Scott Thomas ERSKINE
Number of victims: 3 +
Date of murders: June 23, 1989 / March 27, 1993
Date of birth: December 22, 1962
Victims profile: Renee Baker, 26 / Jonathan Sellers, 9, and Charlie Keever, 13
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: California/Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to death September 1, 2004
Scott Thomas Erskine is a serial killer convicted to Death Row for the murder of two California boys in 1993. He is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.
Erskine grew up in southern California. When he was 5 years old he darted into traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway outside San Diego and was hit by a station wagon. He remained in a coma for 60 hours. Although physically he appeared recovered, he frequently complained to his mother about headaches, and he experienced "black out" moments where he couldn't remember what he was last doing.
At the age of 10, he started molesting his 6-year-old sister, forcing her to perform oral sex upon him. He soon began abusing her friends, threatening to kill them if they told anybody. At 15, Erskine escaped from a juvenile detention facility, pulled a knife on a 13-year-old girl and raped her. The next morning, he assaulted a 27-year-old female jogger with a knife.
In 1980, while on his way to interview for a camp counselor's position, Erskine beat a 14-year-old boy unconscious during an attempted rape. He also raped another inmate while imprisoned. Erskine begged the San Diego judge at the time to spare him from adult prison. Despite his mother's pleas to send her son to a mental institution, Erskine was sentenced to four years in prison; he was paroled in 1984.
Upon his release, Erskine met a woman named "Deborah," whom he dated on and off, and moved to Orlando, Florida with her in 1988. They were married that year, and had a son, Brandon. The marriage was brief and dysfunctional; Erskine physically abused his wife, even kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant, and she eventually left him. Eskine moved back to Southern California.
In 1993, Erskine invited a woman, who was waiting for the bus, into his home and held her hostage for several days, repeatedly raping and sodomizing her before letting her go. He was quickly arrested. He was convicted of rape and kidnapping, declared a sex offender, and sentenced to 70 years in prison. As a convicted sex offender, Erskine had to submit his DNA to a database.
In March, 2001, the San Diego Cold Case squad reopened the investigation of the unsolved murders of 9-year-old Jonathan Sellers and 13-year-old Charlie Keever. The police tested cotton swabs found in Charlie's mouth that contained semen. Since it was determined neither boy was physically mature enough to produce sperm, the semen could only have originated from the killer. The DNA sample was entered into CODIS, and they soon got a hit. The DNA belonged to Scott Erskine.
In September 2003, Erskine went on trial for the two murders. The jurors were shown photos of the crime scene; Jonathan was at the entrance of the make-shift fort hanging from a caster bean tree branch. He was naked from the waist down, his legs and arms bound with rope, and his mouth gagged. His genitals showed obvious signs of sexual assault, and a noose was tied around his neck.
On the ground laid Charlie, his head resting on a pile of his and Jonathan's clothes. He was also naked from the waist down, legs and arms bound, his mouth gagged, and his genitals were bleeding from extensive bite marks. He, too, had a rope around his neck. The pathologist determined Charlie was alive when the bite marks were inflicted. Erskine's DNA was also found on two cigarette butts found near the bodies.
On October 1, 2003, the jury found Erskine guilty of murder; however, they could not agree on the sentence. Eleven jurors voted for the death penalty, while one juror insisted on giving Erskine life without parole. The judge declared a mistrial on the penalty phase. In April 2004 Erskine went before a second jury to decide his punishment for the murder. This jury unanimously recommended the death penalty.
On September 1, 2004, a California judge upheld the jury's recommendation and gave Erskine the death penalty. He was transported to San Quentin six days later.
While awaiting the start of his trial, Florida investigators matched Erskine's DNA in the unsolved case of 26-year-old Renee Baker, who was murdered on June 23, 1989. He was formally charged in 2003, but didn't get sentenced until August 2004. Erskine, who did indeed live in Palm Beach County, Florida, at the time, admitted to raping and killing Baker, and was given life without parole. Baker drowned when Erskine broke her neck and left her near the bank of the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach. Florida authorities suspect Erskine may be linked to other unsolved homicides.
