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‘It was really scary.’ Central Coast couple shot, killed in courthouse hostage crisis

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Paso Robles police investigate a body found Friday, May 17, 2019, on the railroad tracks near Pine and 6th street. The homeless man was not hit by a train, police said.
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Paso Robles police investigate a body found Friday, May 17, 2019, on the railroad tracks near Pine and 6th street. The homeless man was not hit by a train, police said.

She wore a witch’s hat and did most of the talking.

He had a bushy beard and tinted dark glasses, and held a sign reading “Scapegoat RAPED ROBBED RAVAGED by the ‘SYSTEM’ FRAMEUPS” with a pirate’s Jolly Roger taped to the handle.

When I met Barbara Veilleux and Michael Anthony Rachelli, they were protesting misdemeanor charges outside the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse in October 1986.

I had trouble tracking the conversation, but I could tell that the couple felt the world was against them.

Less than six months later, they were dead, falling under a barrage of police gunfire at Paso Robles Municipal Court after they had shot a hostage — their former attorney, Fredrick Metzger.

Veilleux was 44 and Rachelli was 24 when they died March 2, 1987.

Earlier they had shouted for judge Donald Umhofer to come out of the Paso Robles courthouse. He was on the couple’s enemies list after having presided over a court hearing charging them with harassing neighbors.

The Telegram-Tribune did an extensive reconstruction of events a year later. The following account is largely quoted from two pages of stories by Mark Brown, Dan Parker and Teresa Brown, published on March 2, 1988, and from a March 6, 1987, story by Dan Stephens. I’ve included a few summarizing paragraphs as well.

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Fred Metzger is held hostage by Barbara Veilleux and Michael Rachelli at the Paso Robles Municipal Court, March 2, 1987 shortly before they shot and wounded him. Veilleux and Rachelli were killed by police gunfire. Phil Dirkx Telegram-Tribune

•••

To her relatives, Barbara Veilleux was a symbol of family pride — a beautiful model, a good mother and an actress who had performed with the likes of Clint Eastwood.

Michael Rachelli’s family remembered a bright honors student who fell under the influence of Veilleux.

Lou Campbell had done work in the couple’s Cayucos house and compared Veilleux’s control of Rachelli to Charles Manson.

He said, “It’s weird how that control happens to people; how someone so negative can take control of someone else and remove every bit of substance from him.”

To San Luis Obispo County police, however, Barbara was a woman who terrorized her neighbors, corresponded with Moammar Gadafi and shot a 73-year old Atascadero attorney in the stomach.

Something short-circuited in Barbara.

It happened sometime after she impressed Lee Marvin on the set of a Hollywood musical and sometime before she died in a hail of police gunfire in Paso Robles. It was around 1977, an investigator said, that Barbara’s mind began to crumble.

Veilleux was the baby of her family, doted on as a favorite.

Her beauty lead to modeling jobs and a role in the 1970 film “Paint Your Wagon.”

Barbara played Grace, one of the four French “tarts” who caroused with the grizzled gold prospectors that populated the California boom town in which the movie was set.

Barbara had no lines, but the camera sought her out often — possibly because of her stunning good looks.

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Investigators at the Paso Robles Municipal Court parking lot March 2, 1987 shortly after a gun battle killed with police killed Barbara Veilleux and Michael Anthony Rachelli. Phil Dirkx Telegram-Tribune

“She and (star) Lee Marvin got along quite well,” said Jeannine Veilleux, Barbara’s older sister.

“Whenever something extra had to be done in a scene (by one of the four French tart characters), Lee Marvin would ask for Barbara,” she said.

One of Barbara’s few scenes in “Paint Your Wagon” eerily foreshadowed her involvement with Michael:

In the scene, Marvin’s character, prospector Ben Rumson, leads a sexually inexperienced young Mormon man to Grace’s door. Marvin wanted to initiate the boy into manhood.

“Gracie,” Ben says, “ I give you the boy. Give me back the man.”

Grace wordlessly takes the young man by the hand, gently pulls him into her boudoir and closes the door.

When Michael Rachelli met Barbara Veilleux, her second marriage had ended.

Hilton Chodorow, a prominent attorney and Barbara’s second husband, was witness to a declining Veilleux.

Chodorow declined to speak to Telegram-Tribune reporters but did speak to San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office investigator Doug Odom.

“The way their married life deteriorated was very upsetting to him,” Odom said.

“She was extremely jealous of her husband and was constantly bringing accusations against him,” Odom said, adding that Chodorow was “a model husband.”

