Judge’s career spanned Rex Krebs, Kristin Smart and the ‘most heinous crimes imaginable’

Halfway through the four-month trial of notorious San Luis Obispo killer Rex Krebs in 2001, then lead prosecutor John Trice realized he wanted to change his career.

The gruesome details — Krebs had abducted, raped and murdered two local college students. The media frenzy. The long hours of preparation. Trying the case in Monterey, where it had been moved due to pre-trial publicity. The daily strain of ensuring that the prosecution won the high-profile case.

“That was when I thought I had enough,” recalled Trice, 65, who by then had logged 15 years with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office as a top prosecutor. “The two girls, Andrea and Rachel, were I think almost exactly the same age as my youngest daughter, so that was affecting me personally from time to time.”

So in 2002, after Krebs was sentenced to death for the murders, Trice ran for and won a seat on the bench of San Luis Obispo Superior Court, where he presided over the county’s most high-profile criminal cases.

Now, after a 40-year legal career, he is retiring. His last day was Friday.

The U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel turned star prosecutor and, later, a judge with the largest local caseload in recent history — spent most of that legal career here.

In his time with the DA’s Office, he prosecuted some of the county’s most gruesome murder cases, leading to two of the county’s four death row sentences, and investigated its most mystifying missing person case — that of Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart.

During his 14-year judicial career, Trice logged more trial time than any other San Luis Obispo judge in recent memory. And he’s credited with creating the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, which allows veterans accused of non-serious offenses to receive rehabilitation if there is a connection between the person’s crimes and trauma experienced during their service. Trice calls the court one of his greatest achievements.

He is also well regarded as a mentor and leader known for his compassion, keen legal knowledge and organizational skills — making his courtroom a coveted battleground for attorneys on both sides.

The Los Angeles native and University of Southern California alum began his legal career as a criminal prosecutor for the Air Force in 1980, trying felonies and court martials for the Western United States region. But spending much of the year away from his wife Mary and three children took a toll, he said, and he left the military in 1984 for a job with the SLO County DA’s Office.

Within four years, he was leading the office’s felony trial team, securing a reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor who shot straight with judges and defense attorneys alike and came to court well-prepared.

“The key to this business is preparation and anticipation,” Trice said. “It’s basically that you’re a salesperson, you’re an advocate. So you have to have a connection with whoever’s making the decision. So if they don’t like the salesman, they’re not going to like the product.”

Biggest criminal cases

Trice’s crowning achievements as deputy DA were the capital cases against Dennis Webb and Krebs.

In August 1988, a San Luis Obispo jury sentenced Webb to death for the murders of 22-year-old John and 22 year-old Lori Rainwater, who managed an Atascadero lodge. Webb broke into the lodge and repeatedly raped and beat the bound Rainwaters throughout the night. The couple broke loose from their restraints only to be gunned down by Webb in the lodge parking lot.

Their newborn and toddler were found alive at the murder scene, hiding underneath their mother’s naked body.

Webb, an associate of white supremacist groups, was convicted of the double-murder and told jurors at his sentencing: “I haven’t got any remorse. I don’t care.” The 65-year-old died of natural causes in December at a hospital near San Quentin State Prison.

“He was the meanest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Trice recalled.

During that case, the gravity of the job began to weigh on Trice when he learned that organized crime elements might be gunning for a witness, whom Trice put into the witness protection program.

“For the first time in my life, it started to occur to me, how is this case affecting my safety and affecting the safety of my family?” Trice said. “What I remember most is that feeling of vulnerability.”

It was late in his prosecutorial career that Trice headed the prosecution of Krebs, who remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison.

The women’s disappearance had paralyzed the community. Trice, who lived in Los Angeles during the Hillside Stranglers murders, said San Luis Obispo “started to have the same feel.”

Then Deputy District Attorney Tim Covello, now a SLO Superior Court commissioner, called the case “one of the darkest, most challenging capital cases of our careers.”

“While working on that case, I came to know the qualities that would make John a great judge,” Covello wrote in a statement to The Tribune. “He has always been committed to the rights and feelings of victims, but I can tell you that he was equally committed to the rights and feelings of a defendant accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable.”

San Luis Obispo attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu, who has represented two defendants sentenced to life for murder in Trice’s courtroom, agreed, saying that his clients felt they were treated with respect and dignity.

“I’ve never, ever had a defendant say they didn’t get a fair shake with him,” he said.

Kristin Smart investigation

During his final years with the DA’s Office, Trice was also involved in one of San Luis Obispo’s greatest enduring mysteries — the disappearance of Kristin Smart.

Smart, 19, was last seen on Memorial Day weekend 1996 leaving a house party just off the Cal Poly campus and headed back to her dorm with fellow student Paul Flores and a friend. Despite several fleeting leads, the missing person case continues 21 years later. Smart was declared presumed dead in 2002.

Suspicion has long been on Flores, and though he was never charged with a crime, he remains a “person of interest” in the case. In the late 1990s, Trice was involved in a grand jury investigation where Flores repeatedly refused to answer questions. Trice said he was responsible for securing wiretap warrants for detectives to monitor Flores. Often, investigators would release information to the public and monitor Flores’ phone calls for a reaction, Trice said.

Despite the countless hours of investigation in that case, Trice said he was never close to filing charges against Flores.

“He’s always been looked at as a suspect, but as a prosecutor, you have to have an ethical belief that you can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “You can only do it once.”

