Steven David Catlin, 62,
poisoned by paraquat his adoptive mother and two of his six wifes in May
1976, March, 1984 and December, 1984. Convicted in 1990.
High Court Upholds
Death Sentence in ‘Poisoned by Love’ Murders
By Kenneth Ofgang -
Metropolitan News Enterprise
Tuesday, July 17, 2001
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the
death sentence given a Fresno man convicted of killing his mother and
two wives by poisoning.
Steven David Catlin was sentenced to death by Kern
Superior Court Judge Lewis E. King in 1990 for the 1984 murder of his
mother, Martha Catlin, after being convicted of her murder and that of
his fourth wife, Joyce Catlin, which occurred in 1976.
The case was the subject of the 1993 television movie
“Poisoned by Love: The Kern County Murders.” Steven Catlin was portrayed
by Harry Hamlin, better known as one of the stars of the television
series “L.A. Law.”
The two crimes were tried together under an information
filed in 1985, but the death penalty did not apply to the murder of
Joyce Catlin because it occurred before California reinstated the death
penalty. Catlin was tried separately in the 1984 death of his fifth wife,
Glenna Kaye Catlin, and convicted in 1988.
Catlin’s court-appointed appellate attorney, Horace
Freedman of Culver City, argued that it was unfair to prosecute his
client in Joyce Catlin’s death because two possible witnesses had died
in the interim. Had he not been tried simultaneously for Joyce Catlin’s
murder, Freedman further argued, he might not have received the death
penalty for killing Martha Catlin.
In any event, Freedman contended, the two murders
shouldn’t have been tried together.
Joyce Catlin died in a Bakersfield hospital three weeks
after being admitted with flu-like symptoms. The death certificate
listed the cause of death as acute respiratory failure to due unknown
microorganisms, although paraquat poisoning was suspected.
Paraquat is a herbicide used to control weeds. Experts
testified that tests capable of disclosing the presence of the substance
more than 72 hours after administration didn’t exist in 1976.
After Martha Catlin died in 1984, doctors concluded she
died of paraquat poisoning. After police interviewed doctors who treated
and autopsied Joyce Catlin, Steven Catlin was charged with both murders.
He was also convicted in Monterey Superior Court of the
murder of Glenna Kaye Catlin, who also died of paraquat poisoning, and
sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, prior to the Kern County
Prosecutors at the Kern County trial presented evidence
of all three murders, although jurors were not told until the penalty
phase that Catlin had been convicted in the Monterey case.
They were then told to consider the prior-murder-conviction
special circumstance along with the financial-gain, murder-by-poison,
and multiple-murder special circumstances they had already found true.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Catlin had financial
motives for killing the women—he was the beneficiary of life insurance
policies on his wives and the sole beneficiary of his mother’s estate.
There was also testimony that he had expressed fear his mother might
disinherit him and leave her estate to charity instead, and that she had
disapproved of his multiple marriages and divorces.
There was also evidence that Catlin—who worked in
agriculture in the 1970s—had access to paraquat and had told people that
it could be used to poison someone. Police obtained a bottle of paraquat,
with a 1977 date marked on it, from a garage that Catlin shared with
Glenna Kaye’s father.
Prosecutors also presented testimony from a jailhouse
informant that Catlin asked for assistance in intimidating his third
wife—who had persistently told authorities that Catlin murdered the
three women—and that Catlin had admitted the killings. In the penalty
phase, there was evidence that Catlin had assaulted his first wife in
Catlin testified that he never killed anyone, didn’t have
access to paraquat, and never told anyone about the substance’s deadly
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the high
court, said there was no error in trying Catlin for the murder of his
fourth wife, or in joining that charge with that of murdering his mother.
Catlin didn’t show that the deceased potential witnesses—employees
of the Kern County Coroner’s Office at the time of Joyce Catlin’s death—would
have given favorable testimony, the chief justice said. Nor was Catlin
prejudiced by his own loss of memory over the intervening nine years,
the chief justice said, since there were no significant details that he
might have forgotten.
“Moreover, the delay in prosecution was justified,” the
chief justice went on to say. “Because of limitations in forensic
science and because of the manner in which Joyce’s tissue had been
preserved, it would have been extremely difficult or impossible to make
out a case against defendant at or near the time of the murder.”
