The Devil You Say

Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.

Neighbors rushed through the rancid odor of fire and death to a modest brick home in north Houston and banged on the door, feeling its heat with their hands.

Burglar bars shielded the front windows from easy access. Would-be rescuers finally gained entry, only to be driven back by heavy smoke and soot, which had turned the garage pool table from green to gray and transformed tiny foosball game figures into relics of Pompeii.

Gregory Francisco, who lived nearby on Lakebrook Street, saw the partially burned body of a shirtless man in khaki shorts. His shouts for the man to get up went unheeded, and he realized why when paramedics arrived. They halted their efforts to roll him over when the movement began peeling part of the dead man's burned face away.

In the living area was a lifeless woman, clad in only a T-shirt melted to her skin. She rested facedown on a love seat, her black hair charred into a steel-wool clump.

Both had been killed execution-style by bullets just below the base of the skull. Those were almost instant deaths. The intense flash fire, set by gasoline and paint solvents, sent a more random assassin of heavy smoke moving through the house.

Soot-laced clouds consumed some furnishings and drifted down the hallway, past the molten mass of a smoke detector and carefully hung portraits of little girls decked out in their Sunday finest.

The thick haze surged into the bedrooms, dipping past the shelves of teddy bears beyond the Spice World poster. It gripped the seven-year-old girl in the red Rockets nightshirt on the bed, then shooed the other seven-year-old onto the floor. She looked as if she'd collapsed trying to reach her wooden rocking horse to ride to safety.

In the adjoining bedroom, the smoke settled over the 22-month-old toddler, who fell from her bed to the floor. Rescuers peered into the face of a child who looked as if she'd mischievously used her mother's mascara to draw a cartoonish handlebar moustache across her soft cheeks. Instead, it was only the curling line of dried, soot-blackened mucus that flowed from her nostrils as she took her final gasps.

On that April 24, 1999, morning, the smoke would clear in minutes. But it would take more than three years to track through a case that wound through bank lobbies and across double lives, warped notions of the American dream, street-smart convicts ready to exploit a bizarre investigation and new doubts about the justice system's reliance on jailhouse informants.

He was never much in school, but four days before Christmas in 1990, Ronald Jeffery Prible Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Marines and set out to become one of the few, the proud. His mother, Sandra Prible, told of how he'd been impressed by the spit-and-shine recruiters who visited Eisenhower High School, from which he'd graduated months earlier.

Prible passed basic training at California's Camp Pendleton, earned his specialty in machine-gunning and had one assignment in the postwar Persian Gulf. He collected a good conduct medal and an honorable discharge, but -- like his earlier years -- his military days were marked by mediocrity.

He left the service to fight his ex-wife, Melonie Garrison, for custody of Ronald Jeffery III, or "Little Jeff," who is now ten years old. As late as last year, court records reflected the instability of his former spouse. An affidavit by Sandra Prible says the woman showed up famished and muttering that her mother had put a curse on Little Jeff.

She saw an empty Cheetos bag in the trash can and said it was a sign of the devil, says Prible's mother, who fed her former daughter-in-law and found her the Bible she'd asked for.

In 1995, Jeffery Prible went to a friend's house for pizza and rented movies and met 18-year-old Dawn Hughlett, who became his second wife. That dissolved in bitterness -- she says he threatened suicide and once head-butted her after she complained about his dropping his trousers during a contest at the club Tampico Bay. Hughlett left him after a two-year relationship, taking their infant daughter with her.

More female companions would be attracted to Prible, although he was hardly handsome. His deep-set, dark eyes and arching brows and lips could freeze into a grim, near-scowling expression. He'd had childhood difficulties paying attention, and his speech could be high-volume and rapid-fire. But Prible also showed a sharp wit coupled with a somewhat naive but gregarious attitude toward friends or strangers.

