Last Updated: Monday, May 22, 2000, 6:30 p.m.

'I'm innocent': Plea entered; defense lawyer confident

Kenneth Fitzhugh boards the county bus to return to the jail in San
Jose after his arraignment Monday afternoon.

Weekly Photo by Matthew Walker

Uttering his first public words since police arrested him Friday for the murder of his wife, Kristine, Southgate resident Kenneth Fitzhugh stood before a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge today and declared, "I'm innocent."

Fitzhugh returned to Palo Alto on a county jail transport bus from San Jose this morning to face a charge of one count of murder in the May 5 strangulation and beating death of his music teacher wife in their Escobita Avenue home.

Fitzhugh, 56, entered his plea of "innocent" and was told by Judge Charles Hayden to correct it to legal terms. Fitzhugh then replied, "Not guilty."

Showing no emotion in the courtroom and staring straight ahead, Fitzhugh wore a red jail jumpsuit and shackles on his wrists. Fitzhugh's attorney, Dan Barton of Palo Alto, did not ask for a change in his client's bail status. He is currently being held without bail.

Fitzhugh's next court appearance is scheduled for June 9.

After the hearing, Barton refused to answer specific question from reporters but issued a statement aimed at poking holes in the police investigation.

"Mr. Fitzhugh was a loving dad, a good husband and a pillar of the community," said Barton. "I am confident that once there is a full and unbiased investigation, Kenneth Fitzhugh will be exonerated.

"No one has suggested a reason Mr. Fitzhugh would kill his wife," Barton said before leaving. "There is none."

Barton and Fitzhugh's other defense lawyer, Thomas J. Nolan, have otherwise said little publicly about the investigation.

Neither the police nor Deputy District Attorney Michael Fletcher would say if they know the motive for Kristine Fitzhugh's murder. Before the court hearing, Fletcher dismissed questions asking whether the couple had a history of domestic violence.

"If there is, I'm not aware of it," he said.

Fletcher said the police have yet to identify the blunt object that was used to kill Kristine Fitzhugh. But he said the search for evidence is ongoing and that the 2-week-old investigation is solid. "We wouldn't have headed down this road if we didn't believe we could prove it," Fletcher said.

Police are continuing their investigation, including interviewing some of the Fitzhughs' Escobita Avenue neighbors a second time.

Police arrested Fitzhugh Friday on Highway 880 in the East Bay and later that day announced that the real estate developer had killed his 53-year-old wife and made her death look like an accident.

Video cameramen focus on the county bus carrying Kenneth
Fitzhugh as it leaves Palo Alto on Monday.

Weekly Photo by Matthew Walker

Palo Alto police on Friday also filed a 12-page affidavit in court detailing the physical evidence they say links Fitzhugh to the slaying of his wife. The police report charges that Fitzhugh killed his wife in their kitchen and deliberately tried to mislead investigators by telling them his wife fell down the basement stairs.

Police and paramedics first rushed to the Fitzhugh home on May 5 after Kenneth and two family friends discovered his wife lying at the foot of the basement stairs. Officials at the Palo Alto Unified School District, where Kristine worked this year as a part-time music teacher, had gotten worried after she missed a class that afternoon and couldn't be found.

As news of the death spread, neighbors and friends rallied around Kenneth and the couple's two college-age sons, Justin and John. Community policing officers tried to calm the Southgate neighborhood's fears that Kristine's death was somehow related to an earlier string of burglaries that had plagued north Palo Alto. Though initially tight-lipped about the investigation, detectives eventually said they didn't believe the murder was a random attack.

Last week's arrest and the community's reaction have thrust two drastically different images of Kenneth into the limelight. Friends and neighbors describe him as a devoted family man who spent his free time volunteering in East Palo Alto and Palo Alto schools, while police paint a picture of a man who beat his wife to death.

Charlie Mae Knight, superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District, said she has known the Fitzhughs since the early 1990s, when Kristine worked in its schools. She said the entire Fitzhugh family shared Kristine's passion for the students. The couple's two sons helped out with the schools' technology and music programs. Kenneth also volunteered his musical talents, Knight said, leading a student jazz ensemble at Cesar Chavez Academy's graduation last year.

"The whole thing was just bizarre, when you compare it with the side we saw," Knight said in reference to news reports on television. "Here's a couple that spent a great deal of their time doing altruistic things and were teaching their kids to follow in their footsteps."

Knight said the police photograph of Fitzhugh shocked her. "That picture of him--we never saw him look like that, not even when the kids were misbehaving," she said.

Harry Press, who lived down the street from the family, said Fitzhugh's arrest might bring some relief, though painful, to residents who were frightened that an intruder may have been lurking in the neighborhood.

"I can only speak for myself, but I suspect the solution of the case brought great relief to the neighborhood," Press said. "At the first community meeting (after the murder), people were worried about construction workers, about the burglaries, or high school students coming in, and that was understandable.

"I've lived here for 34 years, and even I locked my door after this happened."

Some neighbors and friends of the family say they do not want to concentrate on the legal aspects of case, preferring to honor the memory of Kristine Fitzhugh and extend their sympathies to the people she left behind. People said they worried about how all of this is affecting the couple's two sons. Justin, the older son, was to have graduated from the University of the Pacific last weekend.

Knight said staff and students in East Palo Alto are trying to deal with the news and are hoping the police have made a mistake in arresting Fitzhugh.

"We're just praying for him," Knight said. "We hope it's not true."

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