The murder trail stemming from the death of James Eric Rambeau, Jr. in June 2009 has included many tangents, such as the revelation of questionable behavior at the Inyo County District Attorney’s Office, the use of a widely mistrusted jailhouse informant, threats against D.A. Art Maillet and arresting officers, bomb threats at the jail, and a change of venue for the trial from Inyo to Ventura counties.
The arrest and journey to trial and its many facets have become one large red herring, a distraction, from what Rambeau’s family says is the real issue – the senseless death of a young man as a result of what they perceive to be a gang-related pride killing, just another notch in the murderer’s belt.
The family said it admits that despite the incredible sadness and sense of loss, James’ death has done more to bring the family closer. They added that in hindsight, they can recognize hints from James that he was ready to go, to die – and if he had to leave, he was at peace. The family believes that James may have known his time was drawing to a close.
“He had just got married, and just four months prior to that night … he wanted to talk about what he wanted if he died,” James’ mother, Jeanine Rambeau said, noting James got down to details about what clothes he wanted to be buried in, and where.
Jeanine said James told her, “Life’s difficult and has been hard for me and my family and people are so cruel. If something happens to me I feel I could watch over people better from heaven that I could here on Earth.”
Two weeks before his death, James named his new daughter while his wife Tanya was still seven months pregnant. Hazel was born Sept. 8, almost four months after her father’s death.
With the recent conviction of Louis LePlat for James’ murder, the victim’s family says it now feels some closure and can move on, but the wounds of the whole ordeal and incredible loss are deep and healing slowly.
The family has decided to come forward with James’ story and their version of what happened that fateful night.
Monday, June 20, 2011 marked the second anniversary of the death of father, husband and son James Eric Rambeau, Jr.
Born to Jeanine and James Rambeau, Sr. on April 4, 1987, James, Jr. would travel and make friends all over the country before deciding to raise his family in the Owens Valley. He grew up in Fallon, Nev. as well as Steens, Miss., and Pensacola, Fla. He visited the Owens Valley and lived with his father in Big Pine for a year. He also traveled and made friends in Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky and Texas.
He met Tonya Bachtell in Florida and the two married in Ouray, Colo., on Feb. 22, 2009. James would become stepfather to Tonya’s son, Codey Sekerka. “James was the only father he’s ever known,” Rambeau said.
Rambeau said James decided to move back to the Owens Valley in February 2009 to raise his own family and to be closer to his father, whom he had not had much of a relationship with in the past.
“I told him I had a bad feeling about him going back to Bishop,” Rambeau said. James would move to Bishop and have a house and family of his own.
“James was called, ‘a nice young man’ by everyone that met him,” Rambeau said.
“James wasn’t just my son … he was my best friend,” Rambeau said. “And I found out after his death he was a lot of peoples’ ‘best friend.’ Someone a lot of people trusted with their secrets, their successes, and their failures … and he made us all realize we were still loved and important.”
Rambeau described her son as a gentle and respectful soul. “James would have forgiven LePlat. That’s the kind of person he is.”
James’ legacy lives strong in his children, Rambeau said. Hazel has mannerisms just like her father, and Codey wants to be a police officer so he can “put bad people in jail like the man that killed my daddy.”
She and James also got a chance to share a favorite book before he passed. Rambeau would read “Love You Forever” to James as a small child, but James was now in his 20s and asked his mother to read it to him, “Just one more time.”
She said after she read it to him, she told him she wanted to give the copy to his unborn daughter.
“He said he’d get her her own copy, he said this copy was just for me and him,” Rambeau said with a crack in her voice. She said that she placed that copy in James’ casket and that the day after his death, among the many gifts, flowers and other condolences on James and Tonya’s doorstep was a new hardbound edition of “Love You Forever.”
It was at the same doorstep where James lost his life the night before.
In a written transcript, Rambeau has compiled a portrait of what transpired June 20, 2009, based on witness and court testimony. She did admit that only James and LePlat know exactly what happened that night.
According to the transcript and court records, James had been drinking beers at home and at a neighbor’s residence earlier that day. LePlat and his girlfriend were at the neighbor’s house as well, along with Felis Landa.
Landa then approached LePlat, who was standing next to Rambeau. Landa punched LePlat and knocked him to the ground. Landa told LePlat to get up and fight but he would not. LePlat and Landa both left.
According to Ventura County Superior Court records, Landa punched LePlat because LePlat had “yelled and sweared” at neighbors earlier that day. Landa punched LePlat in front of others at the party, “ … causing the Defendant to feel embarrassed and humiliated.”
According to court records LePlat drank more alcohol at his sister’s home then went to his girlfriend’s house. Rambeau added that he also dressed in his “gang colors,” grabbed the murder weapon, a knife, along with a spare knife as a decoy.
Rambeau said that LePlat had a way of finding the whereabouts of Landa, but she said she thinks LePlat was “after James as an easy kill.” She said Landa is a large, intimidating man and James was a family man. She said she thinks LePlat was also after another trophy killing to add to his gang credentials.
LePlat eventually showed up on James’ porch “appearing outraged and dangerous,” Rambeau stated. LePlat was asked to leave but instead scared Tonya Rambeau and busted out the front door window. James confronted LePlat on the doorstep.
Only James and LePlat know exactly what happened next, Rambeau said. However, she said the autopsy report of James showed no signs of fist fighting, and that James’ shirt collar was scuffed, as if he was pulled out onto the porch.
