lady justice

A man who failed to properly tie down a truck-load of stolen appliances, prompting a stove to tumble onto an Anaheim freeway and cause a chain-reaction crash that killed an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, was convicted Wednesday of second-degree murder.

Prosecutors said Cole Wilkins, 41, stole the appliances from an under- construction Menifee home on July 7, 2006, and was driving away with them when the stove fell on the 91 Freeway, leading to the crash that killed Deputy David Piquette.

Wilkins was originally charged with first-degree murder, but Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals ruled in May that prosecutors could only pursue second-degree murder due to misconduct in the case.

Wilkins was previously convicted of first-degree murder in the case and was sentenced in July 2008 to 26 years to life in prison. His conviction and sentence, however, were overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Jurors in his latest trial began deliberating Wednesday morning and reached a verdict just before 3 p.m. Unlike Wilkins’ previous trial, jurors were not told the victim was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy. Goethals prohibited the attorneys from discussing the victim’s occupation during the trial.

Wilkins, who is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 29, faces 15 years to life in prison. Given the amount of time he has spent in custody in the case, he should get a parole hearing in about four years, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker.

At the onset of the trial, Walker told jurors Wilkins was “greedy” and recklessly failed to secure the load of stolen appliances in his haste to get away with the theft.

“Driving in that way was dangerous to human life,” Walker said. “He knew that what he was doing was dangerous and he did it anyway.”

Walker said Wilkins stole appliances such as a refrigerator, stove, microwave oven and dishwasher from the under-construction home and loaded them into a Ford F250 pickup. As he was driving on the 91 Freeway about 5 a.m., the stove fell off the back of the truck, and a motorist named Dan Lay collided with it. Lay was able to drive off and chase Wilkins, but the stove remained on the freeway, Walker said.

Dozens of motorists called 911 about the stove while Lay was chasing and eventually talking to Walker, but Piquette, who was off-duty at the time, had to swerve to avoid the appliance. He wound up slamming into a cement truck, which tipped over and crushed the sheriff’s deputy, the prosecutor said.

Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross insisted, however, that Piquette’s death was a tragic accident, not murder.

“This was an accident,” Ross said. “An innocent man died. It was terrible. Tragic, unexpected. But it wasn’t murder. It was an accident.”

–City News Service

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