He thought of continuing a military-type life by becoming a sheriff's deputy; that application was rejected because of bad credit. Prible had worked at World Gym and tried to make it as a small paving contractor, hustling driveway jobs or a few larger contracts for parking lots. He'd had some equipment seized in a tax dispute with the government -- he and his father even armed themselves for a confrontation with an ex-business associate over finances.  

By the late 1990s, Prible had another girlfriend and occasional flings in Las Vegas, but no house or car. Instead, he lived with Little Jeff and his parents -- his mother had moved from a job at a bingo hall to work in an office warehouse; his father was a utility meter technician.

On that road to nowhere, he came across an old acquaintance from junior high who hadn't fared much better than Prible.

Esteban "Steve" Herrera Jr. wasn't living with his parents -- it was their rental house he was in, along with girlfriend Neilda Haydee Tirado, 24, their infant daughter and Tirado's seven-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

Tirado had just passed her test for a real estate license and seemed to be the stable one. Technically, her boyfriend was a tile setter by trade. In reality, he hustled pool and was a small-time pusher peddling mostly cocaine and some marijuana.

Prible was welcomed into Herrera's entourage for regular runs along a route of icehouses, taverns and topless joints. Whatever sobering realities faced them in the rest of their lives, the pair made their escape via drugs, booze and occasional coke whores frequenting these Naugahyde haunts. Neighbors became adjusted to the come-and-go crowds at Herrera's makeshift garage hangout, where parties might not stop until sunrise.

In this coke-addled atmosphere, Prible and Herrera concocted a plan to own their own techno dance club and become the ultimate players.

They envisioned the first club opening on nearby Veterans Memorial and convinced themselves that they'd eventually have a chain of nightspots.

Of course, all this would take cash. They figured that Herrera could take $100,000 in seed money, make a big score in drugs and parlay the profits into the purchase. And Prible, the out-of-work paver, would come up with his share of the money somehow. Banks, the two decided, might provide just the funding he needed.

Within days, Jeffery Prible sat down at his parents' kitchen table, jotted some brief notes and gathered up several large manila envelopes. Prible put on his ball cap -- the one he'd gotten at Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas -- and received permission from his mother to borrow the car for an errand.

He was soon parked near a fence at Ella Boulevard and 43rd. Prible strolled through the Bank One doors, waited in line, then showed the teller his note:

"This is a robbery."

He had her fill the envelopes with money, then advised her not to do anything for 15 minutes, long enough for a clean getaway, or she could be hurt. Soon after that quarter-hour, Prible was back home, along with $9,690 of Bank One's cash.

What authorities would call the "15-minute Bandit" was born.

A couple of days later, he borrowed Mom's car again and got his biggest haul, $12,917 from the Chase Bank on Airline. In less than three weeks, Prible held up a total of six banks. He'd flash the note, take the money and give his warning, saying he had either a gun or a bomb.

On April 22, 1999, Prible scored at the Bank of Bellaire on Bissonnet. His total take from the holdups was more than $45,000, and Prible would swear later that most of it was funneled to Herrera.

His string of heists halted abruptly only two days later. On that Saturday afternoon, sheriff's investigators knocked on the door of his parents' home on Woodwild in north Houston. They weren't looking for a bank robber -- this was a search for the killer of five people.

Prible told detectives he'd awakened about 1:30 p.m. and had been playing with his son. But it was the previous night they were interested in.

Taken in for questioning, he described a fairly typical outing with his friend Herrera. His parents had dropped him off at Herrera's house. They bought beer and snacks at a gas station, then Herrera's brother-in-law, Victor Trevino, came over and they drank more and shot pool in Herrera's garage. After midnight, the liquor stores were closed and they were out of booze, so the informal party moved to Rick's Cabaret on Interstate 45, then back to Herrera's. Trevino left. When Neilda Tirado came out at about 4 a.m., Prible said it was time to go. Herrera dropped him off at his parents' house.

