An appliance thief who allowed a stolen stove to topple off his truck on an Anaheim freeway, triggering a collision that led to the death of an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, was sentenced Friday to 16 years to life in prison.
Cole Wilkins, 41, was convicted Sept. 6 of second-degree murder. Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals tacked a year onto the normal 15- year-to-life sentence because Wilkins had a prior conviction for failing to register as a sex offender. Wilkins was convicted as a juvenile of rape.
Goethals rejected a motion for a new trial based on defense arguments that the defendant’s crimes did not meet the legal standard for an implied malice killing and that he should have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Goethals also ruled that Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker did not make improper arguments to the jury when describing the legal theory of second-degree murder.
Wilkins stole several appliances from an under-construction Menifee home on July 7, 2006, and was driving away with them when a stove fell onto the 91 Freeway, leading to the crash that killed Deputy David Piquette.
Wilkins was originally charged and convicted of first-degree murder, 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, and Goethals ruled in May that prosecutors could only pursue second-degree murder due to misconduct in the case.
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 has been in custody for about 11 years and will have to do about another five years behind bars before getting a parole hearing, Walker said.
At the onset of the trial, Walker told jurors that 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,” the prosecutor 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 chased Wilkins, but the stove remained on the freeway, Walker said.
Dozens of motorists called 911 about the stove while Lay was chasing — and eventually talked to — Walker. Piquette, who was off-duty at the time, had to swerve to avoid the appliance and 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 that Piquette’s death was a tragic accident, not murder.
“An innocent man died. It was terrible, tragic, unexpected, but it wasn’t murder,” she said. “It was an accident.”
–City News Service
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