Darkest at Midday
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”
—Frederick Douglass’ 1857 address on West India Emancipation
By Richard Darvas
February 13, 2012
It’s mid-summer in Hesperia, California. The High Desert opens its jaws as a drawbridge, setting mountain ranges at opposite ends of a wide pan. Northwest of San Bernardino National Forest, the I-15 hooks into a sultry valley beyond mountains that jut skyward in the semblance of three uneven rows of incisors. Farther into the Mojave Desert’s interior, near the murder site, denuded large sagebrush gnarl as skeletons in repose. Above, electrical towers link drooping lines for miles. Transmissions crackle through the dusty air like an unseen plague of locusts. Less than a mile from the Richardses’ former residence, train tracks bisect the landscape as a tongue. Slightly north marks a graveyard fringe of Joshua trees, whose bladelike leaves riposte from upraised arms. It is a place seemingly darkest at midday than at any other hour.
Eighteen years earlier, William Richards clocked out at 11:03 p.m. from a manufacturing plant in the city of Corona, where he worked the swing shift as a mechanical engineer. Off State Route 138 he came to a stop under a streetlight on a dirt road, removed a pistol from a leather book pouch, loaded it, set it aside, exited his Ford Ranger and locked its hubs to facilitate uphill driving. Sometime before midnight, he pulled onto his rural Hesperia property through a makeshift arch constructed of beams cannibalized from wooden telephone poles. His tan-and-silver pickup climbed the curvilinear dirt driveway, which rose about 150 yards to a small plateau tucked into a ridgeline. The country residence was unlit. A meager storage shack, Toyota motor home and a wooden generator shed hid in the desert gloom.
Richards surmounted the hillside shelf and parked his four-wheel drive next to his wife’s camouflage Suzuki Samurai. As he rotated the ignition and removed his keys, he felt a twinge of disappointment. He had expected his wife of 22 years to wait up for him so that they could cuddle, but the darkness betrayed that hope. Into the night he stepped, onto the shack’s porch where he found its wooden exterior and screen interior doors both ajar. Upon entry he clicked on a battery-powered fluorescent light that dangled overhead. Now assured of an illuminated path, he doubled back toward his pickup. In the frail light, he caught a glimpse that would be the entombment of his soul.
Near the porch lay the half-naked body of 40-year-old Pamela Richards, who had thrashed and struggled to shield herself as she was bludgeoned with fists, softball-size rocks and a concrete stepping stone. Later, in a barbaric incidence of overkill, the assailant flung a cinder block onto her face, essentially cratering the left eye socket, pulpifying brain tissue and filleting her cheek and ear to ribbons.
Bill Richards lifted the lifeless arms of his wife, flipped the bloodstained cinder block off her head, turned her body face-up and cradled her in his grasp. When he outstretched his hand to support her head, his fingers inadvertently poked through the gaping wound. Craning his ear to her chest, he heard no heartbeat. There he sat, dimly groping for answers. She had tripped and fallen. He cursed himself for not providing a more suitable home for his wife. Then came a fleeting thought of suicide. Suddenly the phone rang. He rose to his feet with a disembodied volition before a voice on the other end asked for Pam. Bill replied that she was dead. After the brief call ended, he dialed 911 at 11:58 p.m. Holding his wife a second time, the violent truth of what had actually happened began to cut through the initial shock. At 12:38 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1993, the first patrolman finally arrived on scene.
Homicide detectives from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department identified four areas of activity at the crime scene. These were demarcated with A-shaped yellow placards numbered one through 31. About 15 feet apart and running roughly parallel to one another, the motor home served as main living quarters while the 10-by-15-foot wooden shed served as a cluttered storage space. A narrow fenced enclosure connected the shack along a westerly line to the small generator shed, about 35 feet removed from the other structures. Industrial barrels, irrigation hoses, propane tanks, gasoline containers and other miscellaneous objects were scattered throughout the area. All wore the sun-bleached fading of age. Particularly from a birds-eye perspective, the five-acre property was more Spartan outpost than residence. Since no missing items could be readily identified, detectives quickly eliminated robbery as a motive.
In the deputy coroner’s report of death completed at the crime scene, William Richards’ listing as “husband” was asterisked. Below, the accompanying handwritten entry read “Suspect in P.C. 187.” California’s penal code defines “187” as the crime of murder.
Richards was arrested and charged with first degree murder on Sept. 3, 1993. On July 6, 1994, the first trial commenced. It ended in a mistrial on August 29 after the jury was split, 6-6. The second trial began on Oct. 24, 1994, but abruptly ended in mistrial three days later after the court recused itself due to improper communication between the judge and a juror. A third trial opened on Nov. 15, 1994. Again, a mistrial was declared when jurors failed to reach a verdict on Jan. 5, 1995. The jury deadlocked, 11-1, in favor of conviction. May 29, 1997, marked the beginning of the fourth trial. After nearly four years and three full jury trials, Richards was convicted of murdering his wife on July 8, 1997. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
When Richards’ appeals were exhausted, he applied for legal assistance in 2001 from the California Innocence Project. Soon thereafter, Project attorneys pledged to defend Richards as their pro bono client. One of their first tasks was to trace the trajectory of the case backward through law enforcement’s eyes.