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Man apologizes, pleads guilty for 1988 murder

Tyrone Hamel already in prison for life

Twenty years after Palo Alto resident Gretchen Burford was attacked and murdered at a Mountain View ATM, the man suspected of stabbing her pleaded guilty to the crime Thursday morning -- and apologized, according to Supervising Deputy District Attorney Dana Overstreet.

Tyrone Hamel, who is 41 or 42 years old, has a long criminal history and has never expressed emotion in court before, Overstreet said.

"I'm extremely sorry. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. I can't ask for your forgiveness," Hamel said, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

"I do got a conscience. I've been feeling bad for 20 years."

Overstreet said Hamel had nothing to gain from his apology or guilty plea. He is already serving a life sentence, plus 60 years, in Texas for robberies and assaults and Thursday, the judge had little discretion over his sentence in California, Overstreet said.

"He has never shown any remorse in any of his cases. ... It was a huge surprise," Overstreet said.

"I am left with no choice but to believe it was sincere. He gets nothing out of it."

On Feb. 26, 1988, Burford, a 49-year-old attorney, drove to Wells Fargo Bank at the corner of California Avenue and El Camino Real in Mountain View. Armed with a knife, Hamel allegedly told Burford to withdraw money from the ATM.

She attempted to escape, but had been stabbed in the heart.

At the time, DNA technology was not advanced enough to track the murder to Hamel, who was arrested that year in Texas for other robberies and attacks.

But in 2005, investigators linked DNA on a blue paisley cap left in Burford's car to Hamel, an inmate in Texas.

He originally pleaded not guilty, but waived his right to a jury trial, Overstreet said.

With a guilty plea, Hamel was basically guaranteed a sentence of life without parole, Overstreet said.

Burford's family, her husband who she had married two weeks before her death, and her three adult children, asked that Hamel not receive a death sentence because Burford did not believe in capital punishment, according to Overstreet and the Mercury News.

Hamel will return to Texas and will likely never set foot in a California prison, Overstreet said.

Hamel was born in California, but had family in Texas. He has a juvenile record in California, but was living in Texas in 1988 when he attacked Burford. He was in California for a relative's funeral, Overstreet said.

Hamel has a history of robbing and assaulting women, sometimes sexually, Overstreet said.

The case stumped authorities at the time, who originally believed that one of Burford's clients had targeted her.

Burford had married Wayne Dernetz for only two weeks when she was killed. Following Burford's death, Dernetz attended law school and became a municipal attorney in southern California, according to news reports.

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Like this comment
Posted by a person
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2008 at 11:52 pm

I had never forgotten this case: the man in the "psychedelic cap," as it was written at the time. It was written that she was murdered in her car on San Antonio at El Camino, not right at the atm. I'm so glad you published this. Thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by janette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 11, 2008 at 11:10 am

I haven't forgotten it either. Rest in peace, Gretchen.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2008 at 11:16 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Ree Dufresne
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 11, 2008 at 2:28 pm

Gretchen was my friend and attorney, on behalf of my struggle to protect and retain custody of my grandchildren. I never met a more caring and giving person in my whole life. She was so very happy and so much in love when she was taken from her husband and children.

Her husband and family show great respect for her, by not requesting the death penalty, even though they may personally not feel he deserves to live.

I miss Gretchen and think of her often. She was a rare human being and loved by many. We know that she is in the arms of God.

Like this comment
Posted by Martha Burford
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 11, 2008 at 3:43 pm

I cherish my memories of my mother and of my community, with the exception of one post above, who both new my mother, understood her unique contribution and her devotion to children and advocacy for those who rarely get it, and respect her view point that capital punishment is not a solution to a system where people fall through the cracks. His showing remorse without any personal gain doesn't bring our mother back and doesn't take away the loss, but it confirms that we, her children, made the right choice, that there is still a glimmer of hope. The tragedy is that young people such as Mr. Hamel aren't given the assistance and help they need early on before they cause so much damage to other people lives and themselves. We should refocus some of this energy and start looking at how the system is failing, what you can do to make a positive change, and help these people early on instead of touting the death penalty as the cure. This is what motivated our mother and inspired all of us who knew her. It's time to move away from simplistic and uncreative answers to these complicated issues.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2008 at 4:57 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Tony Press
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2008 at 5:38 pm

Gretchen Burford was a wonderful person, an excellent attorney, and a kind and helping colleague. It is wonderful that her positive influence continues to be felt. Alive, she was an example to those fortunate to know her. She continues to be an example for all of us.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 12, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Inasmuch as capital punishment is a contempotrary political issue and the original article expressed an opinion on that issue the removal of my comments was political censorship unbecoming a newspaper. There is a section for paid obituaries. I suggest the family go there, and avoid an opinion space if they are not open to opinion.

Like this comment
Posted by Kimberly Barnes
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2008 at 7:16 pm

Are you saying that members of the family of Gretchen Burford do not have the right to express their opinions if their opinions are not in accord with yours? The way you express your views is in line with that of a bully so the removal of your comments only makes me wonder how many of these forums you attempt to dominate with your opinions.
Your attempt to alienate other commenters by saying that their thoughts should be regulated to the obituaries is further evidence of your bullying tactics. I believe it was you (or someone who is pro-death penalty) introduced an opinion in the postings--other postings have been by people who knew Gretchen or are members of the family. I am not saying that this thread is only for such people but you appear to be the individual responsible for changing the climate here--you are the person who is consistently bring the tone down to a very disrespectful place. Are the obituaries the only safe place left to be civilized?????