Judge cites depravity of crimes in condemning Erskine
By J. Harry Jones - Union-Tribune Staff Writer
September 1, 2004
DON KOHLBAUER / Union-Tribune
Milena Sellers, mother of Jonathan Sellers, cries as she speaks about her son during the sentencing of the man who killed him. She is comforted by her sister Tammi Tilley.
The man who molested, tortured and strangled two South Bay boys more than 11 years ago in one of the county's most horrific murders was sentenced Wednesday to be executed for his crimes.
Scott Thomas Erskine will be transferred from the county jail to San Quentin's death row within the next 10 days, officials said.
"San Diego County has never seen a man like this before and hopefully never will again," prosecutor Valerie Summers said Wednesday during Erskine's downtown San Diego Superior Court sentencing. "
In imposing the sentence, Judge Kenneth So followed the recommendation of a jury that chose death over life without the possibility of parole as the penalty for the 1993 slayings of 13-year-old Charlie Keever and 9-year-old Jonathan Sellers. Citing the depravity of the slayings, as well as more than a dozen other violent sexual crimes committed by Erskine over his lifetime, So condemned the 41-year-old man following a brief but intensely emotional hearing.
Transcript of families' statements
The boys' mothers spoke to Erskine but he never acknowledged them or responded. Instead, he stared straight ahead from the defense table, unflinching and silent, just as he did while the case wound through the courts over the past three years.
The mothers pleaded with him to tell them why he killed their boys. They begged him for the boys' last words. They screamed at him and they cried.
Jonathan and Charlie disappeared March 27, 1993, while riding bicycles along the river bottom of the Otay River in Palm City. A jogger found their bodies two days later inside an igloo-type fort made of brush. Both had been bound, gagged and molested. Charlie was lying on the ground. Jonathan was hanging from a castor bean tree.
"I see my baby hanging from a tree, on his knees," Jonathan's mother, Milena Sellers, screamed at Erskine. "And I just want to know why, why you did that to him. And I want to know, you know, did he mention God? Did he start praying? Or was he crying and asking God to help him?
"Is that why you put him on his knees? I want to know, were you trying to mock God? Because God is real. And you will pay for what you did . . . God takes it very seriously."
The slayings horrified the community and triggered a massive investigation that went nowhere for nearly eight years. Then, in 2001, police used new DNA testing methods to link Erskine to the killings from body fluids found at the crime scene.
Erskine held numerous jobs in the 1980s and early 1990s while living in various parts of the country. He was attending business classes at Southwestern College and employed as a car shuttle driver when the boys were killed.
Several months after the slayings of the boys he was arrested in the rape of a San Diego woman. He was convicted of that crime and was serving a 70-year prison term when he was charged in the boys' slayings.
Last week he also pleaded guilty to murdering a woman in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1989. The plea came after an agreement that he would not face the death penalty there.
Erskine's lawyers argued that his brain was damaged when he was struck by a car at the age of 5. They did not contest that he killed the boys but asked jurors not to recommend execution by arguing the injury caused him to lose the ability to curb sexually sadistic urges, therefore lessening his responsibility.
On Wednesday, Charlie's mother, Maria Keever, told Erskine what she thought of that argument.
"I was in an accident when I was 7 years old. I was run over by a truck," she said. She was in a coma for two days and hospitalized for one year, she said.
"And I don't go killing people . . . That's not a reason to kill people.
"And I hope someday, in jail, he gets his life sucked out of him like he did my son."
Jonathan's older sister Natasha Sellers told Judge So she has been suffering post-traumatic stress disorder since she was 11 years old.
"I've been waiting for this moment for half of my life," she said. "I didn't know how my brother died until this court proceeding began, when I came to find out the horrific way that he was taken from us. When I was 11, I tried to make myself believe that it was quick and he didn't suffer, but now I know the truth."
She said she tries to recall good memories of her brother.
"He was funny. He was beautiful. He had big, brown Bambi eyes, long eyelashes, a smile that can light up a room.