Investigators knew that within the next two hours or so, Herrera and Tirado had been shot, splashed with flammable liquids and burned. The two girls living with them suffocated, as well as seven-year-old Rachel Cumpean. She was Herrera's daughter from a past marriage and happened to be spending the weekend visiting her father.  

Prible said there had been no problems when Herrera drove him home. He added to his statement the next morning.

Tirado and he had secretly kissed on two earlier occasions, and then she'd met him that night when he went in from the garage to use the restroom, Prible told investigators. They talked, then shut the bathroom door and began to have sex there until they thought they heard Herrera approaching outside. "Neilda began sucking my dick and then jacking me off," he told investigators. "I do not remember if I came or not."

Why hadn't he mentioned it to investigators earlier? "I really didn't want anyone to know about this because it would ruin Neilda's reputation," he said. Lab results would show traces of his semen in her mouth, while Herrera's semen was detected in her anus and vagina.

His words didn't satisfy detectives, but they had nothing to charge him with -- at least at that point.

Shane McCoy, a tall sheriff's detective with a slow Jimmy Stewart voice, answered the phone in the office he'd been assigned to since 1994: the multi-agency Houston Area Bank Robbery Task Force. An investigator who had been working the Herrera murders wanted to relay a conversation he'd had with Jamie Lyons, a woman who had been having an affair with Herrera.

Rumors were that Herrera's buddy Prible had been robbing banks. In fact, the young woman told how Prible had once brought Herrera a sack of cash bound in paper wrappers like those used by banks. Nobody believed the explanation that the money was meant to pay for a car, because they knew Prible didn't have one. Another friend would talk about how Herrera presented him with aging $100 bills for a dope buy -- which looked like the traceable money banks would hand over to robbers.

McCoy got a mug shot of Prible and compared it to those taken from surveillance cameras of the 15-Minute Bandit.

It was a dead-on match.

Prible's distinctive features, particularly those deep-set eyes, left no doubts. Six of six robbed tellers picked Prible from photo lineups. Some of Prible's own relatives identified him when shown a cropped photograph taken from the bank cameras. His mother broke into tears at the image.

"Jeff made a mistake, a stupid mistake, when he robbed those banks," his sister, Angela Beacham, wrote later. "He didn't even know how to rob a bank. He went in dressed in normal everyday clothes, his face showing plain as day, and [he] stood in line."

On May 21, 1999, McCoy took Prible in and had his confession less than an hour later. Prible said Herrera advised him it would be easy for him to rob banks because tellers "were trained to do what they were told during a robbery."

"After doing this enough times, Steve [Herrera] said that we would have enough money to buy the club," his confession said. "After we bought one club, we would then open some more." The statement ended with his saying that Herrera had been taking care of the money, although the $1,300 found in the burned house didn't match with any holdup loot.

"I trusted Steve with the money, and I thought that he could use his drug connections to make us a lot of money," Prible told the cops. "Steve was a smart guy when it came to things like that."

By the end of September, Prible was on his way to federal prison in Beaumont to begin serving a term of about five years for the robberies. Relatives had pleaded for a light sentence.

"Jeff has always been affectionate, loving, hugging, kissing all kin," his grandmother, Ethel Prible, told the sentencing judge. "I know he has been a troubled boy for a while. I begged him to go to the VA hospital, but he told me he was not crazy." She explained that he'd suffered from insomnia and he "talked too fast." Prible had a prescription for Valium, and was put on Prozac before his arrest.

He was described as a model prisoner, and by 2000 Prible wrote his former attorney: "I am anxious to get back home to my family and put this behind me and go on with my life."

In the meantime, the guy who had picked a small-time drug dealer as a confidant would soon find a new friend, a popular inmate who preferred to be known inside prison as "The Rock" or "Rocko."  

By 2001, Michael Glynn Beckcom was a big man -- literally -- at the Beaumont federal prison. On the outside, he'd pumped iron and shot testosterone and steroids to bulk up his already brawny build. And he was doing time for the prime crime to command respect behind bars: murder.

