Monica Pollard has every right to return to Oceanside

"This Is Just Like O.J."

San Diego may soon be home to a notorious New England killer. On a hot summer day in July 1985, in the northwest Vermont farming town of St. Albans, a man named Monica Pollard plunged a cheap knife into the chest of restaurant owner Steve Lawrence in the back of a Woolworth department store. The blade severed the man's aorta, and he bled to death within minutes.

Locals say it was one of the most sensational crimes in the history of their state. The family of the victim gathered 32,000 signatures urging the state legislature to reverse its long-standing opposition to the death penalty. It took prosecutors just two months to bring Pollard to justice, with a jury finding him guilty of murder and sentencing him to 50 years to life.

But a decade later the conviction was overturned on a technicality. Pollard pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and two weeks ago was granted parole despite an outpouring of community opposition.

Now, the 36-year-old wants to be released to the custody of his mother in Oceanside. Sadie Pollard is a feisty woman whose green ranch-style house is in the Mesa Margarita neighborhood, just south of the Camp Pendleton Marine base. Police say the area is home to one of Oceanside's most dangerous street gangs.

Sadie insists her son "must have been innocent - he got out, didn't he?" although when asked if she thinks he's guilty of the stabbing, she says, "I don't know. I wasn't there. I'm not the judge." In any event, Sadie Pollard says she's excited "he's going to live with me." A job for Monica Pollard has not been lined up yet, his mother says, but that shouldn't be a problem. "He was a good kid. I had seven kids and they're all still living. They're good - I used to have one in the California Highway Patrol and one in the Navy for 11 years."

Corrections officials in both Vermont and San Diego say little can be done to prevent Monica Pollard from returning to Oceanside. Local victims' rights advocates, law enforcement officials, and crime victims are outraged.

Gini Araiza, executive director of the local Crime Victims Fund, says she was unaware of Pollard's impending arrival. "And that's the problem," she says. "I think it should be made public anytime a parolee is paroled anywhere. The public should be notified, particularly [about] a murderer. Good God - I think it should be published that this guy is coming to your town, maybe to your neighborhood."

Sadie Pollard says her son was born in North Carolina but grew up in Oceanside - his father was a Marine - and attended Oceanside High School. Later, he did volunteer work at the Brother Benno Center (a homeless shelter) and after high school held down a job as a cashier at a nearby grocery store. Oceanside is Monica's home, his mother says, and he has every right to return. "This is just like O.J.," she adds.

Bill Anderson, deputy interstate compact administrator with the Vermont State Department of Parole and Probation, says the decision on whether to grant Pollard's request to move to San Diego is up to him. "My understanding is that Monica Pollard was and is a California resident, his mother lives there, and it would be only natural that we would send him home," says Anderson. "I guess we're looking at a minimum of two months."

Patrick Stalnaker, public affairs director for the San Diego County Probation Department, says his office has not been contacted by Vermont officials yet. But if notification comes, he says, there's not much they can do to prevent the transfer. "How can we say no?" he asks. "If the guy has been released, and he wants to come here, it's a free country. It's up to the original area of jurisdiction if the person can leave and where he goes."

St. Albans, population about 10,000, sits wedged between the mountains and Lake Champlain in northwest Vermont, about a dozen miles south of the Canadian border. It's one of those New England towns seen in postcards and travel books, says Sara Richard, a newspaper reporter with the St. Albans Messenger. Downtown is a grid of neat brick buildings, many of them housing family businesses. The biggest industry is a cooperative for dairy farmers. "On Saturday nights people watch hockey on TV," Richard says, "and at night the traffic lights are turned off by 9:30 p.m., 10:00 p.m. in the summer."

Steve Lawrence was raised in St. Albans and owned a popular restaurant, the Home Plate, in the Highgate Commons Shopping Center. "He was famous for his low prices, good food, and clean waitresses, and there was always a waiting line outdoors," recalls father-in-law Ronald Gignac, a retired photographer. "We were more like brothers." Lawrence was also an ideal family man, Gignac says, a loving husband to wife Judy and a doting father to his three young children.

According to police records, Monica Pollard's last known address was the Riviera Hotel in Swanton, an even smaller town eight miles north of St. Albans. Their paths crossed on July 9, 1985, at Woolworth, in the same shopping center as Lawrence's restaurant. Police records indicate only that Pollard stabbed Lawrence and then ran from the store; upon his arrest a short time later by a Vermont state trooper, Pollard allegedly stated, "I stabbed the [expletive deleted]." Lawrence's aorta was severed by the knife blade, and he died within two hours of the stabbing.

Gignac says his son-in-law had gone to Woolworth to buy a spark plug for his lawn mower. Reporter Richard says the restaurateur tried to stop Pollard from shoplifting a pair of sandals; in a letter that was read aloud in court, Pollard stated that at the time of the slaying he believed he was Jesus Christ and that all other men were offspring of Satan.

"I was only 12 when it happened," Richard recalls. "It was very strange; a lot of people didn't want to talk about something like this happening in St. Albans. When you saw the man [Pollard] on television, he smiled and waved at the camera, and people wanted blood."

Lawrence's family gathered 32,000 signatures on a petition for the death penalty in an unsuccessful attempt to get the state legislature to overturn Vermont's longtime ban on capital punishment, Richard says. "The trial was real quick," she adds. "July 9 was the crime, and by September he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. Then he just disappeared from sight. The people were satisfied; justice had been done."

Pollard's attorneys, however, fired a volley of appeals at higher courts, according to stories in the Messenger and other published reports. And in 1995 the Vermont Supreme Court overturned the conviction, finding that Pollard had been improperly found competent and therefore may have been denied his right to an attorney by being allowed to represent himself at the sentencing. Pollard was remanded to the Vermont State Hospital for treatment of chronic paranoid schizophrenia.

Prosecutors vowed to retry the case but were hampered by the fact that much of the evidence had been destroyed, newspaper reports say. Two weeks ago a district court judge accepted a "no contest" plea to manslaughter and sentenced Pollard to 15 years in prison. He was given credit for the 10 years he had already spent in custody. Pollard was then granted parole - "subject to placement to his mother's home in San Diego," according to Dick Turner, deputy director of correctional services with the state of Vermont - and placed on probation for an indefinite amount of time.

According to Turner, Pollard will depart for California as soon as an agreement is ironed out with state corrections officials. He will remain in custody, most likely in a halfway house, to serve out his probation; after that, he'll be released to Sadie Pollard's place in Oceanside. A request to interview Pollard at Vermont State Hospital, where he is currently receiving treatment, was denied. Anderson, of Vermont's parole and probation department, the man in whose hands Pollard's fate now rests, has little sympathy for San Diegans who say he's not welcome. "I'm sorry about it being your back yard, but if he's a California resident, he's your problem."

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