"But now," she said, "I can't even think about that. Every time I think of my brother, I think of his last moments. I see the autopsy pictures. And I can't sleep. I feel like he was cold. He was alone. He was scared. He was just 9 years old. Charlie was only 13.
"One of them had to watch the other one die. That was torture. And now we're being tortured for the rest of our lives because they're not with us....
"For the crimes that you committed on March 27th, you deserve to die," she told Erskine. "My brother is dead. Charlie is dead. You deserve to die."
The long and costly trail leading to Erskine's conviction in slayings
By J. Harry Jones - The San Diego Union-Tribune
August 29, 2004
It was one of the longest and most intensive and expensive investigations in local law enforcement history.
During their eight-year hunt for the killer of two South Bay boys, police exhumed a dead body, posed as journalists, consulted experts in satanism and took biological samples from hundreds of potential suspects.
Yet, throughout their quest to find the man who molested, tortured and murdered 13-year-old Charlie Keever and 9-year-old Jonathan Sellers, police received only one accurate tip.
It came from a probation officer in 1994, days after the first anniversary of the boys' deaths. After a cursory analysis, it was stuffed into a manila envelope and essentially forgotten.
Police had thousands of leads and, they believed, far better suspects than Scott Erskine. The man cited by the probation officer "was a low-priority guy," one of the detectives later testified.
For the first time, details of how police went about trying to find the boys' killer were discussed recently in open court.
It was a massive and frustrating investigation. And even if they had focused only on Erskine, it's doubtful they could have made the connection until DNA testing technology improved years later.
Erskine, 41, is scheduled to be sentenced later this week, presumably to death. He was convicted last year of murdering Charlie and Jonathan after abducting them while they rode their bicycles along the bed of the Otay River on March 27, 1993.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth So is expected to follow a jury's recommendation that Erskine be sent to death row.
A few weeks ago Erskine's lawyers made the unusual argument that Erskine's rights were violated because police did not connect him to the murders years before they did.
Rejected by the judge, the argument went: Police received the tip from the probation officer based on Erskine's criminal history and obvious sexually deviant tendencies.
Therefore, Deputy Public Defenders Larry Ainbinder and Juliana Humphrey argued, police should have developed a case against Erskine in 1994 rather than in 2001 when new DNA testing techniques linked him to the slayings.
Because of the delay, they argued, several witnesses they would have called to testify had either died or were unavailable. The lawyers said Erskine's right to a fair and speedy trial were denied and asked the judge to throw out the death penalty.
Prosecutor Valerie Summers argued that even had police pursued Erskine as their only suspect they wouldn't have been able to make a case against him for years.
Barring a confession, police still would have had to wait for DNA testing technology to advance to where they could have convicted Erskine on DNA taken from the crime scene, she said.
Besides, Summers argued, Erskine could have confessed years ago when the witnesses were alive.
Ruling against the defense, the judge found that police did everything possible to find the killer.
Disturbing crime scene
Charlie and Jonathan disappeared after leaving their homes for a bike ride, "an adventure," they called the Saturday afternoon outing. They were found two days later inside an igloo-like fort of brush along the banks of the Otay River in Palm City.
Both were naked from the waist down, bound with rope and gagged with tape. Both boys had been molested. Testing would later show the presence of Erskine's sperm.
The crime left no witnesses, two devastated families and a South Bay community in fear.
About five months later Erskine was arrested for an unrelated, brutal rape of a San Diego woman and sentenced to 70 years in prison. It was his last recorded crime in a lifetime filled with sick misdeeds.
Police didn't connect Erskine to the South Bay murders then and wouldn't for eight years.
San Diego Police Sgt. Bill Holmes was the lead investigator. He never spoke publicly about the investigation until he revealed some details in court this month.
"I was told by two chiefs of police to spend whatever I needed to spend," Holmes testified.
And they spent both money and time. Loads of both, although figures are impossible to calculate.
The crime scene was as disturbing as many had ever seen. During the trials it was made clear how the boys must have suffered. Jonathan was found hanging by a rope from a caster bean tree. Charlie was on the ground and had been mutilated by Erskine.
