Robert Thompson is a free man.
The 43-year-old Thompson, who was accused of killing 12-year-old Jodi Ragsdale and 15-year-old Sheila Carter, placed his hands over his face and wept on Thursday as a court clerk read the verdict in his second trial: Not guilty on two counts of first-degree murder.
Less than an hour later, he walked out the side exit of the Merced County Jail, his home for the past two years, and into the embrace of his wife, Angie. Seated in the passenger seat of a black SUV, Thompson said he hopes the real killer will be brought to justice.
Thompson, who was facing life in prison, expressed outrage at investigators and the Merced County District Attorney's Office for accusing him of the killings.
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"It's a shame they tried to do what they did," he said.
The verdict in the reputed Hells Angel's emotionally charged second trial may be the final chapter in a 21-year-old homicide case -- although the mystery surrounding the deaths of two young girls will never disappear.
The wails of Carter's and Ragsdale's friends and family members filled the courtroom as the verdicts were read. Friends held Carter's mother, Pat Gulnac, tightly, trying to console her. Some placed their hands over their mouths in shock. Others ran out of the courtroom in disbelief.
John Wetzel, Ragsdale's uncle, sat quiet and composed, wearing a devastated expression.
"It's sad that two girls are dead and the murderer is going to walk free," Wetzel said, barely holding back his tears. "They are never going to try this case again, obviously."
Members of Thompson's family wept after the jury's decision and left the courtroom quietly.
Thompson's first trial in February ended in a hung jury, with at least four jurors unconvinced that he killed the girls. The eight women and four men on Thompson's second trial jury left without comment Thursday.
The gruesome killings, which occurred during the early morning hours of Dec. 13, 1986, shocked Atwater residents -- and remains one of the county's most heinous crimes.
The battered bodies of the girls were discovered along the shoulder of Campodonica Road near Alves Road in rural Merced County that December morning.
Their heads were so badly crushed that some investigators said the girls were rendered unrecognizable.
No one had been arrested in the case until Thompson, nicknamed "Bobby T." by his friends and supporters, was taken into custody on Aug. 18, 2006. The murder weapon -- a long, metal car jack -- was determined to have blood with Carter's DNA. The car jack was found in a white 1965 Mercury Comet that investigators said belonged to Thompson at the time of the killings.
Randy Thomas, Thompson's attorney, said prosecutors simply did not have the evidence needed to convict his client. He emphasized to the jurors during the trial that no DNA, fingerprints or hair from Thompson was found on any of the evidence.
"You could never put the murder weapon in my client's hands -- at all," Thomas said. "You couldn't prove who put that weapon in the trunk. You couldn't tie him to this case, scientifically or otherwise, as far as I am concerned. The integrity of the evidence told it all."
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II expressed disappointment with the verdicts, saying Thompson will ultimately have to answer to a "higher authority" than a jury of his peers.
"We remain convinced that we had the right guy," Morse said.
He said the victims' families are also in his thoughts. "I am beyond disappointed for them, because this does not bring the closure that we hoped it would provide."
Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini, who handled the case with Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Moranda, said he respected the jury's decision, despite the outcome.
"Of course, we're disappointed. Mr. Moranda and I believed in our case," Bacciarini said. "It's not for Mr. Moranda and I to decide his guilt or innocence. That's up to the jury."
Prior to their deaths, the girls had been joy riding after midnight -- and had briefly spoken with Thompson outside a bowling alley. Thompson said he had told the girls to go home and had never seen them again.
The last time the girls were seen alive was at a 7-Eleven on Winton Way around 4 a.m. Their bodies were discovered about five hours later.
During the two-week trial, Thompson's ex-girlfriend, Becky Tilton, testified that she saw him crawl through the bedroom of their residence, covered in blood, the morning of the murders.
A woman, who Thompson was convicted of abducting 10 days after the killings, also testified, saying that he admitted during the abduction that he had killed two girls. Thompson was sentenced to 14 years for the kidnapping in 1987 and served seven years in prison.
Thompson's defense also took aim at the weapon itself, arguing that Merced County sheriff's deputies botched the chain of custody on the car jack -- and could not even produce the warrant that led to the discovery of the jack in the Comet's trunk.
Thomas said there were also questions about how the car jack even turned up in the Comet's trunk -- particularly because the car was not even in Thompson's possession for 19 days before it was seized by investigators.
Thomas emphasized that Thompson's DNA, fingerprints or hair was not present on any of the evidence. Department of Justice investigators never found any blood inside the mobile home where Thompson had lived with Tilton, Thomas said.
Friends of the victims' families said they are heartbroken by the jury's decision -- and the loss of Ragsdale and Carter will forever remain etched in their minds.
"Just because (the car jack) didn't have Bobby's DNA on it, it had Sheila's and it was in Bobby's car," said Debra Widick, a friend of Carter's family. "I don't care what 12 people said. Bobby did it. He knows he did it."
The case has been emotional for Thompson's family and friends.
Carlton Taylor, one of Thompson's close friends, expressed relief over Thursday's verdict.
Thompson will spend the next few months spending time with his four children, who range in age from 5 to 16, Taylor said.
Thompson, who lived in Crescent City at the time of his arrest, will have to put other aspects of his life back together as well after nearly two years in jail. His landscaping business went under after his arrest.
Taylor said he thinks investigators believed Thompson would be an "easy mark. That's why they threw the Hells Angels thing around so much."
Although Taylor said he didn't know what to expect from the jury, he is nonetheless overjoyed by their decision.
"This is the best case scenario for sure," he said.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.