Asked if he thinks the case will ever be solved, Trice said at this point, a conviction will likely require someone to confess.

Although Trice has handed down hefty sentences to hardened criminals who planned their crimes, he said some murder cases, such as those committed while driving under the influence, are tragic for both sides.

In 2012, he sentenced 24-year-old Kaylee Weisenberg to 15 years to life in prison after she was convicted of second-degree murder for causing a crash that killed CHP officer Brett Oswald. Weisenberg had been high on methamphetamine. In January, he sentenced 23-year-old Lauren Alderete of Paso Robles to eight years in prison for killing 26-year-old Los Osos resident Lindsay Matzie while Aldrete was driving drunk.

“Those (cases) are so difficult, because no one intended to do that, you know?” Trice said. “It’s a different kind of murder case — not premeditation and deliberation. It’s just wanton disregard.”

His understanding and compassion are reflected in some of his sentencings.

In December, Trice suspended the 8-year sentence of a 20-year-old Nipomo man convicted of assault so that the man could attend college. A month later, Trice ruled against the DA’s Office and found that a 16-year-old being tried as an adult for his role in a violent home invasion robbery in Templeton could be rehabilitated and should be tried in juvenile court, where he could be free by the age of 23. The prosecution had sought 18 years in prison.

Defense attorney Patricia Ashbaugh said that Trice will be remembered as a prosecutor who, over time, “grew to appreciate the complexities in life.”

“I think some people can be saved and are salvageable, in my opinion, and some can’t, either because of upbringing or people they’ve hung around with,” Trice said. “For whatever reason, some get to a point where they’re not going to turn around.”

He added: “If you’re going to send someone to prison now, they better have earned it and deserved it — and not be entitled to a second chance.”

Closing statements

Trice said he’s most proud of his ability to run an “efficient, well-oiled courtroom,” which he said he owes to court staff and Frances O’Donnell, his clerk since he took the bench.

Other than a reasonable amount of second-guessing old courtroom decisions, the nearest thing to a regret, he said, is not having the “challenge” of presiding over a death penalty case.

He said he will miss the congenial San Luis Obispo legal community and watching two good attorneys debate in the courtroom.

“You don’t see it a lot unfortunately, but if you have a case with highly contested facts, two advocates going at it in a straight-forward, fair fashion — it’s something to watch,” he said.

Trice said he plans to travel with his wife, a courthouse reporter, for about six months before deciding whether to return under the assigned judge program, filling in as needed until the state appoints his replacement, which could take years.

Should the time be right, he said, he may also return as a volunteer mentor for the Veterans Treatment Court.

The many cases of John Trice

Here’s a glance at John Trice’s most high-profile criminal cases.

As deputy district attorney, 1984-2002

Dennis Duane Webb. Gunned down Atascadero couple John and Lori Rainwater as they fled an hours-long kidnapping and robbery in 1987. Sentenced to death.

Mike Cooney. A former Pozo firefighter convicted of starting a 1988 blaze that burned 80 acres of Pozo forest. Sentenced to four years in prison.

Emilio Carranza. San Miguel resident was 17 years old in 1988 when he beat and stabbed to death 84-year-old Ronald Gow of Paso Robles. Sentenced to 27 years-to-life in prison.

Mike Messer. Convicted in 1996 of vehicular manslaughter in death of wife Sabrina Messer, who died after striking her head on Highway 46 during a drive home from a ski trip. Mike Messer claimed she either fell or jumped out of the vehicle.

Terry Allen Highhouse. Committed a series of violent armed robberies across SLO County in the summer of 1997. Received the then-longest sentence ever in the county — 115 years to life in prison.

Kristin Smart investigation.

Rex Allen Krebs. Abducted, raped and murdered Cal Poly students Rachel Newhouse and Aundria Crawford in San Luis Obispo in 1998. Sentenced to death in 2001.

As Superior Court judge, 2002-17

“Big Money Bandits” case. Seven alleged Los Angeles-area gang members convicted in 2009 for a San Luis Obispo bank robbery.

Kaylee Weisenberg. Caused a crash that killed CHP officer Brett Oswald while high on methamphetamine in June 2010. Convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Andrew Downs. Found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in shooting deaths of Beverly Reilly and Kathy Yeager at Santa Margarita Ranch on Christmas Day 2010. Ordered to treatment facility.

Clifford Scott. Started a shootout with a CHP officer in Paso Robles in October 2012 after a high-speed chase. He and officer Adrian Ayala were shot several times. Sentenced to 64 years to life for attempted murder.

Mark Andrews. Convicted of first-degree murder for shooting to death 52-year-old neighbor Colleen Barga-Milbury in May 2013. Sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

Travis Woolf and Sergio Aranda. The two Salinas prison guards were acquitted of manslaughter in the September 2014 bar fight death of 54-year-old Alvaro Medrano in San Miguel.

Cristina Fernandez Padilla. Known as the “Central Coast Bandit,” Padilla of Watsonville was convicted in 2015 of a series of bank robberies that spanned three counties. Sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Thomas Yanaga. Convicted of second-degree murder for the March 2015 shooting that killed 32-year-old Marshall Savoy in Paso Robles. Sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.

James Lypps. Acquitted by a jury of murder in November 2016 for the drowning death of his wife Sherre Neal-Lypps in 2009.

“Templeton 5” case. Five 16- to 19-year-olds armed with guns robbed a house party in Templeton, forcing victims to lay in backyard while items are stolen. Four defendants face decades in prison, cases ongoing.

Source: Tribune archives