On July 22, 1980, the partially decomposed body of 67-year-old Warren Uecker was discovered covered by leaves and pine needles on the Pine Cienega Ranch near Mule Creek, New Mexico. He had been shot once in the chest with a handgun.
A grand jury indicted John Rizzo and 45-year-old Gene Curtis Ballinger, Uecker’s business partners in the ranch. Ballinger was a former deputy sheriff from Michigan who had moved to New Mexico, where he published several small newspapers.
Just prior to trial in 1981, Rizzo was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against Ballinger.
Rizzo told a Grant County District Court jury that there had been substantial strife among the partners for a while, and that many ranch residents routinely carried firearms for their own protection. An appeals court would later say the case was “a bizarre scenario of numerous and diverse persons unhappily joined in a corporate enterprise. There was evidence of business squabbles, financial troubles, suspicions and accusations against defendant of mismanagement and misappropriation of corporate moneys, factionalization of stockholders and directors, two armed camps at the ranch and, finally, the disappearance of one of (Ballinger’s) principal accusers and the discovery of his body three days later.”
Evidence showed that three separate factions existed on the ranch. Rizzo taught “dowsing,” which involved suspending a pendulum over a map, obtaining readings indicating the location of an object and going out into the field with a “dowsing rod” to look for the particular object.
Ballinger ran a treasure-hunting operation and Uecker was allegedly involved in para-military activities.
Rizzo testified that he heard Ballinger threaten to kill Uecker on numerous occasions. He also admitted that he was trying to rally other interest-holders in the ranch in opposition to Ballinger because he believed Ballinger was defrauding the corporation and ruining the ranch’s camping program.
Rizzo testified that when he last saw Uecker, Ballinger was leading him away from the ranch house at gunpoint on the afternoon of July 19, 1980. Rizzo testified that he had directed authorities to a hidden gun and Uecker’s body. He said he learned the locations by “dowsing” and led police to the gun and within a few hundred feet of Uecker’s body.
Ballinger’s wife, Phyllis, testified that on the afternoon Rizzo claimed to have seen Ballinger leading Uecker away at gunpoint, she saw Rizzo and Uecker drive away and that Rizzo later returned alone. She said that during that time, Ballinger was asleep in the bedroom of the ranch home.
The defense presented several witnesses who testified that the bedroom that Rizzo claimed he looked out of when he saw Uecker and Ballinger was covered with a thick sheet of translucent plastic and that a person inside the bedroom could discern only shapes and shadows, not specific individuals. Neither the prosecution nor the defense presented any physical evidence regarding the window at the time of the murder.
On August 6, 1981, Ballinger was convicted by the jury of second degree murder and sentenced to nine years in prison.
In 1986, after his appeals were denied, Ballinger surrendered to prison and began serving his sentence. In 1987, he filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that investigators for the both the Grant County sheriff and the prosecution had taken numerous photographs of the ranch house, including the bedroom window, immediately after the murder. The petition contended the prosecution had failed to disclose the photographs to the defense.
An evidentiary hearing was held and two investigators testified they had taken dozens of photographs, but only one photograph could be found. The investigators testified that the missing photographs would have shown plastic covering the bedroom window. The picture showed the ranch house from the outside. The view of the window was partially obstructed by a tree branch, but two windows were clearly visible, one obviously covered with plastic and one that was not.
In 1990, Ballinger was released on parole.
In 1991, a federal judge granted Ballinger’s writ and ordered a new trial. In August 1993, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld the decision. The appeals court ruled that the photograph that was produced at the evidentiary hearing showed the covered window was “strikingly different” from the uncovered window. The court ruled that the photograph “would significantly impeach the testimony of Rizzo,” who not only testified that he could see out the window, but that it was open and not covered with plastic, and that failing to disclose that picture undermined Ballinger’s conviction, which depended entirely on Rizzo’s credibility
The charges were then dismissed.
– Maurice Possley