Also in the fort, a cleaned cat skull was prominently displayed, Holmes testified. "We never told anybody, not even the families."
Experts in satanism were consulted, because it appeared the skull might be significant, before police decided it was another dead end.
Detectives whittled down a list of about 6,000 registered sex offenders in the county to around 300 because of their ties to the South Bay and the kind of crimes they had committed.
They interviewed dozens of homeless men who lived in the river bottom.
They collected, froze and stored DNA samples from hundreds of suspects.
They collected fingerprints from hundreds of people and used special equipment to see whether they matched the imprint of the tip of a finger found on tape used to gag one of the boys.
They kept the slayings in the news to generate more tips, a tactic that worked, although none panned out.
"Over the years, we received both anonymous letters and signed letters telling us who did this," Holmes testified.
"We would investigate the tip contained in the letter and try to identify the source of the letter." They even tested the envelopes and stamps for DNA on the off chance the killer had sent them.
Not long after the slayings, civic leaders wanted to clean out the river bottom by moving perhaps hundreds of homeless people who called the area home.
"We asked them not to do that, leave them there where we knew where they were, where we could identify them, and give us some time to work with that," Holmes said. The river bottom cleanup was put on hold for two years.
In the mid-1990s, Holmes said, police went to Mexico and dug up a dead body.
"We had a pedophile who was involved in a child pornography ring based out of Southern California," he said. "He had taken up residence in Acapulco. It may have been Mazatlan . . . There was a federal warrant out for his arrest. It was reported that he died of a gunshot wound in the place where he was staying in Mexico."
The body had decomposed badly and was found buried in a pauper's grave, Holmes said.
"It was worth the expense to go down to Mexico and the time to contact the Mexican officials, get the necessary documents to exhume this body, do the identification, remove a section of rib and bring it back and preserve it in our lab for future DNA testing."
Detectives also posed as magazine writers to get information from a man who was refusing to talk to police, Holmes said. The man had been seen in the area carrying signs asking for information about the boys' deaths. He opened up, however, to "the writers," but had nothing of value to say.
The elusive tip
In March 1994, probation officer Anne Royer had just completed a report about Erskine for his sentencing for the rape of the San Diego woman in the summer of 1993 – about five months after the boys were killed.
Erskine's criminal history, which included rapes and assaults on girls, women and boys prompted Royer to call Holmes and suggest police "take a look" at Erskine in the boys' killings.
Holmes testified that he assigned Det. David Ayers to check out the tip.
Ayers testified he met with Royer and left with some papers detailing what was known about Erskine's background.
Ayers also testified he didn't remember much about Erskine or the reports. He said he was never asked to do any follow-up, so he put the reports into a manila envelope stored in a cardboard box with many other pieces of paper about other possible suspects.
When he retired several years later, the box was given to a different detective. When that detective retired, Holmes took possession of the documents.
"I don't remember contacting anybody, out of any of the reports, at all," Ayers testified.
Holmes was asked during his testimony: "As the leader of this team trying to solve this homicide, did you keep track of or follow up on this assignment to detective Ayers and say, 'Hey, what happened with that tip from the P.O.?'"
"I didn't follow up on it," Holmes replied.
"He was a low priority guy," Ayers testified. "We had far more serious people than Scott Erskine. He was one of hundreds. And we had far higher priority people."
Holmes testified the records were not complete because many of Erskine's earlier crimes were not known then and most involved women or girls as his victims.
"We had people that had cases far more to the point, in that boys were strictly their victims," said Holmes.
"Hindsight is always easier," he testified.
Lantana woman's 1989 killer sentenced
By Missy Stoddard
August 28 2004
A California man who authorities say had raped at least a half-dozen people by age 13 pleaded guilty Friday to murdering a Lantana woman in Palm Beach 15 years ago.
As part of the plea deal, Scott Thomas Erskine, 42, also agreed to be interviewed by Palm Beach police about the unsolved murder of another woman on the island in 1989, Lena Marion Teinilla.
