SANTA ANA – A 41-year-old Long Beach man who has spent the past 11 years behind bars was convicted Wednesday of second-degree murder for stealing a stove that dropped out of his pickup, leading to an off-duty officer crashing into a cement truck, killing him.
The Orange County Superior Court jury took less than a day to reach the decision. When read in court, the family of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy cried and hugged.
Cole Wilkins had been convicted of first-degree murder for the death of David Piquette, and sentenced to 26 years to life in prison. But the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction, because of faulty jury instructions.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office decided to re-try him – but Judge Thomas Goethals ruled it wouldn’t be for first-degree murder, because then-prosecutor Michael Murray, now an Orange County judge, had committed “serious misconduct” by failing to tell the defense about a traffic report altered by a California Highway Patrol sergeant to help prosecutors.
Now, Wilkins faces 15 years to life, having served 11 while awaiting a final verdict.
In closing arguments on Wednesday, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said Wilkins’ knew his actions were dangerous and could result in a death, while Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross argued that Wilkins had no way of knowing the stove would fall out and kill someone.
Over Fourth of July weekend in 2006, Wilkins, a former construction worker, stole several large kitchen appliances from a home under construction in Menifee in Riverside County.
Walker said he failed to secure the heavy load in his Ford F250 truck even though he had ties, and he left the tailgate down while headed to his girlfriend’s home in Long Beach.
At about 5 a.m., a $1,000 boxed stove fell out of his truck and landed on the 91 freeway in Anaheim., authorities said.
The stove prompeted four different accidents as drivers swerved to miss it. When an angry motorist forced him to pull over, Wilkins threatened the man and gave him a fake name, Walker said.
Piquette, a popular police trainer who was on his way to work at the sheriff’s academy in Whittier, was driving in the fast lane when he swerved to miss the stove and collided with the cement truck. He was crushed when the truck jackknifed and fell over onto his Ford Crown Victoria.
Two CHP officers initially concluded that Piquette was at fault for driving too fast to avoid the stove. But former CHP Sgt….