Riverside County DA defends decisions in Pinyon Pines triple murder case

District Attorney Paul Zellerbach says updating families during lengthy investigation would have jeopardized search for justice

District Attorney Paul Zellerbach says updating families during lengthy investigation would have jeopardized search for justice

PALM DESERT, Calif. - Riverside County's District Attorney spoke Friday about the Pinyon Pines triple murders.

Paul Zellerbach said that contrary to what some critics believe, the DA's office learned new information recently which helped investigators bring charges in the case. 

In Palm Desert for an event, Zellerbach said to News Channel 3 & CBS Local 2, "Certainly since I've been aware of the case since April of last year until we decided to take it to the Grand Jury, there's been more evidence and more information developed just in that time frame."

The bodies of Becky Friedli, 18, her mother Vicki Friedli, and Vicki's boyfriend John Hayward were all found burned at their home in the mountains south of the Coachella Valley September 17, 2006.

Cristin Smith and Robert Pape, both 25, are now charged in the brutal murders and awaiting arraignment in an Indio courtroom next week. 

Zellerbach defended both the length and secrecy of the 7 1/2 year investigation.  "It would be nice certainly to let the victim's families in this case know the progress of the case," said Zellerbach.  "But it's also important not to compromise the investigation," he continued.

Zellerbach has been DA since January of 2011, and didn't have information on the case prior to that. 

He said his office first saw the case last April when it was presented for prosecution by the Riverside County Sheriffs Department, then again in December after DA attorneys requested more investigation and evidence.

The Sheriff's Department learned new information about the case during that time leading the DA's office to present the it to a criminal Grand Jury, something he chose instead of simply charging Smith and Pape with the murders.

Zellerbach said, "We always have that option in the prosecutors office.  Sometimes for many reasons we decide to go to the Grand Jury."  He continued, "I'm not going to get into the specifics behind the tactical decisions as to why we chose that path."

The DA said his office couldn't make any public comment on the case during the Grand Jury hearings, even to the victim's families.

"The law prohibits us from notifying anyone or making any public comment until the indictment is actually unsealed by order of the court," said Zellerbach.

Zellerbach says the victim's families will now be able to attend all the proceedings because they're public.

As for the long nature of the investigation, 7 1/2 years, Zellerbach said, "It's unfortunate certainly.  But each case is different.  Each situation is different."  He added, "I'm just glad we've reached this stage where we can pursue this prosecution."

Zellerbach denied any politics involved in the the timing of indictments, a claim made by Mike Hestrin who's running for DA against Zellerbach.

The election is in June. 

"To be ridiculed by someone in my office who has no knowledge of this case, or the Sheriffs Department's investigation of this case is unfortunate and unprofessional," said Zellerbach.

Zellerbach said an attorney for a material witness in the case, Eduardo G. Roy, broke no laws releasing details from a confidential affidavit.  

Those new details News Channel 3 & CBS Local 2 first revealed Monday.

Zellerbach said, "We didn't appreciate it, but at the same time there's nothing criminal about that."

The DA now says his focus will be on winning murder convictions against Pape and Smith.

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