Murder-For-Hire-Suspect in SoCal Death Dies in Texas

A murder-for-hire suspect till the end, John Litchfield -- the longtime lover of a fellow Galveston cruise ship captain imprisoned for stealing an infant's identity -- has died of mad cow disease in a Friendswood nursing home.

The Houston Chronicle reports the 70-year-old was never charged or even arrested in connection with the 1988 slaying of his sweetheart's husband in California, but for decades authorities probed the murder of Harold "Skeeter" Lyerla as a possible hired hit that netted a hefty insurance payout. Even after another man -- landscaper Victor Perea -- was convicted in the brutal stabbing, police kept the case open, hoping to snare Litchfield and his lover, Cynthia Knox.

Now, even with Litchfield dead and Knox in prison for identity theft, investigators have not given up.

"We wanted to see this through and potentially put both of them in custody," said Lompoc police Sgt. Kevin Martin, who's overseeing the investigation in the California town that was the site of the slaying.

"Up until his death he was a suspect in a murder-for-hire and Cynthia is still a suspect in that investigation," he added. "We are still working that."

Matt Alford, the attorney who represented Litchfield, bristled at the suggestion.

"There was no proof whatsoever that he was a killer," Alford said. "Absolutely he was not guilty of that crime."

For the slain man's sister, Linda Pickarts, Litchfield's death seemed a "little suspicious" and a bit of a let-down.

"I wanted him in prison," she told the Houston Chronicle this month. "He escaped justice here on Earth, but he's getting his justice now."

The aging case ended up back in the headlines in 2017. That year, federal agents swarmed South Shore Harbor and arrested Knox for identity theft after discovering she'd been hiding under a stolen name pilfered from a dead, one-day-old baby.

The intrigue had started three decades earlier, when Lyerla -- Knox's then-husband -- was found stabbed to death in the couple's Lompoc home, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

After picking up Perea's print on a faucet at the murder scene, police arrested the landscaping contractor. But before trial started in California, Knox disappeared and could not be subpoenaed, then Litchfield took the Fifth on the stand.

The two got married not long after the killing -- only to divorce two months after Perea's trial ended, a coincidence that led an attorney for Lyerla's family to suspect the pair married to avoid having to testify against each other.

Perea was convicted and sentenced to 56 years in prison, though initially he said he'd been "set up." It wasn't until 2012 during a parole hearing that he began claiming Litchfield had paid him $4,000 to pull off the slaying.

Adding to the intrigue and tragedy, not long after the stabbing, Knox and Lyerla's 13-month-old daughter, Kajsa, drowned in a shallow fishpond. Then, in 1992, Lyerla's mother sued Knox and Litchfield, accusing them of conspiring to kill Harold and Kajsa Lyerla to get a $279,000 life insurance payout.

The case was tossed after a court found Lyerla's mother did not have standing. In the years that followed, Knox nabbed the birth certificate of an infant named Christina White, moved to League City along with her lover, and built a new life with a cruise ship business.

For more than two decades, the presence of the friendly Capt. White didn't raise any eyebrows on the island, where she was known as a beloved mariner.

But then in 2016, she went to renew her passport -- and her manufactured life came crashing down around her. Authorities wouldn't say what about the application aroused their suspicions, but ultimately officials linked the fingerprints on White's application to Knox.

In July 2017, she was sentenced to three years in federal prison. In court, prosecutors repeatedly laid out ties between Knox and the California slaying, and defense attorney John T. Floyd framed it all as a "heavy-handed approach trying to get her to cooperate in some way that she's not able to do."

Even after Knox was sent to prison, investigators still sought to connect her and Litchfield to the killing.

"The case is not closed," Santa Barbara Deputy District Attorney Steve Foley said at the time. "We are still interested in pursuing a case against Mr. Litchfield and Ms. Knox if enough evidence comes to light to prove the case.

Then in late 2018, Perea called a Houston Chronicle reporter from a California prison, intent on breaking the news of Litchfield's death. But the mariner had been staying under the radar, and even the man's lawyer couldn't offer any details on what happened or when.

Lompoc police said he'd died, and confirmed they were still investigating the decades-old case. Eventually the Galveston medical examiner's investigator D.J. Florence confirmed more details: Litchfield died on July 27. He had been living in a nursing home, and had suffered Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- better known as mad cow.

His death was 29 years to the day after Kajsa's.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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