BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
It was a fishing friendship that ended badly.
Thomas Hill had been in a fight last summer with his pal Dennis Lee Simmons and wanted to make amends. He asked Simmons if they could meet, prosecutor Ken Green said. Simmons agreed.
Eight days later, he arrived at Simmons' Weldon home with a 12-pack of beer in his hands and reconciliation in his heart.
Twenty minutes later he was gravely wounded. Simmons, 60, had shot his 52-year-old former friend in the face, Green said Wednesday after Simmons was convicted of murder.
Two more gunshots would follow, but not for at least 40 minutes and possibly as long as six hours, Green said the evidence showed.
Simmons testified that after the first shot he smoked a couple of cigarettes, downed three or four shots of whiskey and talked to God about what he'd done.
Then, Green said, Simmons shot Hill once in the back and once in the chest.
Simmons' lawyer, Richard Terry, said during the trial that his client shot Hill in self-defense, according to Green. But a doctor testified there's no way Hill could have put up a fight after the shot to his face.
That first shot caused Hill to swallow fragments of his jawbone, and he also swallowed a sizable quantity of blood, Green said the doctor testified. He likely spent his remaining time suffering on the floor until Simmons fired the fatal shots.
When Hill was finally dead, Simmons himself reflected on their past times together, he testified.
Simmons recalled that he and Hill had fished on the shores of Isabella Lake, and on one day in particular they had great luck and caught a bunch of catfish.
During that day, Hill said something to the effect of "I could stay here forever," Simmons testified, according to Green.
Simmons told the court he decided that spot would make the perfect resting place for his former friend. He told the jury he buried Hill where he did in part out of respect for him, Green said.
Green said the jury thought that story was ridiculous.
And even the burial wasn't done properly. A hand was sticking out.
So on Aug. 27, a few days after the killing, Kern County sheriff's deputies responded to that report at the Hanning Flat Campground area of Lake Isabella. They found the body.
Further investigation, according to deputies, found blood inside Simmons' home, and a rake, shovel and other evidence in his truck.
A second man, Clifton Ray Blake, had been staying with Simmons. Prosecutors believe he was involved in the killing and burial of the body, but Simmons testified that Blake wasn't in the house at the time of the killing.
Blake was charged with murder but the jury acquitted him.
Blake's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Janice Kim, said she was pleased with the verdict, and said the jury agreed with her theory that there was insufficient evidence to convict her client. She said Blake had only been at Simmons' house for a short time and was not involved in the killing, and he also had no part in burying the body.
"We're really grateful to the jury for all their hard work," she said.
The case was prosecuted by Green and David Wilson. Green said late Wednesday afternoon that there simply wasn't as much evidence against Blake as there was against Simmons.
And when Simmons took the stand, he claimed responsibility for any evidence that indicated Blake helped him, Green said.
"I thought the jury did an outstanding job," Green said. "They really worked on this."
Terry, Simmons' attorney, could not be reached for comment.
Simmons faces 50 years to life in prison at his sentencing Aug. 22.