According to Rambeau’s transcript, Tonya asked others at the party to go outside and see what was happening. When no one offered, Tonya came outside, three or four minutes later, to find James leaning against a vehicle in his yard, covered in blood.
James suffered seven knife wounds – two were defensive wounds, one on his left arm and one on his right leg; two stabs at his stomach; one at his chest; one that collapsed his left lung; and, the one that was considered fatal, that cut through the right ventricle of his heart.
LePlat fled the scene, disposed of his gang clothes and the weapon and ran to his sister’s. Inyo County sheriff’s deputies would find and arrest LePlat there.
Rambeau added that D.A. witness Daniel Casteel testified that LePlat told him he stabbed James until he could hear the air escaping James’ body, “like a balloon.”
A fellow inmate at Inyo County Jail, Casteel was moved to a jail cell next to LePlat, after reportedly being in a fight. It is unclear whether Casteel was placed next to LePlat as a jailhouse informant in exchange for a deal concerning Casteel’s embezzlement and drug charges – as LePlat’s public defender alleges – or as happenstance. Casteel’s testimony has been called disputable by the defense and reportedly contradicts some eyewitness accounts. Nevertheless, Casteel is considered by Rambeau’s family “as the man who stood up against the evil that murdered our precious James.”
Casteel would go on to say, and is quoted as such in court records, that LePlat premeditated the murder of Landa, number one on LePlat’s hit list, with James as number two. LePlat was ultimately found guilty of second-degree murder, not the first-degree charge sought by the D.A.
Rambeau said she thinks the jury was hung on the first-degree murder charge because LePlat’s premeditation, the very definition of first-degree murder, was for Landa, not James.
Casteel had no involvement in the murder, but, Rambeau said, LePlat’s defense was built almost entirely around Casteel’s character and record and disproving any aspect of the story LePlat had reportedly confided in Casteel.
According to court records, LePlat’s public defender, Neil Quinn, called Casteel to the stand multiple times.
LePlat never testified at the trial and is quoted as saying on May 11, 2011 that he declined to answer the question of why he killed James because of “legal reasons.”
Court and other records reveal that LePlat sought revenge against Landa but turned his anger against James – all in the name of respect.
The Probation Office report states, “It be noted that the Defendant had an approximate two hour ‘cooling off’ period between getting punched by Landa and stabbing the victim. This clearly eliminated the possibility of the offense being an accident wherein the victim was killed due to spontaneous anger, intense fear, or in a ‘heat of passion.’”
The record continues with a report from Detective Jeff Hollowell in which he says LePlat described his actions as “… a matter of respect, disrespect and honor. The Defendant had been disrespected, and slighted in front of his sister, girlfriend and others and was going to regain his respect and honor. However, it appears the Defendant’s original intent to kill Landa was later transferred and directed toward the victim.”
LePlat was sentenced to life for second-degree murder and for use of a weapon, a knife, in the crime, and is eligible for parole in 16 years.
Rambeau said she’s not afraid of possible retaliation from members of LePlat’s family, some of whom have already been convicted of bomb and other threats to Inyo officials. Rambeau said the last thing LePlat did when he left the courtroom was smile and smirk at Rambeau and her family.
The trial was the first time Rambeau had seen pictures of the fatal wounds that ended her son’s life.
Rambeau said she feels that her son didn’t really pass away, in her eyes, until she saw the autopsy pictures at the trial in April and she saw how her son perished.
“That’s when my son died,” Rambeau, a registered nurse, said. She added that she has been made the family’s spokesperson, since many of James’ family and friends remain in states of depression over the loss.
She said that being a nurse, she has no problem speaking very matter-of-factly about the gruesome way her son died, including describing James’ broken ribs and bruising from where LePlat stabbed at him with incredible force, the collapsed lung and the slosh of blood and fluid in his chest as CPR was performed on scene and at Northern Inyo Hospital.
Rambeau puts up a good front and is strong for her family but she admits that she is still moved by the tragic loss of James.
“I never knew what it was to ‘really’ grieve over someone. Years ago I had a friend describe it as: You think of that person every minute when they first are gone … the good and the bad and the many ways you failed them,” Rambeau said in an e-mail. “After six months maybe you only think of them every 55 minutes in an hour, and you start to think of more good than bad. After a year, maybe only 50 minutes, etc. etc. Well, my son has been gone for two years now … I still think of him and miss him every minute of the hour. I don’t know how long it will take for me to live a normal day without wanting to cry all the time.”
James’ family wanted to thank Maillet and the D.A.’s staff for their “hard work, diligence and determination” and that the work “above and beyond the call of duty” was apparent and appreciated. Thanks are also due to court staff for being so diligent with handling of evidence and helping assist in serving justice, Rambeau said.
The family also wanted to thank the staff at NIH on duty June 20, 2009 and the California Victims Advocates, especially Sandra Fernandez.
The family also wanted to thank the many friends and family that have supported and continue to give support.
The family also said it wanted to give a very special thanks to Casteel. “He could have pleaded the Fifth through the whole thing but when he realized it would hurt the case, he opened up himself and all his faults to make sure justice could be given as accurately as possible.
“He (Casteel) stated to Quinn multiple times, ‘This is not about me … It’s about James who was wrongfully murdered and Louis who thinks he is going to get away with it. I am not a good man, but I am not evil.’”
The letter continues, “The jury believed 98 percent of what Casteel said and he should be recognized for helping take a murderer off the street.”
Within this whirlwind of emotions and drama, some good has come of the tragedy. Jeanine Rambeau has moved back to the area and she and James, Sr., have reconciled after a 21-year separation.