Erskine entered his guilty plea to second-degree murder via satellite video from San Diego, where he has been convicted of the 1993 rape, torture and murder of two boys he had abducted. In accordance with the plea deal struck between prosecutors and defense lawyers, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown sentenced Erskine to life in prison for the murder of Renee Baker, 26, in June 1989.
Dressed in a teal green, jail-issued jumpsuit and flanked by Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout and San Diego Public Defender Larry Ainbinder, Erskine answered questions from Brown in a monotone voice. Baker's family members sat in the courtroom's front row, listening intently as Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller detailed the crime.
According to Miller and information in a probable cause affidavit, Baker's 1978 Plymouth Arrow broke down at the Albertsons supermarket on Lake Worth Road in Lake Worth.
At the time, Erskine worked at the nearby Huneywell Fireworks stand less than a mile away and lived in a trailer on the property.
A former co-worker of Erskine's told police that a woman named Renee frequented the fireworks business. That same person recognized Renee Baker when police showed him her picture.
Baker's nude body was found face down at the Wild Life Sanctuary off the Southern Boulevard Causeway. The official cause of death was listed as assault and drowning.
Neatly piled on the sand 66-feet away from her body lay Baker's clothing, sandals and purse. It appeared as though she had been dragged about nine feet from a beach area to the Intracoastal Waterway.
In took more than a decade, but in 2002 a Marlboro cigarette butt found near the body would point to Erskine as the killer.
Erskine received a 70-year prison sentence for the 1993 rape and attempted murder of a California woman he lured to his home. He put her in a chokehold until she passed out, according to the affidavit. He repeatedly sexually assaulted her until she regained consciousness and escaped.
DNA testing in that case linked him to the rape and murder of the two San Diego boys -- ages 9 and 13.
The bodies of the boys were found in a makeshift fort in brush along the Otay River, according to court documents. The 13-year-old was naked from the waist down with rope tied tightly around his neck.
The 9-year-old, also naked from the waist down, dangled from a rope attached to a tree branch. His ankles and feet were bound and a piece of cloth was stuck in his mouth. Both boys had been sexually brutalized.
While investigating Erskine's background, San Diego authorities traveled to Palm Beach County, where Erskine had lived from 1988 to 1991. More evolved DNA testing matched Erskine to the cigarette butt as well as swabs taken from Baker's mouth.
Erskine's California public defender contacted the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office and offered his client's guilty plea if the death penalty was not an option for punishment. On Friday, Erskine pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a life sentence.
It's unlikely he will ever return to Florida since a California judge is expected to sentence Erskine to death in the next few weeks for killing the San Diego boys. A California jury already has voted in favor of the death penalty.
As part of the Florida plea deal, Erskine has agreed to talk with Palm Beach police about Teinilla, whose body was found by a deliveryman between Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago and the Bath and Tennis Club. Teinilla, 38, of suburban Lake Worth, had been stabbed repeatedly and strangled.
Palm Beach police Capt. Elmer Gudger was careful not to classify Erskine as a suspect in that case, but said he's a person of interest. Teinilla died the same year and in a similar fashion as Baker, though Gudger declined to be more specific. Palm Beach police detectives plan to travel to San Diego in the next few weeks to meet with Erskine.
Renee Baker's brother, Randy Baker, chose not to address Erskine at Friday's hearing. Afterward, he explained: "I'd like to get a hold of a gun and kill him," he said.
"He didn't get what he deserves for my sister, but he got what he deserved for those two little boys in California," he said.
Man pleads guilty to 1989 Palm Beach murder
By Scott McCabe
Saturday, August 28, 2004
WEST PALM BEACH — A San Diego man convicted of killing two boys in California pleaded guilty Friday to the slaying of a woman 15 years ago in Palm Beach and agreed to talk to detectives here about the town's only remaining unsolved murder.
From a conference room in the San Diego County Courthouse, a video image of Scott Erskine and two public defenders was beamed to television sets in Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown's courtroom. Erskine, 42, wearing green prison garb, sat emotionless and shackled to a chair, before pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 26-year-old Renee Baker 15 years ago.
"You are pleading guilty because you are guilty, correct?" Brown said.
"Yes, ma'am," Erskine replied, his voice squeaky and sad.
