When Wickedness Met Evil

Here’s a question to ponder while waiting for the traffic light to change: Did working with violent youths make Greg Dickens evil or was he a depraved individual who naturally gravitated to bad kids because he could shape them as he saw fit?
 
It’s an academic exercise only, because the bottom line is that Greg Dickens is a malefactor of the worst order and just when he turned bad isn’t that important after all. His is simply a story of what happens when wickedness meets malevolence. As usual, innocent people died.
 
In 1990, Dickens was working as a counselor at a placement center for youthful offenders in Temecula, California when he met 14-year-old Travis Amaral. Dickens was a pedophile who enjoyed trading sexual services from his young friends in return for lavish gifts: One piece of evidence was a “contract” between Dickens and another youth for a $1,700 car in return for a “total body massage.”
 
Dickens’s relationship with Amaral was cemented when in September 1991, Amaral contacted Dickens in Yuma, Arizona, and told him he was running away. Dickens bought Amaral a bus ticket to Yuma, and over burgers the pair discussed their financial woes.
 
The best way to solve them, according to Amaral’s subsequent testimony, was to plan and commit a robbery. They flipped a coin to decide who would commit the first crime and Amaral “won.” He opted to commit the crime at a highway rest stop.
 
The two would-be robbers headed east out of town on Interstate 8 and stopped on the eastbound rest stop outside town. Once there, they waited three hours until the opportunity was right. It was shortly after 9 p.m. when Bryan and Laura Bernstein pulled into the westbound rest area.
 
Taking a .38-caliber revolver from Dickens, Amaral sprinted across the freeway. According to the teen, he also carried a walkie-talkie while Dickens kept the other in his truck.
 
The twenty-something couple had pulled into the quiet rest area to get a little sleep, and was unprepared when Amaral approached them and asked the time. He then produced the gun and demanded Bryan’s wallet, which he surrendered. Turning to Laura, he asked for her wallet, but she said she didn’t have one.
 
At this point, Amaral and Dickens disagree as to what happened next. According to Amaral, Dickens, through the walkie-talkie, said “No witnesses.”
 
“What do you mean by no witnesses. If I kill them, there are no witnesses,” Amaral testified that he responded. “If I leave them here, there are witnesses.”
 
According to Amaral, Dickens again replied, “No witnesses.”
 
At that point, Amaral shot Laura Bernstein in the head, killing her instantly. He turned the gun on Bryan, who was crouching over his wife and fired.
 
Dickens meanwhile was driving over the median and into the rest area. He picked up Amaral and they fled the scene.
 
Bryan Bernstein was discovered semiconscious next to his dead wife by a deputy sheriff about 20 minutes after the attack. He was unable to provide any information before he died.
 
The killers burned the evidence of the robbery after removing cash, traveler’s checks and a single credit card, which Amaral unsuccessfully tried to use at a Yuma K-Mart the day following the murders. After spending a last night together, they split up, with Amaral returning to his mother’s home and Dickens fleeing to Carlsbad, California.
 
Meanwhile, the Bernstein murder investigation went cold, as there were no clues or leads for investigators to follow.
 
Nearly six months after the murders, police got their first break in the case when Amaral ran away from home again and ended up at Dickens’s San Diego apartment. Amaral’s mother reported her son to police as a runaway, and when he was located, authorities charged Dickens with sexually abusing Amaral and other young men, as well as assault with a deadly weapon.
 
In the course of investigating Dickens’s sexual crimes, Amaral told police he and Dickens were involved in a double homicide in Yuma, Arizona.
 
As Dickens realized the depth of the trouble he was in, he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He was taken to a local hospital with relatively minor injuries, and while he was there, he was interrogated by police. He later tried to claim the hospital interrogation was involuntary despite evidence that he told authorities he felt “in control of his thoughts and understood what he was saying.”
 
Dickens later claimed that blood loss from his suicide attempt clouded his mind.
 
In his conversation with police, he told a different version of events than Amaral. According to Dickens, he and Amaral were at the eastbound rest area because he was having trouble with his truck when Amaral decided that they could make some money by robbing people. Suddenly the teen ran across the highway and robbed and killed the Bernsteins.
 
Dickens told police when he saw the muzzle flashes he started driving back to Yuma (in a broken-down truck?) without his friend, but when he saw Amaral running after the truck, he stopped and picked him up.
 
“I didn’t leave any witnesses,” Amaral reportedly told him.
 
Two weeks before Dickens went to trial, Amaral agreed to a plea deal in return for his testimony against his former abuser. He wavered however, on his willingness to testify, and as a result, did not testify during the prosecution’s case-in-chief.
 
After Dickens placed most of the blame for the murders on Amaral, the teen reversed course again and agreed to testify in return for the state not seeking the death penalty against him. The prosecution moved to reopen its case to present Amaral’s testimony, and the judge granted the motion, giving Dickens’s attorney one week to prepare for Amaral’s testimony.
 
Amaral was sentenced to 55 years in prison for his role in the murders and although Dickens was acquitted of the murder and robbery charges, the jury convicted him of felony murder and sentenced him to death.
 
He is currently awaiting execution on Arizona’s death row.