God the Avenger

There are few crimes in the Malefactor’s Register that rival the murders of Nancy and Mitch Morgan by Cliff Morgan and his hired killers for sheer horror; there are wife killers and husband killers, children who kill their parents and more than a few parents who kill their children. But something about the Morgan murders is particularly heinous. The murders of Nancy and Mitch is something one might expect in a particularly bleak Shakespearean tragedy, not something that happens in a quiet neighborhood.
 
Somewhere around January 1981, Morgan, 47, began to think about what life would be like if he did not have his wife and son around. He also began wondering what it would be like if they were not around and he was rich. Weighing the possible outcomes in his mind and deciding that it would be worth the risk if he could collect close to $1 million, he began putting a plan into action.
 
In early 1981 he took out suspiciously large policies on 44-year-old Nancy and their son, Mitchell. If Nancy and Mitch died, Cliff stood to collect $850,000. The policies were a burden on the family; the premiums of about $10,000 were about a quarter of his annual take-home pay. No matter, Cliff did not plan on paying them for long — the policies were set to expire June 1, 1981.
 
Cliff had a friend named Mark Reilly, who he met while the two men were training to be car salesmen. In return for his help in the murder plot, Cliff promised to open a bar for Reilly to manage, and allow Reilly to live in his home. There was also some talk about a $25,000 payout. For himself, Cliff wanted to use his proceeds to become a partner in a trucking firm. Reilly was instructed to find an accomplice.
 
Reilly told his girlfriend, Debbie Sportsman, that he knew a kick-boxer who was allegedly connected to the mafia. In reality the kick-boxer was just a bouncer in a local bar. Morgan gave the bouncer $2,000, a coin collection, and a diamond ring.
 
Rather than look for a mob hitman, the guy simply pocketed the money and ring and sent the coins off to his mother to sell. Then he told Cliff and Reilly that his buddy in the mob had been rubbed out and the money had been lost. They became suspicious so the bouncer made a late-night call to Reilly and, disguising his voice, pretended to be a wiseguy who told the men to knock it off and not ask any questions.
 
A second attempt to find a partner reportedly failed when Calvin Boyd refused to do the job unless he was paid upfront.
 
Reilly got a friend, believed to be James Hardy, to do the job with him.
 
However, in 2007 the California Supreme Court issued an opinion that Hardy’s trial attorney failed to present evidence that Calvin Boyd went in his place. Boyd’s family gave him an alibi for the night of the murder (he was passed out drunk), and he was given immunity to testify against Reilly and Hardy.
 
In his appeals Hardy also claimed that Cliff Morgan was present.
 
On May 20, 1981, Reilly and an accomplice, long believed to Hardy, along with 18-year-old Debbie Sportsman and another woman, Collette Mitchell, spent the evening drinking and drugging together. Debbie later testified that the men left the apartment about 10 p.m. Collette, testifying under immunity, said she passed out and did not wake up until 11 a.m. the next morning, so she had no idea if or when the men left the flat.
 
On May 21, 1981, Jack Parsons was awakened by a ringing phone. Cliff Morgan was on the other end of the line. He was living in Carson City, Nevada, at the time for business reasons — although the police later surmised it might have been just to establish an alibi — and was worried because no one was answering the phone at his house across the street. Cliff asked his neighbor to check on his wife and son.
 
Parsons did so and although no one responded to his pounding on the door, saw nothing amiss. He reported this to Cliff, who then instructed Parsons to lift open a certain back window, reach inside, unlock the back door, and check the inside of the house. When Parsons returned he told Morgan, “You got to hang up right now. I got to call the police.”
 
The Van Nuys police arrived within minutes and discovered that someone had broken into the house through the front door, cutting the security chain with bolt cutters.
 
In the master bedroom of the home the cops found a bloodbath. Mitch had been sleeping along side his mother and had been stabbed more than 20 times. Nancy was dead beside him and had received more than 45 stab wounds all above the waist, indicating that someone was holding her legs while another person did the stabbing.
 
The police figure that Mitch was killed first because there were two assailants. One had to be holding Nancy while the other was killing her child. Not only did she know what was going to happen to her, she got to watch it happening to her son first.
 
Cliff arrived home about six hours after his conversation with Parsons. Although distraught, he managed to inform police that several guns had been stolen, as well as a coin collection that had been on top of a cabinet. Investigating officers, however, noticed that the cabinet was covered with a heavy layer of dust and there was no indication that any type of container had been on the cabinet recently. Cliff later told police he had discovered a diamond ring was also missing.
 
Outside the house was a large pile of vomit.
 
The case unraveled quickly.
 
The day after the murders police received a call from the parents of Debbie Sportsman. Because he was dating his daughter, Reilly was a frequent guest in their home. Mr. Sportsman recalled remarks Reilly made in April 1981 to the effect that he had a friend named Morgan who wanted to have his wife killed in order to collect on some insurance policies. Mrs. Sportsman, Debbie’s mother, recalled that Reilly said he would receive $25,000 if he could find a “hit man” to do the job. At the time, Mrs. Sportsman thought it was “just talk.”
 
