A former Laguna Beach resident was convicted Friday of soliciting the murders of a judge, two prosecutors and a pair of FBI agents who put him in federal prison on fraud.
John Arthur Walthall, 66, was convicted of soliciting the killing of former U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford as well as the law enforcement agents. Guilford had sentenced him to 14 years in federal prison on a fraud case. Jurors deliberated for about two and a half hours Friday before convicting Walthall, who faces up to 20 years in federal prison when he is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 8.
Walthall was sentenced in December 2016 to 20 years in federal prison on top of the 14 years, but that was overturned on appeal in 2019 as U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney was found to have made an error when he denied Walthall’s attempts to represent himself in court.
Walthall “sought others to do what he could no longer to himself,” assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard said in his opening statement of the trial. “He intended for the people who put him in prison to die horrific deaths.”
He “did it simply to have the freedom he desired and the revenge he craved,” Sheppard said.
Walthall was in prison serving the 14-year federal sentence for a gold investment scheme when he was indicted in December 2014 for soliciting the killing of Guilford and the others.
Walthall’s first trial in April 2016 ended with jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt, but he was convicted in a retrial.
The case centered around his comments to fellow Lompoc inmates Crisanto Diego Trejos Ortiz and Antonio Rodriguez as well as an undercover FBI agent about hiring a hit squad to kill the judge and the others. The informants did not testify in this trial.
While awaiting trial in the fraud case, Walthall jumped bail and fled to Nevada, where he was recaptured. Before he jumped bail, he had a friend buy three guns for him, prosecutors said.
Walthall’s attorney, Charles Brown, said Rodriguez and Ortiz got reductions on their time behind bars for working as confidential informants in the case.
Walthall’s “plan was so outrageous on its face,” Brown said. He bit on a plan to kill the judge and prosecutors and agents as a way to get his case dismissed and freed.
Walthall didn’t fit in well at Lompoc and was an “angry, broken and bitter man,” Brown said. “He felt betrayed by those closest to him.”
And, the defendant “didn’t fit in into the normal prison hierarchy” and was “shunned” by other white inmates “because he was odd, a loner.”
Because he wasn’t allied with any prison group he was “vulnerable,” Brown said.
Walthall enjoyed discussing philosophy and religion at the prison chapel, but when he was alone, he had “dark fantasies” to “get back at some of the people” who put him in prison, Brown said. “This fantasy had gone on for years in his mind.”
The informants “approached him with a spark of an idea,” Brown said. “That spark ignited an idea which spread like wildfire in the dry kindling in John Walthall’s mind” and he “could not stop talking about it.”
He would come up with ridiculous plans straight out of Tom Clancy novels, Brown said. One included using a drone to get a phone to a hitman with whom he could coordinate the attacks.
Walthall told the fellow inmates that he would pay them $25 million to hire a 16-member hit squad from Colombia, Brown said. He said they would have to have someone open up a trust in Canada and he would pay them with money from gold mines.
“It was a hit squad on consignment,” Brown said.
“You’ll have to ask yourselves if this was a bona fide plan or the fantastical musings of a lonely man,” Brown said. “At what point do thoughts become crimes? … At what point do our fantasies become criminal?”
Walthall lacked “the means to effectuate the plan,” Brown said. “All you really have is a lonely revenge fantasy without the means to effectuate it, which is not a crime.”