As part of his life sentence without parole, Erskine agreed to be interviewed by Palm Beach detectives about Baker's murder and the death of Lena Teinila, 38, of Lake Worth.
Four months before Baker's body was discovered on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway off Southern Boulevard, Teinila had been found stabbed, suffocated and dumped between Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago and the Bath & Tennis Club.
Palm Beach Capt. Elmer Gudger said Erskine has not been classified as a suspect in Teinila's death. They expect to interview him in two weeks.
During the trial, Baker's older brother, Randy Baker, sat quietly with his wife, Cindy, once wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
"I wouldn't have one word to say to the man. I'd only try to hurt him," Baker said after the hearing.
But Baker said he was satisfied that Erskine admitted to the crime.
"He didn't get what he deserved for my sister, but he got what he deserved for those two boys," Baker said. "He deserves the death penalty."
Last month, a California jury recommended that Erskine be executed for the double murder of 13-year-old Charlie Keever and 9-year-old Jonathan Sellers, who disappeared in 1993 while riding their bicycles. A judge is set to sentence Erskine Tuesday.
San Diego police Sgt. Bill Holmes, who was at Friday's hearing in California, said Erskine pleaded so quickly, only a week after he was officially charged, to avoid the death penalty here.
"It takes forever to kill someone in California, and Florida has a reputation for putting its death penalty to use," Holmes said.
Only two years ago, the investigation into Renee Baker's death was cold. But new DNA technology linked the 1993 death of the two boys to Erskine, who was serving a 70-year sentence for the rape of a San Diego woman.
While putting together the double-murder case of the boys, San Diego detectives learned that Erskine lived in Palm Beach County from 1988 to 1991. Local agencies reexamined unsolved cases from that time, and DNA taken from Baker's crime scene popped up positive. Erskine was at the scene.
Police learned that Renee Baker knew Scott Erskine from a firework stand at 10th Avenue North and Military Trail in suburban Lake Worth where Erskine worked, according to the probable cause affidavit. On the night she died, Baker's car broke down at the Albertsons grocery store on Lake Worth Road and Military Trail, less than a mile from the firework stand where Erskine also slept.
The two ended up in the wooded bird sanctuary on the Intracoastal. The medical examiner's report indicated Erskine probably came up from behind, reached up around Baker's body, locked his fingers behind her neck in a full nelson and dunked her under water. Salt water filled her lungs.
Her fight for life was so violent that the shoulder muscles around her neck ripped an inch and a quarter deep.
Erskine's San Diego lawyer, Larry Ainbinder, didn't return phone calls Friday. In the trial of the two boys, defense attorneys did not call any witnesses and focused instead on avoiding the death penalty. Ainbinder said Erskine sustained brain damage when a car hit him at age 5.
Erskine has a history of sexual violence that began at 13, court records show. He committed three rapes before he was 17, according to records obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune. In 1980 his mother pleaded for a court to lock him up.
California detectives have said they believe DNA will link Erskine to more slayings.
A murder trial and its upsetting details
By Gina Lubrano
San Diego Union-Tribune
It's a tough assignment all around. Tough for the jurors; tough for the judge; tough for the attorneys; tough for the journalists covering the trial, and tough even for their readers. But it's tough most of all for the families of Jonathan Sellers, 9, and Charlie Keever, 13, and others who loved them. The boys were tortured and "bound, gagged, molested and eventually strangled with ropes" more than a decade ago.
Jurors who heard the details of the case returned with a verdict Wednesday. Scott Thomas Erskine, 40, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the slaying of the boys. He now faces the possibility of the death sentence.
Erskine was charged eight years after the 1993 deaths of the boys when new genetic testing techniques enabled police to link him to DNA evidence found at the crime scene. His trial began Sept. 22; deliberations began Tuesday, and the guilty verdict was returned on Wednesday. The penalty phase of the trial, to determine whether Erskine should get life in prison without parole or be executed, is scheduled to begin Oct. 14.