Meanwhile, when Debbie read about the murders in the newspaper the next day, she became hysterical and went to Reilly’s apartment. She found him there with Hardy; Reilly was calm and both were laughing and drinking. Reilly told her to relax so people would not be suspicious. Without revealing the identity of his partner in crime, Reilly admitted to her that he had gone with another person to Morgan’s home and entered the house.
 
Reilly then blamed the other man for the killings.
 
Reilly said that when he heard Nancy Morgan pleading for her life, he went outside and became sick. His partner, who did the stabbing, emerged and told him that Nancy “just wouldn’t die.”
 
He encouraged Debbie to speak to Hardy and Colette to shore up their alibi stories and gave her a few $100 bills that he had received from Morgan.
 
Debbie went to work the next day but was too upset and left before noon. When she arrived at her house, Van Nuys detectives were waiting for her. During questioning she told them about Cliff’s desire to kill his wife but did not reveal her boyfriend’s role in the crime. After the interview, she told Reilly of the police inquiry.
He became upset and they went to a local park to talk. When she revealed that she told the police about Cliff, Reilly became livid.
 
“Debbie, you don’t understand,” he said. “If Cliff goes down, I go down.”
 
Reilly was questioned by police, but when they did not have enough to hold him, they let him go. Later he met with Debbie one last time and between gulps from a scotch bottle and through his tears, gave her the gruesome details of the crime.
 
The night of the killings, Reilly spoke with Morgan on the telephone and asked him if he wanted to go through with it. Morgan answered that he did. When Reilly asked what to do with Mitchell, Morgan said that if it was necessary, his son must also be killed.
 
Reilly admitted that he used bolt cutters to cut the chain. He said he stayed in the hallway while his co-killer entered the bedroom and stabbed Nancy with a fish knife. Reilly said he could hear Nancy crying and saying, “Please don’t kill me.” When the man emerged, he described how hard it was to kill her.
 
“The bitch wouldn’t die,” Hardy said.
 
Reilly said he became sick again. When Debbie asked about the slaying of Mitchell, Reilly admitted the boy was killed first. He demonstrated to his horrified girlfriend how Hardy grabbed the boy, kissed him on the forehead, said, “I’m sorry” and then began to stab him repeatedly with the stiletto.
 
Reilly then contradicted himself and implicated himself further by revealing that he was present when Nancy was butchered. As if he was seeking some sort of sympathy, Reilly told her, “you don’t know what it’s like to stab someone.”
 
Debbie’s feelings for Reilly quickly soured and she eventually went to police and told them everything she knew. Reilly was arrested and the booking officer noticed what appeared to be a bloodstain on the tip of Reilly’s shoe. He said it was blood that had leaked from a package of meat he had purchased. Later tests showed the stain was human blood.
 
Debbie’s confession that Reilly and Morgan had plotted together was corroborated by numerous other people:
 
Hardy was arrested soon after Reilly and reportedly asked Collette to help in the post-crime coverup. James HardyShe testified that Hardy, who was in jail awaiting trial, told her to have his brother, John Hardy, retrieve an M-1 carbine rifle from a friend’s apartment and dispose of it. Hardy told Colette that he obtained the rifle from Reilly and that because the rifle was stolen, they should neither show it to anyone nor handle it with their bare hands. The M-1 was one of the items Morgan told police had been stolen.
 
Later, on hearing the police had discovered a footprint at the Morgan home, Hardy reportedly asked Colette to retrieve and destroy a certain pair of boots in his closet. She complied, throwing the boots in a garbage can.
 
At his preliminary hearing she told the court that Hardy had been with her the entire night. However, during the more than 60 visits Collette made to Hardy while he awaited trial, he gave her inconsistent stories about his involvement, blaming everything on Reilly and denying that he had ever entered the house.
 
Reilly, Hardy, and Morgan were tried together and convicted. Reilly and Hardy received the death penalty. Hardy was eventually removed from death row after the California Supreme Court found that post-conviction evidence that Boyd went in his place established a claim of actual innocence. Boyd was given immunity by the state from prosecution for aiding and abetting before the crime.
 
Before Morgan was officially sentenced in September 1983, he died of bone cancer.
 
The fact that Morgan was not officially pronounced guilty complicated the case even further. Under normal circumstances, due to what is known as the “slayer rule,” a person cannot collect on any insurance policy that is paid as a result of murder committed by that person. However, under California law a person is not considered “guilty” until the judge accepts the jury verdict and pronounces formal guilt on the defendant. Because Morgan died before that occurred, the insurance company was obligated to pay the claim.
 
A battle for the $875,000 began between Nancy Morgan’s family and Cliff Morgan’s ex-wife and his four daughters. Under California law the ex-wife and the children were first in line for the money.
 
When the case was brought before Judge Robert D. Fratianne, he pronounced judgment against Morgan, likely clearing the way for Nancy’s family to receive the proceeds.
 
“If the law is going to close its eyes to a conviction (for) a brutal double murder,” the judge told the attorney for the ex-wife, “then I’m going to take this robe off and leave this bench.”
 
Fratianne declined to formally sentence the dead man to life in prison without possibility of parole, citing no precedent for such an act.
 
“Sentence has already been imposed on Mr. Morgan,” he said. “God is the avenger in this case.”