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Cleaves Found Guilty of Road Rage Murder

By Teresa Rochester

A jury Thursday found Robert Weldon Cleaves, 71, guilty of second degree murder for the gruesome dragging death of a Culver City man on a street in Ocean Park.

The verdict, which included an additional charge of using a dangerous or deadly weapon, comes five days after the prosecution and defense rested their cases in the Sept. 30, 1998 killing of 38-year-old Arnold Guerriero.

"It doesn't matter to me whether or not it's first degree murder or second as long
as he can never get behind the wheel of an automobile for the rest of his life," said Dawn Merrill-Guerriero, the victim's widow. "Nothing the law can do will give us what we most want - Arnie back. But hopefully we will have prevented others from engaging in road rage."

The trial, which got under way with jury selection on Feb. 28, included six days of often graphic testimony from a stream of witnesses who saw parts of the incident -- which began as a traffic argument between the occupants of Guerriero's car and Cleaves on Main Street -- unfold.

Both the prosecution and defense agreed that Cleaves, a Venice resident, plowed into Guerriero with his Ford Maverick and then dragged him the length of a football field.

Assistant District Attorney District Attorney Ralph Shapiro argued that the former bit-part actor intended to kill Guerriero and that he acted not in self-defense but malice. Defense attorney William Pitman argued that his client never intended to hit Guerriero, but that he was trying to flee from the 300-pound man out of fear.

The 12-member jury had been given an extensive list of instructions and potential charges ranging from first degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. Cleaves had pleaded not guilty to the charge of first degree murder with special circumstances of torture. Shapiro said he felt the jury's ultimate decision was just.

"The jury instruction that had to do with premeditation is a very complex instruction," Shapiro said. "I don't fault the jury at all.…Their decision is justified based on the facts of the case and the instructions."

The argument between Cleaves and the occupants in Guerriero's car began when Guerriero was unable to get around Cleaves' car, which was stopped in the middle of the lane, witnesses said. When Cleaves did not pull over or drive on, Guerriero pulled his car in front of Cleaves' car, and the men in Guerriero's car began to taunt the former actor. Cleaves returned the insults and followed Guerriero's car for several blocks.

When Guerriero got out of his car to confront Cleaves, witnesses said the elderly man gunned his battered light blue Ford Maverick, slammed into Guerriero and drove south on Third Street with Guerriero clinging to the hood.

Cleaves allegedly hit his breaks and Guerriero slid under the car and became lodged on the axle. Cleaves took off down Marine Street, dragging Guerriero for the length of a city block before the man was dislodged and left in the intersection of Marine and Second streets. Cleaves turned himself into police a short time later.

Cleaves faces a sentence of 15 years to life with an additional year because he found guilty for using a dangerous or deadly weapon - his car. He will be sentenced on April 12.

Guerriero's widow, Dawn, has launched an on-line anti-road rage campaign at http://www.stoproadragenow.com

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