Descriptions about the trial have been restrained even while trying to convey the horror of what happened to the boys. Veteran court reporter J. Harry Jones, who covered the trial, called it "one of the sickest crimes I've ever seen." Just how tough the trial was for jurors and spectators was apparent in a story Sept. 24 that told of a television reporter who ran out of the courtroom, overcome with emotion after seeing photos of the bodies.
A reader who expressed concern for the families of the two boys wanted to know whether it was necessary to go into the horrible details of the case, saying the Union-Tribune might as well have drawn pictures. I was not surprised by the complaint. Readers who find details of a crime disturbing sometimes feel they must speak out for the victims' families. They aren't considering, however, that the families already know all too well what has happened to their loved ones; the newspaper is not the source of their information. Even so, what surprised me was that there were not more complaints.
As Jones pointed out, Charlie's and Jonathan's families knew how they were killed; they don't want details kept from the public. "These mothers want the facts known," Jones said. "They want people to know what Scott Erskine did to their boys."
Bill Callahan, legal affairs editor, said the details of what happened to the boys are much more gruesome than has been reported. And even though reporting has been restrained, telling readers what was done to Charlie and Jonathan is especially important in a death penalty case, he said.
"It is our obligation to report – without being unnecessarily explicit – what happened to the boys, how the crime was solved and who Scott Erskine is," he said.
"The public should be informed of the details that the District Attorney's Office weighs and uses in deciding whether to seek a defendant's execution," Callahan said. "The district attorney is an elected official, and the decision on whether to seek or not seek the death penalty is perhaps the most important decision made by that office."
Like Jones, Callahan is well aware of what the crime has done to Charlie's and Jonathan's families. "The boys' families have been tortured by these horrible crimes for over a decade and have counted on us and other members of the press to keep this story alive so their boys' killer could finally be brought to justice," Callahan said. "They have been well aware of far more explicit facts than we have reported, they were informed about our story and quoted in it and have no objections to our coverage," he said. "In addition, publishing the circumstances of how two innocent boys could be slain just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time informs the public of the unfortunate dangers that lurk out there in today's world."
Given the crime, I think the coverage has been appropriate. The information was not unduly emphasized; it was not sensationalized. As Callahan pointed out, it is sometimes necessary to go beyond the standard, numbing phrases, to say just how they were molested and what it means to say the boys were tortured. Disturbing as it is, it provides insight to what jurors, who are weighing the penalty, will be considering in making a recommendation.
Execute child killer Erskine, jury says
Two boys slain 11 years ago near river in South Bay
By J. Harry Jones - The San Diego Union-Tribune
June 3, 2004
More than 11 years after two boys were sadistically murdered by the banks of the Otay River, a jury yesterday deliberated for only 2½ hours before recommending that the killer, Scott Thomas Erskine, be executed.
"I've waited so long for this day," said Maria Keever, the mother of one of the victims. "Nothing will ever ease the pain of the loss of my son, but I'm relieved that justice was done."
Charlie Keever, 13, and Jonathan Sellers, 9, were murdered by Erskine on March 27, 1993, inside a man-made enclosure of brush in the southern San Diego neighborhood of Palm City.
Erskine, 41, was convicted last year after re-examined DNA evidence proved his guilt, but that jury deadlocked on punishment. Eleven voted for the death penalty; one opted for life imprisonment without the chance of parole.
A second jury was seated in mid-April to try to decide on the penalty.
"There were pretty much no questions," said a juror named Mike, who asked that his last name not be published. "One of the jurors said he thought life might be better, but we convinced him that the boys didn't have a choice."
An alternate juror who rushed back to the courthouse to hear the verdict added, "To me it was pretty cut and dry, but the defense lawyers put up a good fight."
A sentencing date will be set at a hearing scheduled for tomorrow. Defense lawyers are expected to file several pre-sentencing motions, which probably will delay the sentencing for several months.
Moments before the verdicts were read, San Diego police Sgt. Bill Holmes, seated just a few feet from Erskine, stared at the man he had hunted since the day he saw the boys' bodies.
"I was thinking, 'Justice is about to be done,' " he said. "Now justice has been done."
