F is for Fugitive Page 12

"Could he have beaten the murder rap if he'd gone to trial?"

"Hey, who knows? Going to trial is a crapshoot. You put your money on the line every time. If you roll that seven or eleven, boy, you're feeling good. But if it comes out two, three, or twelve, you're the loser. The case generated a lot of publicity. Sentiment in town was running against him. Then you had Bailey's prior, no character witnesses to speak of. He was better off with the deal. Twenty years ago, he could've been given the death penalty, too, which is something you don't want to mess with if you can help it. Talk about rolling dice."

"I thought if you were charged with murder, they wouldn't reduce that."

"True, hypothetically, but that's not the way it works. It was just discretionary with the district attorney how he filed. What Lehto did was, he goes to De Witt and says, 'Look, George, I've got evidence my guy was under the influence at the time. Evidence from your own people.' He pulls out the police report. 'If you'll note in the record, when the officers arrested him, it states he appeared to be drowsy…" Blah, blah, blah. Clifford does this whole number and he can see George start to sweat. He's got his ego on the line and he doesn't want to go into court with a big hole in his case. As DA, you re expected to win ninety percent of the time, if not higher."

"So Bailey pleaded guilty to the manslaughter and the judge maxed him out," I said.

"Exactly. You got it, but we're only talkin' six years. Big deal. With time served and time off for good behavior, he might have been out in half that. The whole time, Fowler's thinking he got screwed, but he doesn't understand how lucky he was. Clifford Lehto did a hell of a job for him. I'd have done the same thing myself."

"What happens next?"

Clemson shrugged again, stubbing out his cigarette. "Depends on how Bailey wants to plead on the felony escape. What's he gonna say, 'No, I didn't escape'? Extenuating circumstances? He can always claim some prison goon was threatening his life, but that hardly explains where he's been all this time. The irony is, he should have hired some hotshot attorney the first couple rounds. At this point, it's not going to do him much good. I'll go to bat for him, but no judge in his right mind is going to set bail for some guy who's been on the lam sixteen years."

"What do you want from me in the meantime?"

Clemson got up and started pawing through the piles of paper on his desk. "I had my secretary pull all the clippings from the time of the murder. You might want to look at those. Lehto said he'd send down everything he's got. Police reports, list of witnesses. Talk to Bailey and see if he's got anything to add. You know the drill. Go back

Through the players and find me another suspect. Maybe we can develop evidence against somebody else and get Bailey off the hook. Otherwise, he's lookin' at a lot more years in the slammer unless I can persuade the judge no purpose would be served, which is what I'll try to do. He's been clean all this time, and personally, I can't see the point of puttin' him back in, but who knows? Here."

He unearthed an accordion file and handed it to me. I got to my feet and we shook hands again, chatting about other things as we left his office, walking toward the front. The office temp was sitting at her desk by then, trying to sustain an air of competence. She looked young and bewildered, out of her element in the world of habeas corpus, or corpuses of any kind.

"Oh yeah, one thing I almost forgot," Clemson said when we reached the porch. "What Jean was upset about that night? She was pregnant. Six weeks. Bailey swears it wasn't his."


I had about an hour to kill before I was due at the jail. I got out a city map and found the little dark square with a flag on it that marked the location of Central Coast High School. San Luis Obispo is not a large town, and the school was only six or eight blocks away. Lines painted on the main streets delineated a Path of History that I thought I might walk later in the week. I have an affection for early California history and I was curious to see the Mission and some of the old adobes as long as I was there.

When I reached the high school, I drove through the grounds, trying to imagine how it must have looked when Jean Timberlake was enrolled. Many of the buildings were clearly new: dark, smoke gray cinder block, trimmed in cream-colored concrete, with long, clean roof lines. The gymnasium and the cafeteria were of an earlier vintage, Spanish-style architecture done in darkening stucco with red tile roofs. On the upper level, where the road curved up and around to the right, there were modular units that had once served as classrooms and were now used for various businesses, Weight Watchers being one. The campus seemed more like a junior college than the high schools I'd seen. Rolling green hills formed a lush backdrop, giving the facility a feeling of serenity. The murder of a seventeen-year-old girl must have been deeply distressing to kids accustomed to pastoral surroundings such as these.

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