Special Reports

Jury finds Hilton guilty in deaths of Richland couple

ASOTIN -- Kevin Hilton's decision to testify in his trial backfired on him as it only confirmed for an Asotin County jury that he killed his Richland landlords.

Jurors, who took just seven hours Thursday to convict Hilton of fatally shooting Josephine and Larry Ulrich, said a rent receipt found in Larry Ulrich's hand was key evidence in their deliberations.

And when Hilton testified earlier this week that no one but he and the Ulriches knew he owed $3,475 in back rent and penalties, it became clear the receipt for that exact amount "was damning," jurors said.

"I think putting him on the stand was a total mistake for them, but it sure helped us out a lot in making our decision," a juror, who asked not to be named, told the Herald.

"We asked one of the defense lawyers why they put him on the stand and they felt if they had their best chance to get a hung jury, it was to put him on the stand. But it didn't work, it backfired and it was a gamble."

Hilton stood and looked at the jury as foreman Mike Lane read the verdicts on two counts of aggravated first-degree murder.

Hilton, 50, faces life in prison.

This is the second time in five years that a jury has convicted Hilton of the March 20, 2002, slayings.

His first conviction in Benton County was overturned by the state Court of Appeals because of invalid search warrants for his Mahan Avenue home. The retrial was moved to Asotin because of extensive media coverage in the Tri-Cities.

Lane said he and other jurors suspected after sitting through 15 days of testimony there were "some missing links" in the case. They later were filled in on the suppressed shell casings and the higher court's ruling, but Lane said he knows they tried hard in deliberations to weigh all the evidence that was presented to them and came to a conclusion they all "really feel good about."

"It's a tragedy for both, definitely the Ulriches, and also for Kevin Hilton's family. I feel that it was just a tragedy all the way around," Lane told the Herald. "... I give a lot of compassion to the Ulriches and to Kevin's parents and relatives."

Lisa Ulrich and her husband Lance Hahn, her sister Jennifer Ulrich and their aunts Jean Cramer and Ellen Makay all locked arms in the front row of the courtroom and started crying as soon as Lane said, "Guilty."

"The jury seemed so confident. They looked him in the eye and that's what I liked. They looked at him and said, 'Guilty,' " said daughter Lisa Ulrich. "I think being a juror is just such an awesome responsibility, and both juries both times did a great job."

Jennifer Ulrich said she was both relieved and ecstatic with the verdicts because "it was so overwhelming to go through it again."

Josephine, 67, and Larry Ulrich, 72, were found shot to death inside their Thayer Drive home. Hilton had rented a Mahan Avenue duplex from the couple for about six years.

Prosecutors had told jurors Hilton had a financial motive for killing the Ulriches because he was unemployed and facing overwhelming debts, with child support enforcement taking money out of his bank account.

Hilton was motivated by a three-day notice to pay up or move out and the fact that he had no resources to cover the owed $3,475, prosecutors said. He was desperate and unable to cope with losing the place he had called home, they said.

Hilton testified that he never received the eviction notice and, in fact, had reached an agreement with the Ulriches to pay $2,000 plus interest within six months and to work off the balance doing property maintenance for his landlords. He said he didn't understand why Larry Ulrich would have the rent receipt in his name when he didn't have that kind of money at the time.

Defense attorneys argued that the note was planted and someone else was responsible for the murders.

Sentencing is tentatively set for Wednesday or next Friday in Kennewick, depending on when defense attorney Peter Connick is available. Connick had returned to Seattle earlier Thursday.

Attorney Kevin Holt of Kennewick, disappointed with the results, said he was going to talk to his client Thursday night.

"I will be really surprised if it stands on appeal for sufficiency of evidence. It could, but I'll be real surprised," Holt said. "... They voted with their sympathy, they didn't vote with the evidence. But how do you counter a case based on sympathy and innuendo?"

Richland Police Chief Tony Corsi said the jury's decision was vindication for his department.

"Obviously we're happy because we from day one felt that we got the right person," said Corsi, who learned of the verdict from Capt. Al Wehner, the lead investigator. "I know there has been some limited criticism of some of our officers, but I will tell you I am very proud of our officers and I'm proud of the job they do.

"The criminal justice system is a very complex system that the average person does not understand. They relate to TV shows, which we know is not real life," he said.

Deputy prosecutors Scott Johnson and Terry Bloor said they were pleased with the verdict but it doesn't bring back Jo and Larry Ulrich.

Another juror, who also asked not to be named, said the group discussed the case for about 2 1/2 hours Thursday morning before taking their first vote. About three or four people were undecided, she said, so they continued to talk about the evidence until it all fell into place.

Jurors questioned the time frame and the bloody shoe prints found in the home -- whether it was a deliberate attempt to throw off the investigation or they belonged to someone with a smaller foot -- but said there were at least eight to 10 things pointing to Hilton's guilt.

"There were certain things that just didn't add up, and it couldn't be anyone else," the juror said.

She questioned why Hilton initially couldn't give a description of the person to whom he sold his gun at a Walla Walla gun show when "that is your baby and you've had it customized." The jury didn't believe him when he took the stand for a second day and gave more details about the buyer, including the fact that it was a man.

"I think our ultimate decision would have been the same had he not testified, though it would have taken longer. That is my personal opinion," the juror said.

"We were all rather surprised when they called him as a witness, and we thought his demeanor was rather arrogant and confrontational. When you're fighting for your life, you'd try to be as cooperative as you could, if you're innocent."

* See complete Hilton trial coverage at www.tri-cityherald.com/1287.