The Devil You Say

Was Jeffery Prible the cold-blooded murderer of an entire family? Or the gullible target of an opportunistic jailhouse informant?

Investigators had been at his house hours after the slayings but found none of that.

Even the state's theory of the murder weapon had changed substantially only days before the trial. With the .38-caliber Taurus handgun accounted for, investigators switched to the theory that the adults were shot with a nine-millimeter. Prible had no weapon of that description, although investigators had found an ammo clip for such bullets at his house, and a checkbook ledger entry indicating those types of bullets had been purchased from Academy months earlier.

The defense team believed detectives had erred in other conclusions from the outset of the case. Investigators suspected a sexual assault when they saw the woman's body in a belly-down, crouching position that straddled the couch. However, medical examiner Joye Carter would point out in testimony that the intense heat of a fire can accelerate rigor mortis -- the body's stiffening after death -- in a classic "pugilistic position" like that of a boxer.

Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.
Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.
Beckcom (left rear) admitted arranging a Thanksgiving photo with Prible and their mothers to show he was his confidant.
Beckcom (left rear) admitted arranging a Thanksgiving photo with Prible and their mothers to show he was his confidant.

Prosecutors also worked from a lab analyst's conclusion that Prible's semen would have to have been deposited in her mouth shortly before the fire, rather than hours earlier if he'd really had the liaison in the bathroom. Carter, infinitely more knowledgeable as the county's top pathologist, corrected that, saying that it was possible for the semen to remain detectable for extended periods.

The state attacked any hint that Tirado would have engaged Prible in voluntary sex. Some of the family's friends said Herrera became angry when he thought a friend was flirting with her and that she confided to a girlfriend that she found Prible "creepy."

Others, however, said Tirado had tired of her companion's unfulfilled promises to marry her, his wild lifestyle and cocaine use and dealing. They noted that Prible had bought her an expensive robe during a Las Vegas trip, was with her during an outing to a racetrack and associated with her during events at the elementary school that their children attended. Bartola said women friends had found him appealing.

Then came Beckcom. His warm-ups as the prime witness in the three Crawford murder trials had obviously served him well. The inmate strolled to the witness stand in what looked like a starched and pressed jail jumpsuit, swiveled to look at jurors as he smoothly delivered the words in the Q-and-A script with Siegler. She'd spent hours preparing him.

While Gaiser's cross-examination caught him off-guard at times, Beckcom was far more polished than those refuting his words, fellow inmate Liedtke and former convict Fuller.

Prible's own checkered past ruled out any appearance on the witness stand. And his actual appearance was perhaps his own worst enemy. His jailhouse pallor had given his skin a pasty hue worsened by a five-o'clock shadow at eight in the morning. The ashen tone sharpened the contrast with the dark swath across his eyes and brows, and that down-turned mouth.

Jurors in state District Judge Kent Ellis's court occasionally caught themselves looking into the haunting, dark, deep-set eyes. Siegler and co-counsel Vic Wisner made the most of it, mocking his looks and the mere notion that any woman would want this man, even though he was a twice-divorced father of three.

"He's so good-looking, handsome, sexy," Wisner sneered in final arguments. Siegler, in her patented finish, gave more flourish to the theme, mockingly referring to Prible's "magic sperm that lives longer."

"You've got to believe his semen is so tasty she wants to keep it in her mouth," the prosecutor scoffed.

They ridiculed the odds that Prible could have sex with his best friend's woman on the very night that the family was murdered. But Gaiser noted that detectives never delved into the possibility that drug dealers or others associated with Herrera's ways could have killed him and the others.

Gaiser pleaded with the jury to avoid the prosecution's penchant for trying Prible under the "presumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence." To convict, "you've got to get there with the evidence," he cautioned jurors.

But emotions, fueled by Beckcom's statement, were overwhelming. Siegler used that statement extensively to take jurors on her theory of the victims' final minutes. She quoted Beckcom's words that Prible executed Herrera, then caught up with Tirado as she tried to phone police. She echoed Beckcom in her theory that the defendant forced Tirado to submit to oral sex and then shot her about the time he climaxed, so she couldn't spit out the sperm. Siegler used Beckcom's statement to relate the supposed motive of a money deal gone bad. The prosecutor relied on Beckcom's words about being a "bad muthafucker" who would "take out a whole family."

After basing most of a dramatic closing on their jailhouse informant, Siegler advised jurors that the evidence really "doesn't rise or fall on Michael Beckcom." That they can convict even if they do "not believe one word he had to say." She went on to defend the pact with Beckcom as necessary to bring justice for the families of the victims.

By the end of the day, jurors returned a guilty verdict. One of them said eight of the 12 were ready to convict as soon as they retired for deliberations. Others had some questions about the DNA evidence. Generally, however, the panel simply felt that there would have to be too many coincidences coming together for Prible to be innocent.

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