After a fifth motion to grant Kesser a new trial:
FORTUNA -- An old dusty box in Police Chief Kris Kitna's office is a reminder of the past.
A reminder of a crime that shook the Friendly City over a decade ago and is about to be rehashed in a lengthy retrial.
”This is something we thought was over,” Kitna said in a recent interview.
Jury selection is under way in the homicide retrial of Richard Craig Kesser and Jennifer Gayle Leahy, who allegedly hired Stephen Duane Chiara to kill Kesser's estranged wife in 1991.
Mary Kesser's body was found Nov. 26, 1991, in her N Street home with more than 30 stab wounds.
Chiara was arrested the next day when he was found hiding in Kesser's closet. Kesser and Leahy were arrested Dec. 10, 1991.
”It really affected a lot of people,” Kitna said. “Stuff like that doesn't happen here.”
Since the Kesser killing, there have been two other homicides in Fortuna, Kitna said. One was deemed self-defense, and the other was a murder/suicide pact between an elderly couple.
Kitna worked the case as a sergeant, along with Officer Cliff Chapman. They are the only officers currently on the force who were there when the killing occurred.
Kitna said that Mary Kesser was well known in Fortuna and that the brutality of the crime against the young mother rocked the community.
”This was a good person who got killed,” Kitna said. “This wasn't a drug deal gone bad or something like that.”
Rhonda Rael, who provided “gavel to gavel” coverage of the 1992 trial for the Times-Standard, said in a recent interview that it was who Mary Kesser was that sent shock waves through Fortuna and the county.
”It was particularly sad because she was an innocent victim and a young mother,” Rael said. “I remember Terry Farmer (the district attorney at the time) told me she fought. She fought back.”
After the killing, police offered counseling for officers and residents, Kitna said.
Police were alerted to the case when a relative called and said Mary Kesser didn't pick up her then 4-year-old son from the baby sitter.
Police found the body and the investigation began.
Mary Kesser's son still lives in the area, Kitna said, and is going to college.
Richard Kesser and Leahy were linked to the crime through phone calls made to Chiara's mother and friends in Sonoma County.
The alleged motive for the killing was Mary Kesser's $50,000 insurance policy.
All three of the accused were convicted in December 1992 by a seven-man, four-woman jury. They were sentenced in 1993.
In September 2006, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Richard Kesser and Leahy a retrial after finding that former Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman rejected potential jurors “on the basis of their race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
Dikeman has denied the finding.
The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office estimates jury selection, which began last week, will take another three weeks. The trial is estimated to last three months.
Retrial drudges up past for longtime Fortuna residents
Chris Durant, The Times-Standard 07/16/2007
It was Thanksgiving week.