A little more than 34 years ago Mike Morganti was lured from his Clovis apartment and driven to a remote foothill location where he was forced to dig his own grave and then was beaten with an aluminum bat and stabbed with a knife before being buried — alive.
As David Weidert stomped on the dirt, Morganti — just 20 and mentally disabled — thrust his arm out from beneath the ground and grabbed Weidert’s leg. Weidert kicked the arm loose, stabbed at Morganti with a shovel and then he and his underage accomplice took a length of telephone wire and strangled him. Despite all that, dirt clumps were later found in Morganti’s lungs, and the official cause of death was ruled to be suffocation.
The premeditated murder was committed because Weidert feared Morganti would testify against him for a burglary that Weidert committed earlier in the year. It was a crime, committed by Weidert when he was underage, that likely would not have involved any jail time. Weidert’s accomplice was given immunity to testify during the trial.
Weidert was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. A subsequent court ruling, however, allowed him to seek parole.
In late January, the state Board of Parole Hearings recommended Weidert’s release from the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.
Only Gov. Jerry Brown can stop Weidert’s release, and Morganti’s family is on a mission to convince Brown to keep him behind bars. Coming to the Morganti family’s aid is Fresno County District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp and a bipartisan group of state legislators who already have written to Brown urging him to overturn the parole board’s decision.
“I literally want him to die in prison,” said Morganti’s younger sister, Vikki VanDuyne.
She has joined with her two half sisters — women who grew up with Morganti from a young age, but were not blood related — and her mother (who was also Morganti’s mother) to oppose Weidert’s release. They have attended six parole hearings over the past two decades, each time making a case for why Weidert shouldn’t be released.
Now, they are working to convince Brown.
On the other side is John Weidert, David Weidert’s father. Now living in Chowchilla, John Weidert said his son has earned his release from prison.
“He’s worked hard all these years to earn it,” John Weidert said. “It doesn’t bother me that people write letters.”
John Weidert said he’s often visited his son in prison, where he did apprentice work as an electrician and took other classes.
“He’s not the same boy who did that,” Weidert said. “He realizes what he did and he’s become a better person.”
How Brown will decide is unknown. Spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor does not comment on pending parole reviews.
Backing Morganti’s family is the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, which also opposed Weidert’s parole. District Attorney Smittcamp has written Brown asking him to reverse the parole board’s decision.
Robert Romanacce, a Fresno County prosecutor who has done work on the case, said it is especially heinous because it wasn’t crime of passion or one committed on the spur of the moment. Instead, he said, it was planned with the purpose of taking out a witness. It is made even worse, he said, because torture was involved and Morganti was mentally disabled.
VanDuyne, who was just 10 when the crime occurred, said Weidert was from the same north Fresno neighborhood as her older brother. She described her brother as a gentle person who just wanted friends, and someone who knew enough to know that he wasn’t as bright as others.
On June 19, 1980, a doctor’s office was burglarized. During an investigation, police found that Weidert, who was 17 at the time of the burglary, had sought Morganti’s assistance as a lookout. Police questioned Morganti, and he told them what he knew. At that time, police say Weidert began plotting ways to keep Morganti from testifying. Among Weidert’s ideas were breaking Morganti’s legs or hiring someone to hurt him.
Around Thanksgiving, Weidert convinced an underage accomplice to help abduct Morganti.
VanDuyne said the timing couldn’t have been worse. Morganti went missing at Thanksgiving, and his body was found just before Christmas. In between, his birthday passed.
“His birthday was this awful sad thing where he was missing,” VanDuyne said.
A jury eventually convicted Weidert of first-degree murder and kidnapping, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On appeal, however, the special circumstances in the case were thrown out, which gave Weidert a chance at parole. Another change in the law gave the crime’s severity less weight as time went by because it also took into account actions Weidert took while in prison. As more time went by, Weidert did things like take classes, steps that could be presented to the parole board. By all accounts, he has been a model prisoner.
If Brown doesn’t take action, Weidert will soon be released to transitional housing in San Francisco.
But VanDuyne remains unconvinced.
Since the parole board’s decision, she and her half sisters have been trying to rally support to convince Brown to overturn the parole board decision. Already, Sens. Andy Vidak of Hanford and Tom Berryhill of Twain Harte, along with Fresno Assembly Member Jim Patterson, have authored a letter to Brown calling Weidert a “cold-blooded killer” and a “dangerous predator who should not be allowed out in free society.” Also writing letters have been Assembly Member Henry T. Perea and state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani. Her letter was co-signed by five of her fellow senators.
In addition, Fresno attorney Dale Blickenstaff, who was the original prosecutor on the case, wrote to Brown, saying the “planned revenge killing and how they made the victim suffer will be forever etched in my mind.”
But John Weidert said his son will not be a danger to society.
“He has made all the arrangements for living and job hunting and all of those things,” John Weidert said. “Those are all in place. I know what they say in the letters. I have seen some of them. There’s not much you can do and I don’t want to respond to them.”
VanDuyne disagrees that Weidert will not be a danger when he is released. After the murder, she went on to become a volleyball star at Bullard High in the late 1980s and then at UC San Diego. She moved out of state and married. Still, she says she fears that Weidert will come after her and her family if he is released. If not that, she thinks another innocent victim may fall prey to him.
“I honestly believe he doesn’t have the coping mechanisms to not do it again,” she said, citing his influence over her trusting, mentally disabled brother. “Those people are going to do it again — they just are.”