Erskine showed no emotion as the verdicts were read. In the San Diego courtroom gallery, even though Superior Court Judge Kenneth So had ordered everyone to be quiet, shouts of "Thank God!" and "Yes!" broke out from members of the boys' families.
"I'm so thankful, so thankful that the jury was able to see through the excuses," Milena Sellers, Jonathan's mother, said later. "There is no excuse."
She also dismissed the notion that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. "What he did to those boys was cruel and unusual," she said.
During closing arguments, delivered Tuesday and yesterday morning, the lawyers representing both sides agreed that the crimes were horrific.
"He found them. He took them. He killed them. He left them in the rain and then walked away," prosecutor Valerie Summers told the jury. "They would be 24 and 21 years old today."
She said Erskine committed the crimes because "he liked it."
He bound and gagged both boys and molested them, probably for hours. They had been riding bicycles that Saturday afternoon when he somehow lured them into the enclosure.
Jonathan's half-nude body was found two days later, hanging from the branches of a bush. Charlie was lying nearby. Ropes around their necks were still tight when a jogger found the bodies.
Juror Mike said Erskine's having to have methodically planned the murders worked against the defense argument that he is unable to control his impulses because of brain damage suffered years earlier.
Summers told the jury that Erskine had to park his car 475 feet from where the boys were killed and bring "a rape kit" of different types of rope and tape.
"Every step of those 475 feet he could have turned around," the juror said. "If it hadn't been the two boys out there, he would have picked out somebody else to kill."
Defense lawyers Larry Ainbinder and Juliana Humphrey asked jurors for mercy.
"Don't respond with more suffering," Ainbinder said. "Respond with an act of compassion."
Humphrey added: "I am not ashamed to stand here and beg for his life. Stop the violence. Stop it."
They argued that Erskine became a perverted, violent criminal because three things converged to create "the perfect storm."
They said that at age 5, Erskine suffered a severe head injury when a car struck him. The injury damaged his brain, and he was never the same, they said.
Summers argued that there is no proof that the injury had any long-term effects. The juror said the mental-health defense "never really went anywhere with us."
The defense lawyers also said Erskine grew up in an unloving, abusive household. "The sickness of this family was like gasoline on Scott's brain," Humphrey said.
Summers countered that Erskine's father was "stoic" and conceded that the family had some problems, but she said Erskine's environment was characteristic of many households in the 1960s and 1970s.
The jury agreed. "Lots of people have problems growing up, but they don't grow up to kill kids," the juror said.
Finally, the defense lawyers said society should shoulder some blame because Erskine should have been institutionalized years before the boys were killed. He was diagnosed as being a highly dangerous sexual criminal at a young age and needed to be locked up. Instead, they said, the courts and even prosecutors failed Erskine and his future victims by allowing him to be free.
Both the prosecution and the defense used the same set of facts and circumstances to try to prove their points.
Erskine had been sexually abusing people since he was 10, jurors were told. He is already serving a 70-year prison sentence for raping a woman just months after the boys were killed, and he has been linked but not yet charged with the rape and slaying of a woman in Florida in 1989.
Summers and Ainbinder used the same prop to illustrate their positions: Exhibit No. 6, an enlarged photo of how the boys were found. Both Summers and Ainbinder told jurors it will never be forgotten by anyone in the courtroom.
"He is a sexually sadistic, anti-social predator," Summers said as she showed the photograph to the jury. "He selects vulnerable victims: people who are smaller than him and people who are weaker than him. This crime is as bad as it gets."
Ainbinder also held up the photo as he told the jury: "This is a shocking and horrible photograph that I've been looking at for nearly three years. Whoever did this is sick – they can't be right."
The juror also said the photograph profoundly affected him. "I never used to lock my doors, but the night after I saw the photo I started locking them, and I'm still locking them."
Summers asked jurors not to give Erskine "what he wants, but what he deserves." She referred to a letter Erskine wrote to his mother in 2001, shortly after he had been connected to the boys' slayings. In it he expressed his fear of death row and how he planned to make a plea bargain.
The juror said the letter was discussed at length during deliberations because it was an example of how selfish and remorseless Erskine is.