Former Rex Krebs prosecutor to run for SLO judge — and now voters have to make a choice

Star prosecutor-turned San Luis Obispo Superior Court Commissioner Tim Covello will run against prominent defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu for the court’s sole vacant bench in 2018.
Star prosecutor-turned San Luis Obispo Superior Court Commissioner Tim Covello will run against prominent defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu for the court’s sole vacant bench in 2018. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A former star prosecutor who helped put Rex Krebs on death row and four of Santa Maria teen Dystiny Myers’ killers behind bars for life will re-enter local politics to run next year for San Luis Obispo Superior Court’s only vacant bench.

Commissioner Tim Covello, a former San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney who lost a bid for the office’s top job in 2014, filed a candidate intention statement Wednesday to run for the bench being vacated by retiring Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera, according to the County Clerk’s Office.

Covello, who’s served as one of SLO Superior Court’s two court commissioners since January 2016, said Thursday a judgeship would be the natural progression in a career that has spanned nearly all areas of the law and administration of justice.

This work is my life’s work and I just hope to keep doing it.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Commissioner Tim Covello

“I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to bring justice to the folks of this county,” Covello said. “This work is my life’s work, and I just hope to keep doing it.”

The race will mark the first time since 2002 that more than one candidate will vie for a single San Luis Obispo Superior Court judgeship, according to the court. Most SLO judges are appointed by the Governor’s Office to fill vacancies caused by a retirement or death, and candidates typically run unopposed when their predecessor’s six-year term is up.

Defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu will run against Tim Covello for the open judge’s seat. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Covello’s name will appear on the June 5 ballot next to Ilan Funke-Bilu, who announced his intention to run for LaBarbera’s seat about three weeks ago.

Covello grew up in Bakersfield, graduated from UC Berkeley and received his law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He worked for a time representing businesses in civil cases and doing pro bono work for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, where he tried his first jury trial. He joined the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office in 1993.

As the head of the office’s felony trial division, Covello won convictions in SLO County’s most well-known murder trials — those of serial killer Rex Krebs and Myers’ killers.

In 2001, Covello and then-deputy prosecutor John Trice (now a retired Superior Court judge) made up the prosecution team that tried Krebs for the kidnapping, rape and murder of San Luis Obispo college students Aundria Crawford and Rachel Newhouse, who were found buried in shallow graves near Krebs’ house in rural Avila Valley.

Following a four-month trial in Monterey County, Krebs was convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection, the fourth person ever to receive a death penalty sentence in San Luis Obispo County. Krebs remains on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

Then-Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello in 2013 shows jurors a pair of brass knuckles used by the killers of Santa Maria teen Dystiny Myers. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In 2013, Covello tried South County residents Rhonda Wisto, Frank York, Ty Hill, Cody Miller and Jason Greenwell in the kidnapping and murder of the 15-year-old Myers.

Myers, who had run away from her home in Santa Maria, fell in with the group of alleged methamphetamine dealers who, led by Wisto, had alleged ties to white supremacist groups. Wisto ordered Myers’ killing after the teenager “disrespected” her, and the four men beat, tortured and strangled the teen, whose burned body was found in rural Santa Margarita.

At trial, Covello struck a deal with the most remorseful of the group, Greenwell, who received 15 years to life in prison in exchange for his testimony against the others. Wisto, York, Hill and Miller were all convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Following former District Attorney Gerry Shea’s retirement in 2014, most in the legal community expected Covello to easily run for and win the office’s head position. But in a surprising upset, then-Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow won the race 54 to 45 percent.

In the aftermath of the election, Covello resigned from the SLO DA’s Office and took a deputy prosecutor position in Santa Barbara County.

He has the confidence of the bench.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Rita Federman

He worked in Santa Barbara for about 18 months before he was appointed court commissioner in a unanimous vote by San Luis Obispo Superior Court judges and returned to work at the SLO courthouse in January 2016.

As court commissioner, Covello primarily presides over infractions, traffic and small-claims cases at the Veterans Memorial Building. He also hears Family Treatment Court cases, serves as an on-call judicial officer for emergency restraining order requests and previously worked in Juvenile Drug Court.

While members of the local defense community have expressed support for Funke-Bilu, Covello has the support of the majority of current SLO Superior Court judges.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Rita Federman, who has known Covello since he first came to San Luis Obispo, said he’s more than qualified for the job. She described him as patient and thoughtful, and said his résumé speaks for itself.

“Without question, (Covello) has the highest level of integrity and passion, and has worked on very complex, very serious cases,” Federman said. “He has the confidence of the bench.”

Barry LaBarbara (1)
Judge Barry LaBarbera will retire in 2018, leaving his bench up for grabs in the June 5, 2018, election. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Judge LaBarbera — who first hired Covello at the DA’s Office and presided over the Myers trial — endorsed Covello as his replacement.

“He was the best prosecutor that I ever worked with,” LaBarbera said. “He’s about as good a prosecutor as I’ve ever seen.”

LaBarbera said Covello has a rare combination of trial experience, the ability to write clear and concise legal opinions and experience managing an office.

“He’s clearly the most qualified candidate,” LaBarbera said.

Asked about running against Funke-Bilu, Covello said both candidates bring something different to the table and that he’s looking forward to making his case to voters.

“I only have positive things to say about anybody who wants to make contributions to the system,” Covello said. “It’s just an honor to take part in the process.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the election. The election will be held June 5, 2018.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that DA Dan Dow “expressed support” for Ilan Funke-Bilu. Dow said Thursday he is currently remaining neutral in the race.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

Read Next

Ilan Funke-Bilu, one of San Luis Obispo’s most successful criminal defense attorneys, announced Friday, December 15, 2017, that he will run for the Superior Court bench.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune