Man released after decades has long denied murders

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX --  After spending nearly 40 years in prison for two murders that he insists he did not commit, William "Bill" Macumber, now 77, spent his first night as free man with members of his family watching "rabbits and quail" and drinking "one beer."

Late Wednesday afternoon, the tall, lanky, crew-cut wearing inmate was released from custody after a decade-long struggle waged by a number of prominent Phoenix attorneys and an inmate advocacy group known as the Arizona Justice Project.

"I'm here because of these people," Macumber said during a news conference Thursday at the law firm of Perkins and Coie as he choked back emotion and gestured toward some of the lawyers who took up his cause over the years.

"They are my second family," Macumber said.

It is a twisted and tortured story that began a full half-century ago when two 20-year-olds, Joyce Sterrenberg and her boyfriend Timothy McKellop, were murdered in a desert area that is now North Scottsdale.

The year was 1962 and for more than a decade the grisly case remained open and unsolved.

That is until the mid-1970s when Macumber's soon to be ex-wife, a woman who also just happened to work for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, reported that her husband had confessed to the killings.

Macumber was then twice prosecuted and twice found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentence to life in prison. But serious questions about the case began to surface when it was learned that another man named Ernesto Valenzuela, who has since died in prison, repeatedly confessed to killing the two young people in the North Valley.

Valenzuela's claims were also supported by a young woman who in the remote area at the time Sterrenberg and McKellop were murdered. That information never made it into the courtroom during Macumber's first two trials.

A couple of years ago the State's Clemency Board recommended that Macumber be released. But Gov. Jan Brewer rejected the recommendation.

Macumber's lawyers continued to push for his release or for a new trial.

But rather than risk a new trial on a case that is now 50 years old, prosecutors struck a deal with Macumber allowing him to plead "no contest" to two counts of second-degree murder and to then be released for "time served."

That deal was carried out Wednesday in the court of Judge Bruce Cohen with prosecutors acknowledging that much of the evidence from the two earlier trials has now been lost and that success in a third trial was unlikely.

Relatives of the two murder victims were also in court Wednesday and they were clearly unhappy with Macumber's release.

"In our hearts we know that he killed those two young people," said John McCluskey, McKellop's cousin.

During the news conference Thursday, I asked Macumber if he had committed the murders to which he replied "certainly not."

Macumber said his plans now include fishing with a cousin and settling in a location that he said he preferred not to disclose.