A three-time felon already serving time for a sex crime in another state was sentenced on Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the stabbing and strangulation death of a 45-year-old woman in Oakland in 1979.
In what prosecutors say might be the oldest case ever tried in Alameda County, Dennis Eagle, who was only 18 years old at the time but is now 58, was convicted of first-degree murder on May 13 for the death of Betty Elias at her apartment on San Pablo Avenue on Oct. 29, 1979. Jurors only deliberated for about four hours and also convicted Eagle of a special circumstance allegation that he murdered Elias during a rape or an attempted rape.
Elias’ death remained unsolved for 37 years until 2015, when DNA and fingerprint evidence connected Eagle to the crime.
Alameda County prosecutor Mark Melton said Eagle wasn’t even a suspect in Elias’ murder until the DNA connection was established. Elias’ daughter Joanne Paletta said at Eagle’s sentencing hearing that the death of Elias, who grew up in Visalia in Tulare County, “changed our lives forever and took so much away from us that I’ve never been the same.”
Paletta, who wore a T-shirt with a photo of her mother, told Eagle:
“I made a promise to my family that I would find you one day and I did.”
But Paletta, who fought back tears, said that after Eagle finally was arrested she told prosecutors she didn’t want them to seek the death penalty for him.
“Instead, I wanted life in prison without parole for you because for me the death penalty is a painless death and you wouldn’t feel any pain.”
In a letter read aloud by Paletta, Elias’ sister, 80-year-old Julia Worthington, who attended part of Eagle’s trial but wasn’t present on Friday, described Elias as “my best friend” and said Elias had saved her life on one occasion when they were young.
Elias “was beautiful, loving and caring” and told Eagle “only God can help you now.”
Melton told jurors in his closing argument in the trial that Elias’ blood on her mattress and on her wall is evidence of how violent her death was.
The prosecutor alleged that Eagle pulled off her clothes, had sex with her, strangled her and said he:
“[C]ontinued to choke the life out of her.”
Melton said Eagle’s DNA is in a national database because he’s serving 15 years in a federal prison in Virginia for his 2010 conviction for a sex crime he committed at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, where he’s lived most of his life.
Eagle also was convicted of assault with serious bodily injury in Montana in 1987 and of sexual assault in Montana in 1995.
Melton said Eagle’s fingerprint was on a curtain rod in Elias’ apartment and his sperm was found in her vagina.
Melton said Elias worked as a bartender near her apartment but it appears that she wasn’t working the night she was raped and killed. He said it’s unclear how Eagle met Elias because he’s lived in Montana most of his life.
But Melton said his theory is that Eagle targeted Elias because she was inebriated, as she had a 0.24 blood-alcohol level at the time of her death, and may have been unsteady and exhibited slurred speech as she walked down San Pablo Avenue late at night and might have followed her to her apartment.
Eagle’s attorney Richard Foxall asked jurors to find Eagle not guilty of murder, arguing that the DNA evidence in the case wasn’t unreliable.
Melton said Eagle won’t begin serving his sentence for Elias’ death until 2022 because he still has to finish serving the last four years of his sentence for his conviction for his most recent Montana sex crime.