"Interstate murder-for-hire -- tough guy," as fellow inmate Brent Liedtke described him.

He grew up in the Port Arthur area and had been in and out of legal problems. Beckcom was convicted for receiving stolen goods in 1986, then had his probation revoked three years later when he stepped up to dealing cocaine. By 1993 he was in the Houston area -- he said he played guitar at a jazz club and managed a Gold's Gym.

That changed when an associate introduced him to flamboyant Mark Crawford, from the hamlet of Ingleside near Corpus Christi.

A former welder whose construction business soared, Crawford kept a Bible tucked under his arm as he campaigned for Ingleside mayor in 1988, defeating the beer-drinking incumbent, Roy Culver. After four years as mayor and an unsuccessful run for the state legislature, Crawford found a fortune in the fresh field of employee leasing companies. He amassed exotic cars and aircraft, a huge house stocked with his own mistress and other trappings of wealth -- some of it in questionable enterprises.

Beckcom went on his company payroll in a job that was described as Crawford's bodyguard and go-to guy. And Crawford needed him by 1996. IRS agents had seized many of his assets in a tax dispute. Worse yet, he heard that a key business partner, Nick Brueggen, was about to turn federal informant.

In May 1996, Brueggen's body was found in a shallow pit and Crawford had disappeared, only to be arrested while hiding in a small camper in Biloxi, Mississippi. Kirk Johnson, a friend of Beckcom's, was the first to confess to authorities. He said Beckcom had recruited him, promising to pay him $2,500 to help "sit on somebody" for his boss.

Only days before Crawford and Beckcom were to be tried for capital murder, Beckcom hammered out a deal with prosecutors to testify against his former benefactor. Beckcom and Johnson both took the witness stand to tell how Crawford forced Brueggen at gunpoint to climb into a box. The two went to a discount store to buy Beckcom's favorite snack, pistachios, along with a hose and other materials used to pump exhaust from Beckcom's Ford Explorer into the box to execute Brueggen.

Nearby Rockport eagerly awaited the summer trial, conveniently held in the high school auditorium after the courthouse air conditioning failed. Crowds were entertained by the apparent hit men's colorful mob terms -- guns, for example, were "artillery." And they were appalled by details of the cold-blooded killing.

But it soon became apparent that the state had erred badly in cutting the deals with the two enforcers. They heavily implicated Crawford and each other, while describing their own roles as those of virtual bystanders.

Beckcom admitted he first told investigators he only picked up trash outside the small building where Brueggen was gassed. Then he admitted that, well, yes, he went in. Was Beckcom armed? Of course not. Okay, so maybe he had a gun, he conceded; but he was just bringing it back to Crawford.

Crawford defense attorney Bill May was incredulous: "When you say you went in and you'd pulled out your gun, it wasn't because you were going to point it at anybody. You were just returning your gun and just happened to be in the middle of a kidnapping?"

"Correct," Beckcom answered.

After hearing the mishmash of testimony and Crawford's defense that he was with relatives at the time, jurors deadlocked. When the case was retried in San Antonio later in 1997, the deals with Johnson and Beckcom backfired even more -- jurors acquitted Crawford.

Finally, it went to the feds. The government assessed the star-crossed witnesses and relegated Johnson to the sidelines. With Beckcom now polished in his third round on the witness stand, Crawford was convicted of the murder and, along with several associates, found guilty of conspiracy and fraud and related crimes in various business dealings.

Johnson walked away from the state murder charge with ten years' probation. Beckcom faced U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger for his sentencing in Fresno, California, in February 2000.

"The jury believed you in part. The court believed you in part," Wanger said. "But there were certainly areas where you gave false statements either to the investigating officers or your testimony on the witness stand was false." The judge ended up accepting the prosecution's motion for ten years in prison for a crime that could have put him on death row.  

