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Spoilt rich kid 'hired hitman to kill parents'

THEY were murders of the Nineties, designed to defeat the latest detection techniques; crimes so meticulous that the assassin apparently shaved his entire body, except for his lashes and brows, to eliminate the risk of shedding a hair.

Even then, the alleged killer is claimed to have boasted, he sat on a plastic sheet as he waited for his victims inside their large Californian home. If prosecutors are to be believed, Joel Radovcich sat there for 12 hours, cradling his assault rifle until the return in the late afternoon of his best friend's parents, Dale Ewell, a millionaire businessman, his wife, Glee, and their 24-year-old daughter, Tiffany.

It was Easter Sunday. The Ewells had spent the weekend at their beach house on the Pacific coast. The women were the first back. They had not even unloaded their suitcases from their Jeep before they were shot dead.

More than half an hour later, Mr Ewell's Lincoln Continental pulled up at the ranch-style house. He had flown back by light aircraft, such was his fear that the family would die together in a car crash. He was felled by a single bullet to the back of the head.

California is no stranger to the coupling of murder and wealth - witness the trials of OJ Simpson and the Menendez brothers, and the crimes of Charles Manson. But those are big-city, Hollywood affairs. The murder of the Ewell family happened in Fresno, the quiet, unglamorous commercial centre of the fertile San Joaquin Valley. It shook the place to its roots. Especially when everyone found out who was accused of hiring the hitman: Ewell's only son and the heir to his $8m (pounds 5m) fortune, Dana.

Once again, Americans face the proposition that parricide flows not only from poverty and despair, but also from the hearthside of the privileged, the spoilers of children. John Souza, the detective who spent three years pursuing Dana Ewell and Radovcich with such doggedness that his colleagues called him "Columbo", said: "Look at these rich kids. They think their parents owe them, that they can have everything without doing anything."

Guilty or not, few dispute that Dana Ewell, 24, has everything - or at least he did, until he was arrested and flung in Fresno County Jail on triple murder charges. There was a Mercedes 190, which his father immediately replaced with an identical model after he wrote it off. There were Armani suits and an $800-a-month allowance when he was still at high school.

His 59-year-old father ran an aircraft dealership; his mother, 57, was a bastion of civic life, a popular local worthy who immersed herself in charity work.

When they were killed, rumours circulated that it was a professional "hit". Glee Ewell had worked in the 1950s as a translator for the CIA. But investigators soon switched their attention to Dana and his close friendship with Radovcich, the son of a Lockheed engineer, who became Dana's room-mate at Santa Clara University.

Police claim that Dana Ewell, who reportedly has an IQ of 180 and a business degree, was obsessed with money, so much so that he had a picture on his wall of Michael Milken, the disgraced junk bond king. He corresponds with Joe Hunt, a convicted killer who used to head the so-called Billionaire Boys Club, a group of wealthy young Californians who became involved in an investment scheme which ended in two murders.

He had a tendency to make up stories: at 19, he gave an interview in which he claimed to be a teenage mogul who had an aviation business and dealt in mutual funds. He even acquired "EWELL CO" number plates for his gold-coloured Mercedes.

A preliminary hearing is set for tomorrow. As the two young men - who have both pleaded not guilty - prepare for their trial later this year, the thrust of the prosecution case is becoming clear. Dana Ewell has an alibi: when the killings happened, he was 200 miles away with a friend and her father, an FBI agent.

The accused only ever conversed by using call-boxes. This precaution did not prevent detectives from recording a conversation in which they claim Radovcich is heard saying to someone: "I don't want no f---ing stock options. One quarter of a million and I want it now. I want to go round the world."

Detectives obtained a court order allowing them to acquire a clone of Radovcich's beeper, intercepting his messages. Before long, they noticed something about the pager number. Translated into letters, it read KILLA- J-R. "A little odd, don't you think?" said Detective Souza.