A joint trial was appropriate, George said, because of
the similarity between the two murders. And the other-crimes evidence
concerning Glenna Kaye Catlin’s murder was admissible for similar
reasons, the chief justice said.
“Paraquat poisoning is rare, and its occurrence with
respect to two close relatives of one person is unlikely to be a matter
of chance or to be the result of a spontaneous impulse,” George wrote.
“When evidence of a third instance of the same type of poisoning is
introduced, as it properly was in the present case, the inference
regarding a common design or plan becomes very strong.”
The case is People v. Catlin, 01 S.O.S. 3394.
Steven David Catlin
Adopted as an infant,
during 1944, by Glenn and Martha Catlin, of Kern County, California,
Steven moved to Bakersfield with his new parents in the early 1950s.
Dropping out of high school, he showed no interest in honest work and
was arrested on forgery charges at age nineteen, serving nine months in
a California Youth Authority camp.
Catlin's first marriage
was stormy and violent, domestic problems exacerbated by his abuse of
drugs. In 1966, he acquired a second wife without divorcing the first,
employing a pseudonym on the marriage license.
A few months after the
second, bogus wedding, he was picked up for stealing a credit card at
the gas station where he worked. The judge called Catlin an addict and
packed him off to the state prison at Chino, where he spent the next
Upon release, Catlin
divorced his first wife and legally remarried his second, using his real
name, but the relationship was already doomed. The couple separated
after ten months, and Catlin was married a third time, divorcing that
wife eight months later. A fourth wife - Joyce -- was acquired in short
order, but she would prove less fortunate than her predecessor in
escaping from a dead-end marriage.
with cars led to a job with the pit crew of racer Glendon Emery, based
in Fresno, California. Infatuated with Emery's step-daughter, Catlin
began to court her while still married to Joyce.
In April 1976, Joyce
Catlin was admitted to Bakersfield's Mercy Hospital with a severe case
of "flu"; she seemed to improve, then took a sudden turn for
the worse and died, of "pneumonia," on May 6. Husband Steve
ordered her body cremated without delay.
A year later, in May
1977, Catlin married his fifth wife -- Kaye -- and moved to Fresno,
finding employment at a local garage. Quick promotions placed him in
charge of forty employees, but Catlin had expensive tastes and cash was
always short. On October 28, 1980, his adoptive father died suddenly,
the fluid in his lungs attributed to pre-existing cancer. Once again,
the body was swiftly cremated on orders from Catlin.
In 1981, Catlin's
employers at the Fresno garage noticed a sudden rash of missing auto
parts. A routine background check on various employee's turned up
Steven's unreported record, and he was forced to resign, though no
charges were filed. Financially, the strain began to mount.
On February 17, 1984,
Kaye Catlin suddenly fell ill while visiting Las Vegas with her mother.
Returning to Fresno, she was hospitalized with fluid in her lungs.
Physicians were still trying to diagnose her illness when she died on
Catlin, meanwhile, had acquired another fiancee, encountered
on a visit to the hospital. His grief was tempered by her love -- and by
the $57,000 he received from life insurance payments.
Back in Bakersfield,
his third ex-wife had followed Catlin's eerie run of luck, and she
approached the local sheriff with her dire suspicions. Joyce Catlin had
been cremated after death, but Mercy Hospital still retained certain
tissue samples, and these were submitted for analysis in November 1984.
A few days later, on December 8, Catlin's mother collapsed and died --
from "a stroke" -- shortly after a visit by Steve and his
latest girlfriend. Catlin ordered the body cremated, but disposal was
postponed until an autopsy could be performed.
The noose was closing
rapidly on Catlin, now. Analysis of tissue samples from his mother and
his two late wives revealed that all had suffered poisoning from
Paraquat, an herbicide so lethal that its use was banned in the United
States. A bottle of the stuff, complete with Catlin's fingerprints, was
found in his garage.
Indicted shortly after marrying his sixth -- and
final -- wife, the killer went to trial at Monterey, in May of 1986.
Convicted on a single murder count -- for killing Kaye - -- he drew a
term of life imprisonment. In Bakersfield, where other charges waited,
prosecutors hoped to see him executed.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial
Killers - Hunting Humans
M RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE: CE-inheritance
Poisoned parents and two wives with herbicida.