Wanger also allowed him to serve his term in the Beaumont federal prison, near his family -- and even closer to another young inmate named Prible. The Rock and his young friend -- and the rest of the convicts, for that matter -- knew there is only one way to gain an early release: become a so-called jailhouse snitch.

Jeffery Prible himself was hardly naive when it came to the early exit opportunities. He'd passed along information that connected authorities to a drug ring based in California. Five suspects were arrested and about 65 pounds of crystal meth were seized in an investigation stemming from his inside tip.

On May 31, 2001, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon considered his assistance and, on the recommendation of prosecutors, slashed Prible's 63-month robbery sentence to 36 months.

But he was hardly on his way out the door. Within five weeks -- on the day after Independence Day -- the state charged him with capital murder in the Herrera killings. A lengthy probable cause warrant prepared by sheriff's detective Curtis Brown detailed the crimes and the investigation.

Prible was the last person known to have been with the family before the shootings and fire. His DNA was detected in Tirado's mouth; he'd admitted having oral sex with her -- he said it was consensual. He was a confessed bank robber, but evidence seemed scant at best about the slayings.

The mystery of the murder weapon continued; Brown's affidavit said the slug recovered next to Tirado is consistent with a .38-caliber projectile. Officers seized several weapons from his residence, but there was no .38 among them. However, Prible had once bought a .38-caliber Taurus from Carter's Country gun shop, although authorities hadn't located that gun.

Capital murder charges did serve to elevate Prible's reputation in prison, and he hardly shielded his situation from other convicts. He openly approached inmates to discuss the case and ask how he could defend himself against the charges.

Brian Maurice Fuller, a Wichita Falls antique dealer, lived in Prible's prison housing unit until he completed his 136-month term for money laundering, conspiracy and aiding and abetting. He winced while retelling how he kept cautioning Prible to stay quiet about the case because there "are always eyes and ears" in prison -- regardless of a convict's innocence or guilt. Fuller said he finally refused Prible's regular requests to discuss his case.

The inmate did get help from another sought-after convict, former Houston criminal defense attorney J. Brent Liedtke, who was in on a 223-month sentence for conspiring to manufacture meth. As an 18-year lawyer, he was used to inmates approaching him for free counsel about their cases. When Prible began questioning him, Liedtke was surprised to learn that the convict hadn't realized he was entitled to a copy of the probable cause complaint that would detail the allegations against him.

Prible's mother made a copy of the complaint and other documents from the public case file and sent them to him. While it aided in assessing the evidence, the material also educated many of the other inmates about the specifics of the case. Liedtke said he personally knew of more than ten convicts who were shown the documents, and the ex-attorney was also unnerved to find Prible passing the papers around and talking about his defense.

"I told him to shut up," Liedtke said. "I told him people would come in and testify against him if he kept that stuff up."

Last December, Harris County prosecutors received a call from the Beaumont federal prison. Michael Beckcom had some important information for them, and a proposal.

He knew about the murders of five people, he said, in a lengthy statement that would certainly crack the thin case against the defendant.

Beckcom, by virtue of his agreement with authorities in the Ingleside murder, was supposed to be a marked man, the target of potential revenge for ratting on his former boss, Crawford. However, that hardly seemed to be the case as he told of how he'd started to assemble his secret information: Beckcom was lounging with his workout partner Bobby Williams on the prison's recreation yard bleachers, taking in some sun while listening to his portable radio.

Prible walked up and began making idle conversation. He'd known Williams because Prible's first ex-wife had later married Williams. Prible and Beckcom talked about their past work for gyms and spas, then Prible turned to questions about how Beckcom had handled his initial capital murder charge. Soon, Prible became a regular in conversations with Beckcom and his friend Nathan Foreman during the rec breaks.  

Beckcom's later statement to authorities outlined assorted confessions by Prible, all couched with varying degrees of dramatic interpretation by the convicted murderer:

Prible delighted Beckcom and Foreman with one of his more requested stories from the bank heist spree. Seems he was headed to an appointment at the 77-SMILES dentist and noticed a bank near the clinic. "He decided, 'Fuck it,' so he pulls into the bank, goes in and robs it." Then Prible simply moved his car in the lot, changed shirts and made the dental appointment while cops swarmed over the bank.