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 12, 2008 at 8:33 pm

I did not suggest others not comment or even post disagreement. Comments posted in a forum are open to discussion, comments in an obit are not. The death sentence is right now being debated as the fools once more try to substitute their pop psych for the reality of the market place. I threaten no one, and so calling me a bully is an admission that respondent is incapable of real discussion.

Like this comment
Posted by I disagree
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2008 at 11:24 am

Kimberly, Walter is not uncivilized at all. Uncivilized nations do not allow public disagreement. His point is that this is a discussion thread, not an obituary, and thus it was inappropriate for his comment to be deleted.

Like this comment
Posted by Julia [Dernetz] Day
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2008 at 2:20 pm

I can't tell you how relived I was to get my father's call this weekend to let us know that this horrible tradgey is finally at a close.

Gretchen loved her children, my father and her work. She was a dynamic and passionate person who worked to represent individuals who needed an advocate because there was no one else. She will always live in our hearts as an example of the kind of person we can strive to be.

Julia Day, Overland Park Kansas

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 13, 2008 at 6:06 pm


When one of the children of the victim is in the thread, it doesn't matter what your rights are, it's a sign of respect not to push your political agenda in this instance.

You'll have ample opportunity to do so elsewhere in the forum. You know that.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2008 at 7:54 pm

My criticism was aimed at the action of the family and belonged directly where I put it. The family essentially said the man who killed her should suffer no penalty for his act, and that man went back to a comfy cell vindicated in his ability to still job the system. It isn't over until he is over.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter W Burford
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2008 at 5:17 am

I have never stopped praying for the person who killed my mother. Maybe some of those prayers provoked the unprecedented apology and display of genuine remorse. I have forgiven him and only hope he asks God for forgiveness because he is eligible for redemption that comes from Christ's sacrifice. I think my mother would agree with me as she was a devout Christian.

Like this comment
Posted by Martha Burford
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2008 at 6:59 am

Walter, you clearly don't know enough about the case, the circumstances of Mr. Hamel's life or situation in prison, what went into our decision, or our mother's life work, to attack us so aggressively for our decision. That said, your viewpoint and your concerns, would be better received, if you could articulate these points better without resorting to mud-slinging. Other individuals have commented on capital punishment in other threads related to this case, and done so with respect while still making their points. While I don't agree with all their points, I do understand where they are coming from. You may want to take a page out of their book. I appreciate you have a different view, but your views will be much better received if you treat others who do not share that view with the respect you yourself feel you deserve and stick to your point, not to attacking them personally. I hope we can all walk away from this exchange having learned something valuable.

Like this comment
Posted by peter w burford
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2008 at 7:54 am

Absent the state sponsored murder, I agree with you on this human being's potential to see Jesus in paradise.

Like this comment
Posted by Mayfield Child
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 14, 2008 at 10:03 am

What about the seperation of church and state?
How about the BIBICAL saying "EYE FOR AN EYE"..................?????????
AFTER all the time, energy and money that went into solving this cold case, it's hard to believe that in closure this family backed down on their decision not to ask for the death penalty. Perhaps the length of time chipped away at the family and they were satisfied with just closure, just knowing this dangerous person was in fact behind bars, where he belonged, no longer able to take out his vengence on another innocent person. Guess that would work for me, also. BUT, unfortunately, my husbands case has been in limbo now since 1973.
This family was lucky for closure. I heard that the County is closing the cold case unit for lack of funding......very unfortunate.
My heartfelt sympathy is with this family. The years of greiving is finally at rest. Now so should this thread. RIP, Gretchen.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2008 at 2:04 pm

The death penalty is NOT about revenge or even closure for the murder victim's family. The death penalty protects society from those who have demonstrated that they will take the lives of any innocent person who gets in his/her way. The death penalty ensures that those who knowingly commit murder will NEVER have the opportunity to do so again.
It is also a deterrent to to those who might consider murder if they did not have to risk their own life in payment.(For most criminals, their own skin comes first.)
Historically, when the death penalty was more common and more swiftly administered, there was much less murder committed. Society must return to the sanity of putting the rights of the innocent above those of the guilty. NO system is foolproof but we must have our priorities straight.

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 14, 2008 at 2:41 pm


Lifelong improsonment is a penalty.

This family has had its values tested in a way that you never have. In other words, if someone killed your mother, would you still oppose the death penalty?

Your views are not theirs, but they have been through fire on this and show grace here. I think that merits a certain courtesy and respect. At your age, you ought to know better. I expect teenagers to spout off about rights. I expect an adult to have manners.

Would you really say this stuff to the Burfords face-to-face? Or would recognizing that there are other people with feelings cause you to think twice on this?

Robert, countries without the death penalty have a much lower rate of murder than ours. And murderers don't murder with the idea they'll get caught.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2008 at 2:57 am

"Would you really say this stuff to the Burfords face-to-face?"
You betcha!
Please notice the signature that accompanies my opinions. When you grow up some folk learn that an error of omission can be every bit as egregious as an error of commission. I believe that the elimination of the death penalty has been directly responsible for several orders of magnitude more killing of innocents that the erroneous application of th death penalty ever did. If you fail to step on the brake in your car, you are responsible for whatever harm your car may cause. Wrap yourself in your smug complacency while you help make murder a viable option.
Contrary to the old cowboy movie adage that "You can't take the law into your own hands", the complete adult can not not walk away from the consequences of "The Law."

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 15, 2008 at 7:49 am

Geez Louise WEW, get a clue! Your normally blunt-headed treatises would normally be ignored as usual. But in this post, the DIRECT FAMILY MEMBERS are involved. Use some common sense please. The first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 18, 2010 at 7:53 am

If your view of capital punishment does not agree with the majority of people in Palo Alto then your comments will be censored.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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