Barbara tried to convince Chodorow to buy firearms for an imagined “revolution” of the future. She also tried to make Chodorow donate his wealth to various television evangelists.

The divorce left Barbara with $750,000, plus alimony and child support.

Barbara moved to Ojai. While living there in the spring of 1982, she hired 11th grade student Michael Anthony Rachelli to do her gardening. They became lovers.

They soon moved to a Cayucos condominium and almost immediately began alienating neighbors, shouting obscenities, threatening and calling in complaints.

“It was like living next door to a real darkness,” said neighbor Jeff Pinkham. “We were afraid to go out.”

The Pinkhams moved out but misdemeanor harassment charges were filed against Veilleux and Rachelli.

“I think that was really the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Odom said. “That really gave them an identity and purpose … for the first time it gave them something concrete (saying) people were after them…’

“They greatly inflated the fact they simply were being charged with making harassing phone calls,” Odom said, adding that the point of the legal action was to get them counseling.

The couple began picketing outside the county courthouse and hiring and firing attorneys.

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The circles mark the impact of a shotgun blast at the Paso Robles Municipal Courthouse parking lot where two hostage takers were killed by police gunfire after they had shot their hostage March 2, 1987. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

At the end of 1986, they sold their condo and bought a motorhome.

They were arrested and released at the Canadian border for having guns in their motorhome.

The couple’s language was laced with ethnic slurs and they wrote letters to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and right wing extremists like the Ku Klux Klan, Christian Patriots and Aryan Nation.

Michael received at least one letter back from Gadhafi.

Barbara and Michael “saw themselves as international fugitives,” Odom said.

They took a last visit to Ojai a week before the shootout.

“He kept saying things like he hoped the world would end, then the whole thing would be over,” said Michael’s mother.

“I suspected something awful was going to happen. It was really scary.”

By March 2, 1987, they had made their way to Paso Robles. Barbara cut Michael’s long hair and beard, put the clippings in a plastic bag and stowed it in a sink in the motorhome.

They parked the motorhome next to the Paso Robles Municipal Courthouse and at about 5:40 p.m., they saw Metzger walk out of the courthouse and get in his car.

Veilleux and Rachelli were convinced they would start a nationwide riot and revolution.

Michael walked to Metzger’s car and ordered the attorney out at gunpoint.

Rachelli had a long list of specific potential victims, anti-semitic and homophobic rants and a declaration: “I am the spoken word. Steal weapons. I am the one promised to come.”

“Let their blood flow in the streets.”

Bailiff Bill Souza spotted Barbara Veilleux and Michael Rachelli in the courthouse parking lot with hostage Fredrick Metzger.

He warned the courthouse staff and called for backup.

Officers quickly took positions around the parking lot and called for the couple to drop their weapons.

About 45 minutes into the crisis, Metzger realized he was going to be killed, he later told his his wife.

The 73-year-old former Marine took a chance and grabbed Barbara Veilleux and applied a headlock which gave police a clear shot at Michael.

Veilleux broke free and shot Metzger in arm with the bullet passing into his abdomen.

Metzger collapsed to the ground.

Veilleux said Metzger didn’t know real pain because he had not given birth, and leveled her gun at his head.

Police opened fire and the couple were each hit by six of the 24 shots fired.

Sheriff’s Office deputy Greg Gray was wounded by pellets from a Paso Robles police officer’s shotgun.

A year after the shootout, he still was recovering from the injury. He bore no grudge.

“Sometimes bad things happen,” he said.

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The circles mark the impact of a shotgun blast at the Paso Robles Municipal Courthouse parking lot where two hostage takers were killed by police gunfire after they had shot their hostage March 2, 1987. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Deputy Bill Souza received a medal for the valor he showed in leading the charge on the armed couple.

Frederick Metzger recovered from the physical wound but said, “I don’t like to go to the courthouse. It’s psychological.”

Sheriff’s Office Lt. Vaughn Castle did a security survey of the courthouse.

“It was unexpected. No one had any idea those folks were that violent. The county government was aware they had a grievance. They picketed outside the courthouse here several times. But they were loony bins. So what can you do?” Castle asked.

The small Paso Robles Municipal Courthouse and one in Arroyo Grande have since been closed. A new $12.5 million Paso Robles courthouse opened in 2008.

Judge Donald Umhofer said, “It reminds us of how mortal we all are.

“I’ve had to assume in 99.44 percent of the situations I’ve [been] in, people do ultimately respect the law,” he said. “(But) there is a fringe element. There’s nothing I can really do about that fringe element.”

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