Beckcom was regaled with more stories. There was the nightclub operator who'd refused to pay for a $35,000 paving job. Prible had armed himself and gone for the money at the club, but was turned away by either police or security guards.

According to the Beckcom statement, Prible told about how, as an elite "Black Ops" marine, he had gone on missions into other countries "and maimed and killed and mutilated people to look like some other cartel had done it. I did this for my country."

He'd tipped federal agents to large fields of marijuana plants. He even killed for his friend Steve Herrera, and, why, Steve himself had killed before. Prible feared most that the prosecution would find the ultra-secret military SRB -- Service Record Book -- listing the covert "operations and kills."

The ten-page statement took on the tone of a dime-store detective novel at times, complete with Beckcom's exclamation points. Beckcom claimed he cleverly led Prible into discussions of the crime, then backed off until just the right moment to make fresh inquiries.

According to Beckcom, Prible said Herrera had screwed him out of $250,000 and planned to kill him, so he killed him first. Tirado ran for the telephone to call the police, so he shot her on the couch. "The only thing he didn't say, and seemed afraid to say to us for fear of us losing respect for him, was whether he has sex with her before or after he shot her," the statement said. Pressed on how he pulled it off, Beckcom claimed Prible replied, "Anybody that can go into a house, take out a whole family and get out clean is a bad muthafucker. I'm that kind of muthafucker."

"He said his mom's house was a couple of miles from there, that's what he was trained for," Beckcom concluded his statement. "High-speed, low drag; in and out. He said, 'I'm a ghost.' "

Investigators, who had compiled mostly drab circumstantial pieces of evidence, now had an electrifying narrative; Beckcom had conveniently wrapped up motives and macabre elements in one tidy statement.

Even if others had strong doubts about what really had been delivered, Beckcom got his deal.

There were obvious falsehoods in the alleged Prible confession. He'd had no post-bank-heist visit to a dentist's office, although Prible readily conceded that he'd created that tale to delight inmate audiences.

He'd never had an armed showdown with a club owner over the paving work debt -- Prible, like most other contractors would do, had simply filed a mechanic's lien to attempt to collect. Certainly he'd never been in any elite marine unit involved in top-secret missions. And the money cited by Beckcom -- he said Prible told of blowing $100,000 on a Vegas trip with a stripper and Herrera owing him $250,000 -- stretched beyond the limits of credibility.

So untruths and embellishments, whether by Prible or Beckcom or both, speckled the statement. Authorities knew that but chose to accept the accounts of the killings as true. The information was right about the state's theory on the murder weapon; the .38-caliber Taurus couldn't have killed the couple. Prible knew that because his family had documentation that he'd sold the gun much earlier to Christine Bartola, a friend who had been threatened repeatedly by a stalker. But he'd also explained the situation to other inmates in arguing his innocence.

The causes of death, positions and conditions of the bodies and other information in Beckcom's account were also in the sheriff's probable cause statement and were part of Prible's conversations with others.

Beckcom told of how Prible came to consider him the closest of friends, although the statement conveniently omitted much of the background about that.

Sandra Prible went to visit her son in Beaumont almost every week, and says she was met by a gracious Beckcom and his family, who also pressed her for information about Prible's case. Beckcom conceded that he gave her a coupon for a Thanksgiving photograph of the families together, to bolster his claims to authorities that he was Prible's confidant.  

The mother still blames herself for falling for who she thought were friends concerned and supportive about her son. "Stupid me," she says. "I wanted them to know that my son was innocent. They tried to do the same things to me that they are trying to do to Jeff," she said.

Her instincts eventually emerged, when Prible excitedly reported that Beckcom had talked about having money sent to her home to help hire a top-notch defense attorney. And his prison pal wanted her to ship him proposals for a paving business that the two inmates had discussed launching when released.

