dave Dolson.
Two weeks after the shooting, police arrested Frank O'Connell for the murder of Jay French.
"Frank O'Connell came into Jeanne's life. Jeanne had a problem. And the
problem needed to be taken care of," said Lankford.
"I did not kill Jay French!" Frank O'Connell told Roberts emphatically.
"I was 30 miles away in Lavern when this murder happened in south Pasadena. It is impossible for me to have committed this crime!"
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