Special Reports

Forensic expert can't explain papers found in Richland man's hand

ASOTIN -- A retired forensic pathologist couldn't explain Thursday how a Post-It note and a rental receipt got into Larry Ulrich's hand after the Richland man was shot twice and his body dragged about 12 feet.

However, Dr. Donald Reay said he believes the theory that Ulrich could have clasped the folded papers in a spasm as he died is another one of the "myths surrounding what happens to bodies after death."

Reay, testifying for the defense in Kevin Hilton's double-murder trial, said in all his years examining bodies to see how a person died, he has never seen an actual case of a cadaveric spasm.

Reay acknowledged that the phenomenon involving "instantaneous stiffening of muscles" has been discussed in medical textbooks for decades, but said he still remains doubtful.

"I'm not sure that it actually exists. It's been described by some people but, personally, I've never really been convinced," he said.

Reay's testimony was offered by Hilton's attorneys in an attempt to refute prior statements by Dr. Daniel Selove, a forensic pathologist who did the autopsies of Josephine and Larry Ulrich.

Hilton, 50, is charged with two counts of aggravated first-degree murder in their deaths.

Reay retired as King County's chief medical examiner in June 1999 after 22 years in the position. He now is a consultant.

In his career, Reay said he personally performed 5,000 to 6,000 autopsies, served as teacher in another 5,000 to 6,000 and reviewed all autopsies in King County where there was a question of "homicidal violence."

The Ulriches were found shot to death March 21, 2002, inside their Thayer Drive home.

Hilton had rented a duplex from the couple for about six years and was having difficulty paying his monthly rent.

Just days before the Ulriches were killed, they served Hilton with a three-day notice to pay the full $3,475 in back rent or move out.

Hilton told Richland police that he never received the notice, and had actually struck a deal with his landlords to pay $2,000 within six months and work off the balance doing odd jobs for his landlords.

His retrial is being held in Asotin County because of media coverage in the Tri-Cities.

The receipt pinched between Larry Ulrich's left thumb and the outer edge of his palm was in Hilton's name for $3,475.

Prosecutors have tried to show jurors through testimony from other tenants that the Ulriches only issued receipts when the renter stopped by their house and paid with cash or requested one for a check payment.

Hilton told police that the only people who knew just how much he owed in back rent were Jo and Larry Ulrich and himself, and questioned why the receipt would be made out to him when he didn't "have that kind of money to pay them."

Selove previously testified there were several explanations for Larry Ulrich holding the note after his death, including a cadaveric spasm. He agreed the phenomenon is rare and controversial, but said it is generally accepted and "a possibility."

On Thursday, Reay spent several minutes explaining rigor mortis to jurors.

It is a biochemical process that "causes muscle fibers to lock up very soon after death, though it might not be recognizable for quite some time."

Reay said it requires "a physical manipulation" of the body by a pathologist to assess the stiffness of muscles, so just looking at a picture of Larry Ulrich's hand with the note won't tell him if rigor mortis was present.

Reay, asked by defense attorney Peter Connick how the paper got in Ulrich's hand, said it "either got there because of the stickiness of the note or on the hand, or it was placed there after death. I really don't know. I don't have an opinion of how it got there."

Margaret Oxenreider told jurors that Hilton was distraught after hearing that his landlords were killed.

Hilton came over to her house the night they were found and "was upset at the beginning," but about an hour into their conversation he decided to take her suggestion and go play volleyball in a Pasco gym.

Oxenreider, who now lives in Aiken, S.C., had known Hilton for about 11/2 years before the two started dating in January 2002. After learning of her boyfriend's financial problems, she loaned him $2,500 in April that year to help pay off his back rent, then later asked Hilton to move in with her.

Hilton met with Richland Detective John Hansens five days after the murders to talk about his relationship with the Ulriches and where he was on the days surrounding the crime.

Oxenreider testified that she returned home from work that evening to find a "frantic message" from Hilton about the interview. She went over to his home to talk about it.

"Basically he was concerned because of the police suspecting him of this crime," she testified.

"Was he upset?" Connick asked.

Oxenreider said, "Yes."

She again suggested that "it may be a good distraction for him, to get his mind off it and go out and play" volleyball. She met Hilton later that night at a game, she testified.

Donald Short, owner and operator of One World Telecommunications, confirmed that Hilton was a client of the Kennewick-based Internet service provider.

A monthly detail report shows Hilton's home computer connected to the Internet four times between 6:20 p.m. and 10:41 p.m. on the night before the Ulriches were found dead.

Defense attorney Kevin Holt also questioned a Kennewick car salesman about the similarities between a Mercury Sable and a Ford Taurus.

David Ohad said the vehicles both are manufactured by Ford but have a few distinct differences, such as the light bars, the wheel wells and the logos in the middle of the front grill.

Defense attorneys will try to link Ohad's testimony to another witness expected to take the stand today.

* See complete Hilton trial coverage at tricityherald .com/1287