Kay suspects guilty of murder

Publication Date: Friday Dec 17, 1999

COURTS: Kay suspects guilty of murder

Wife says verdict won't bring back husband

by Jennifer Kavanaugh

Although a jury's conviction of three East Palo Alto men in the killing of Herbert "Bert" Kay brought a sense of vindication to family members, police and attorneys involved in the highly publicized case, the NASA scientist's widow admitted Wednesday that no verdict can compensate for her family's loss.

"Closure is a fantasy word," Kay's widow, Meg, softly explained to reporters outside the courthouse. She said the verdict brought a sense of relief, but won't bring back her husband or the father of their twin daughters.

"These men were all between the ages of 15 and 20, they were all sadistic and vicious," Kay said. "They took away my best friend, the person I loved most in the world. He was a funny man, gentle, intelligent, and our little girls still miss him."

The complicated, seven-week trial came to a somber close Wednesday afternoon in Santa Clara County Superior Court when the jury found Christian Valdes, 22, Danny Toatele Tevaga, 19, and Falala Lelei, 17 guilty of first-degree murder. The three defendants showed little emotion when their verdicts were read to a courtroom packed with Kay's family members, Palo Alto police officers and reporters.

Deputy District Attorney Mike Gaffey, who tried the case against the three friends from East Palo Alto, said the convictions brought a sense of vindication.

"We believe that the jury's decision reflected what we had said and charged in court, that Mr. Kay took a walk that evening and was brutally beaten and murdered," Gaffey said. "And that these are the men who are responsible."

With the guilty verdicts, Tevaga faces the possibility of life in prison without parole, and Lelei and Valdes face 25 years to life in prison. The trial's sentencing phase will begin on Jan. 27.

The beating death of 38-year-old Kay, which occurred on June 12, 1997 as he took an evening stroll in his neighborhood, shattered Palo Altans' sense of security and brought heartache to East Palo Alto's Pacific Islander community, to which the young men belonged.

During the trial, Gaffey told jurors that Valdes had driven Tevaga, Lelei and three other teens to Palo Alto the night of June 12, looking for someone to rob. After the teens spotted Kay walking by himself on Gilman Street, Gaffey said, Valdes parked and waited around the corner as the other five beat and robbed Kay.

Gaffey, who portrayed the crime as part of a gang-related attack, presented testimony that two of the teenagers returned to the scene, dragged Kay behind a street bench, and assaulted him again before fleeing.

Iapesu Simanu, 21, has already pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence. Another teen, who was tried as a juvenile, will remain in the California Youth Authority until he is 25. The final suspect, Olopitoamoa Tapuloa, 19, will be tried sometime after this trial ends, Gaffey said.

A key question in the trial was whether the three defendants actually planned the robbery before taking part in it. Tevaga faces the toughest maximum penalty--life in prison with no parole--because the jury found him guilty of a "special circumstance" robbery allegation, since the death occurred during the commission of a robbery. The jury didn't have that option with Lelei, who was 15 at the time and too young to face the special circumstance allegation.

The jury found Valdes, who waited in the car, guilty of first-degree murder, but not on the robbery allegation.

Valdes' attorney, Mark Becker, had insisted throughout the trial that his client didn't know about any robbery plan, or what was going on around the corner as he sat in his car. Perhaps because Valdes' link to the crime was the weakest, his verdict prompted the biggest reaction from the courtroom.

Tevaga's and Lelei's attorneys, on the other hand, admitted their clients participated in the robbery and beating, but never intended to kill Kay and were too drunk to be fully responsible for his death.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Victor Wahl, Lelei's attorney, who added he plans to appeal the decision. "I was hoping the jury would find it was second degree murder."

The jury also found Kay's death was the result of criminal gang activity among all three defendants, which may influence the amount of time they spend in prison.

Several of Kay's family members, who maintained a calm reserve throughout the trial and as the verdicts were read, broke down and cried outside the courthouse. Meg Kay said it's been difficult because her twin daughters, Sonia and Nina, who are now four-and-a-half-years old, ask about their father all the time.

A reporter asked Meg Kay how she'll explain the verdict to her daughters.

"I don't need to," Kay said. "I talked to them when (the defendants) were arrested, and I told them that the police had locked up the bad people, and they don't have to worry anymore." 

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