Steve Mitchell felt the tension rise. They had just brought Dan Willoughby into the courtroom for the beginning of a hearing that could put Willoughby in the gas chamber.

Willoughby wore jailhouse blues. His skin had turned pale during his time in the county jail. He had shaved off his fashionable mustache. He was a man who used to drive around in a shiny Jaguar and answer to the nickname of "Disco Dan." Now, he looked a little sheepish.

Kay Lines, one of Mitchell's investigators at the Arizona Attorney General's Office, sat next to Mitchell. Lines glanced over at Willoughby without changing his expression. It was Lines who had gone down into Mexico with Mitchell to search for the one witness who could crack this murder case on which everyone else had given up.

They made quite a pair. Mitchell, a hard-charging and aggressive prosecutor, and Lines, a big and amazingly quick-witted detective. Mitchell himself was a former Chicago cop who worked his way through law school. Lines had served as a detective at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office for 20 years. This was a case they were determined to solve.

Few thought they could even get Willoughby into an American courtroom. No one thought they'd ever get a conviction. Willoughby, 53, had gotten through life because of his cleverness. He was a master at manipulating people. The plan he had devised to murder his wife, Trish, was clever. It should have succeeded. Willoughby took his wife and children on vacation to a rented home at Rocky Point, Mexico. While there, he crushed her skull with a medieval, macelike instrument of his own design. He did this while the three children waited outside for him to take them on a sightseeing tour in a Jeep.

Waiting and watching as part of the scheme was his accomplice, Yesenia Patino, 35, Willoughby's Mexican girlfriend. Her job was to dash into the house, stab his wife with a knife and steal her jewelry. She would also carry off the actual murder weapon, thus making it look like a home invasion performed by local criminals.

Willoughby was certain his plan would work. He would collect roughly $1 million in insurance and then marry Yesenia, the woman he had been escorting for more than a year.

The plan began falling apart, however, because Thera Huish, his mother-in-law, became suspicious. She hadn't trusted Willoughby for years. She realized many things about the Rocky Point murder didn't add up. When the children and Willoughby returned to the house, why did Willoughby send the children in first to see their mother? Was he setting up an alibi? And why, after it was determined his wife was still barely breathing, did he delay getting her to a hospital?

Willoughby was arrested. Then he learned some startling things. The first was that Mitchell and Lines had found and arrested Yesenia Patino in Mexico. Second, the woman he wanted to marry was a transsexual. The third was that Yesenia Patino was going to testify against him.

The murder was committed on February 23, 1991--18 months before Willoughby's appearance this day. Ever since, Willoughby played the part of the innocent man wrongly accused. As a result of the trial verdict, he already faced life imprisonment. What happened in this hearing would determine whether he went to the gas chamber. This was one of the days Thera Huish, 61, would never forget. She sat waiting to be called to the witness stand, surrounded by a half-dozen members of her family. She was clearly the leader of her family group. What she had to say would play a big part.

Her hair was perfectly coifed. She wore a dark blue dress with white puffs at the shoulders and pearl earrings. She wore black, flat-heeled shoes because she would otherwise be too tall for the men around her, including her husband, Sterling. She had a thin gold bracelet on her right wrist. Thera Huish took the stand. Judge Joe Howe handed her a glass of water. The judge is polite to a fault. A former defense attorney himself, he once taught at Harvard and is considered one of the brightest judges on the superior-court bench. But he is also considered unpredictable.

Mrs. Huish had a letter with her which she intended to read in open court. It turned out the letter was addressed directly to Dan Willoughby.

"As a family, we have remained quiet a long time. The crime that you committed, Dan, we knew in our hearts from the beginning that you were involved in murdering Trish. . . ."
Judge Howe interrupted Thera at this point.
"You may direct any remarks you have to Dan outside of court," Judge Howe said. "But while you are here, I want you to talk only to me. So please direct your remarks only to me."
There was a rustling in the court. Willoughby sat holding his hands clenched at the defense table. Mrs. Huish adjusted herself in the witness chair so that she was looking straight at Judge Howe. Then her words poured out in a torrent. She was outwardly calm, but the anger was apparent. "Judge, we knew from the beginning," she began again. "This man used Trish's innocent children as shields and pawns to further his evil ways. "He kept little Hayden in Rocky Point after he let Thera and Marsha go home. The reason for this was clear. He didn't think the authorities would arrest him because he had a minor child with him. It failed. They still put him in jail and, worse, he allowed them to put Hayden in the cell with him. What a wonderful experience for a 7-year-old boy. "He is a cold, calculating murderer. He cheated his children by depriving them of their mother. He told them their grandma was starving them. But I gave him $50,000 and he collected another $150,000 in insurance.

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Tom Fitzpatrick