ASOTIN -- Nearly six years after he was arrested in the fatal shootings of his landlords, Kevin Hilton spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time about their deaths and his whereabouts that night.
Hilton, testifying in his own double-murder trial, denied killing Josephine and Larry Ulrich in March 2002.
He acknowledged that he was short on cash at the time and struggling to cover his monthly rent, but told jurors he had worked out a payment plan with the Ulriches and gotten their approval the same night they were killed. A letter detailing the agreement and a promissory note were dropped in the mail the next day, but the Ulriches were already dead.
"Did you have anything at all to do with their deaths?" Defense attorney Peter Connick asked just moments after Hilton took the stand.
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He responded, "No."
Hilton, 50, is charged in Benton County Superior Court with two counts of aggravated first-degree murder.
The case was moved to Asotin County because of extensive publicity since the slayings.
The courtroom was packed Tuesday with about two dozen supporters total for either the Ulriches or Hilton, and several Asotin County employees and lawyers who came to hear the testimony.
This is Hilton's second trial in the case, after his earlier conviction was overturned by a state appeals court because of invalid search warrants for his Richland home.
Hilton did not testify in his first trial in the spring of 2003.
Tuesday, he sat with his hands in his lap during questioning and looked at each one of the jurors as they came into the room and took their seat. He was on the stand for two hours in the afternoon, with Deputy Prosecutor Scott Johnson still doing cross-examination when the judge called a recess for the day.
Prosecutors allege Hilton killed the Ulriches on March 20, 2002, in an act of desperation because he was facing eviction and had amassed $3,475 in back rent and penalties, in addition to being in debt about $25,000 to credit card companies and his parents.
Hilton said he was unemployed at the time, but had been doing "side jobs" both in computer work for unnamed people and property maintenance for the Ulriches.
Hilton had rented a Mahan Avenue duplex from the Ulriches for about six years.
He started working for the couple in 1997, doing everything from minor repairs on their vacant properties to major projects, like replacing kitchen and bathroom cabinets, laying new sod in yards and pouring concrete for patios or storage sheds.
The Ulriches would give him $12 an hour in credit toward his rent, with the understanding that he had to pay at least half of the rent, or $300, each month, Hilton testified.
Hilton said he kept his own records of his work hours with Larry Ulrich, and said the couple still needed to credit him $1,038 at the time of their deaths. That figure was not reflected in the couples' records, he said.
Josephine Ulrich stopped by Hilton's home on March 15, 2002, to talk with him about the arrearages and his rent, Hilton testified. He said she did not serve him with a three-day notice to pay up or move out, even though a copy of it in the Ulriches' files was dated that same day.
"We talked about the fact that at that time I was seriously behind in my rent. ... They needed to get this taken care of because they had held onto me as long as they could," he testified.
Josephine Ulrich said they wanted to have an arrangement in place by month's end, and the two proceeded to talk about their options, Hilton said. He told jurors that the Ulriches would have preferred that he pay off his debt immediately, but said he didn't have the resources then.
When Ulrich left his home that day, "we had an agreement in principle at that point. The details we had not worked out," Hilton said.
Hilton testified that he ran into Josephine Ulrich a couple days later at the library, and told her he definitely wanted to go with the plan to pay $2,000 by September 2002, plus 1-percent interest per month, and to work off the balance.
He then called her at 6:42 p.m. on March 20, 2002, and was given tentative approval but was told it needed Larry Ulrich's clearance. Hilton said a message telling him to send them the letter and promissory note was left on his digital machine later that evening while he was out running errands.
Josephine, 67, and Larry Ulrich, 72, were shot sometime that evening inside their Thayer Drive home. A rent receipt made out to Hilton for the full back rent was found folded in between Larry Ulrich's left thumb and palm.
Hilton told jurors that after speaking to Josephine Ulrich on the phone that night, he ran to Albertsons for groceries, filled up his car with gas, went to the Richland Public Library to return two paperback books on the donation rack just inside the doors and then returned home. Internet records show he briefly logged on at 7:41 p.m., and again at 7:59 p.m. before heading to his 8:30 p.m. volleyball game in the Hanford High gym.
Back home a couple hours later, Hilton said he logged on to the Internet at 10:41 p.m., according to records, then did some computer work, cleaned up, took a shower and went to bed.
Hilton, asked about his subsequent interviews with Richland police, said he told officers that WinCo was one of the grocery stores he frequented but never said he was there on that night. That's why he wouldn't be on WinCo footage for that time frame, he explained.
Hilton said he did not sell a gun or a rifle at his April 2002 yard sale, particularly to Joel Tremmel. Tremmel, who contacted police years later, has testified that he is certain he bought a .45-caliber pistol from Hilton.
Hilton also said he erroneously told Detective John Hansens that he had sold his last gun at a Walla Walla gun show six to eight months before his March 26, 2002, interview. He told jurors he has since remembered that it was in February 2001, the same date testified to earlier in this trial by the show's promoter.
He said he realized he had been wrong "when I was going through my records later on and going through the evidence in this case."
Asked by Johnson if he could give any description of the person he sold the gun to, Hilton said, "Not reliably, no."
"I don't recall what they looked like. There were a lot of people at that gun show that day," he said.
Johnson questioned why some details were only coming out now and not in one of Hilton's interviews with police -- particularly after learning he was a suspect -- or in his first trial a year later.
"I'm telling you now because I'm testifying now," Hilton said, in reference to having the wrong gun show date. He said he had told his lawyers and "the other people who are working on my defense team" that he had messed up.
Testimony continues today in an Asotin courtroom.