Sandra Prible said no. "You don't have any business messing with anybody in there," she told him. "Of course, my son said, 'You know you aren't supposed to judge them.' "

It was too late to matter. Confiding in Beckcom was a huge mistake -- "everybody in prison knew that, including Jeffery," fellow inmate Fuller said. "I've never known [Beckcom] to tell the truth. He's very resourceful."

Kelly Siegler, arguably the premier prosecutor for Harris County, came out blazing louder than her burnt-orange blazer during opening statements in Prible's trial in late October:

"What kind of man would take out a whole family? That kind of person's a bad motherfucker -- and I'm a bad motherfucker!"

She stood over the seated Prible and quoted from the alleged confession. Siegler taunted the defendant, at times shouting close to his face as she outlined the state's case. Beckcom wasn't spared, either.

"I'm going to stand here and tell you today that he is a vile, disgusting person," Siegler said. "He's gonna make you sick to your stomach, and that's how you should feel."

But she also encouraged the panel to trust Beckcom, that he would have to tell the truth if he was going to get his payback. It might come in a reduced sentence -- "or he might not get a day," she said.

Facing off with her was Terry Gaiser, a defense attorney who had handled some of the county's most notorious cases in a three-decade career. The soft-spoken, deliberate lawyer was a sharp contrast to the rapid-fire Siegler. Gaiser was equally repelled by the crime -- especially as a father of two children who resembled two of the young victims.

He and co-counsel Kurt Wentz also had a star witness of sorts for their side. Christina Gurrusquieta, 15, had been a neighbor of the Pribles. Herrera, on his trips to the Prible house, had cussed neighborhood kids when they'd hit his car with their kickball. So she knew his voice, and recognized it on the night of the killings. The girl had gotten up to use the bathroom and heard Herrera chatting with Prible in Prible's driveway, while he was dropping him off.

Although she was somewhat uncertain of the exact time, her testimony corroborated Prible's account of an uneventful ride home with Herrera. That would have significantly narrowed the window of opportunity for Prible to somehow return to the Herrera house and commit the killings, then slip back undetected.

Gaiser was also appalled by what he saw as an absence of hard evidence against his client. The perpetuator of this crime would likely have left some kind of solid clues behind: shell casings, fingerprints, a murder weapon, bloodstains on himself, singed hair, the odor of smoke from the intense flash fire, or even traces of himself on the victims or remnants of the murder scene on his clothing.

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 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.

They validated their conclusion in the punishment portion of the trial. A parade of witnesses -- police, friends of the victims, bank tellers and more -- recalled all sorts of past crimes and misconduct by whom they saw as an unstable loser.

The troubled young man who schemed with his old high school buddy to break into the nightclub business is headed to death row. And a street-smart convicted killer called Rocko is, by all indications, headed toward freedom. A federal judge in California will determine what kind of sentence reduction awaits Beckcom for his cooperation.  

Like all veteran defense attorneys, Gaiser years ago developed a healthy private skepticism about claims of innocence by defendants. But he vows to continue working various leads in this case to try to answer his own questions about what really happened that night.

"I have very serious misgivings about the reliability of his verdict, and I always will have," he says. "I'll go to my grave not knowing whether Prible is guilty or not."

In a letter from death row, Prible blames himself for the killings, contending they were committed by someone out to steal either Herrera's drug stash or the bank robbery loot or both. "I done a lot of bad stuff in my life. I know the money from the bank robberies is why they were killed and it is my fault that money was there. But I never killed nobody."

He tells of having a dream -- a nightmare, really -- in which he's above the jury room as an ex-marine on the panel tells other jurors that, yes, the military trains them to shoot people in the back of the neck. Prible yells down from above that the man is wrong, that it had nothing to do with his training.

But the juror in the dream keeps on convincing the others. And Prible, even though he's in the jury room, can't be heard.

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