Widow must prove arson officer was on duty when killed to collect benefits

November 14, 1990|By Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, CALIF — SANTA ANA, Calif. -- For the past four years, Carolyn Donelson has sought compensation from Orange County for the slaying of her husband, a Fire Department arson investigator shot while on duty.

But to qualify for nearly $750,000 in death benefits, she first must prove that her husband died in the line of duty.

The main obstacle: Dennis Donelson, a 19-year Orange County Fire Department veteran, was slain in another woman's bedroom, dressed only in his underwear.

"He was on duty that night," insisted Carolyn Donelson, a grocery store clerk from Seal Beach. "Would it have been any different if he had been shot at a Taco Bell eating a burger?"

Her attorney, J. Barry Moses, will make a final plea for Mrs. Donelson and her 13-year-old daughter next month to the Orange County Employees Retirement System's board of retirement for service-related benefits.

A county-appointed hearing officer, who has heard arguments in the case, is recommending that the board deny the benefits.

The hearing officer, board members, their attorney and the retirement system administrator have declined repeated requests for comment on the case. The next hearing on Mrs. Donelson's case is scheduled Dec. 10.

"Assuming he made a mistake, Dennis paid the ultimate price," Mr. Moses said. "But it seems they are visiting [his] sins on the wife and daughter. It doesn't seem fair to me."

The night of Oct. 4, 1986, Mr. Donelson was called to the San Juan Capistrano condominium of Barbara Clark, who believed an ex-boyfriend had started a fire there. The blaze

destroyed all her possessions.

Ms. Clark said she wanted Mr. Donelson to meet the former boyfriend in the hope that he would share her suspicion.

About 1:30 a.m., according to police, the ex-boyfriend, K. C. Janulaitis, appeared at the condominium and began firing a handgun through an open bedroom window. Ms. Clark was hit and critically injured. Mr. Donelson was killed.

The next day, Mr. Janulaitis, 42, a computer programmer, was gunned down by U.S. Customs agents after he pulled a pistol at the San Ysidro border crossing.

"We are not blind," said Mr. Moses, a friend of Mr. Donelson's. "We understand there could have been an act of indiscretion that night. But look what [Mr. Donelson] has done. He was shot by the [suspected] arsonist he was investigating."

To win the case, Mr. Moses must prove that Mr. Donelson -- who was on a 24-hour shift at the time of his death -- died "in the course and scope" of his employment.

Rather, the hearing officer determined that when Mr. Janulaitis knocked on Ms. Clark's door several hours before the shooting, Mr. Donelson had ample time to assess Mr. Janulaitis and could have left then, Mr. Moses said.

Earlier this year, Mrs. Donelson attempted to collect Mr. Janulaitis' $1.1 million homeowner's insurance policy. She and Ms. Clark both sued for insurance coverage under his policy, saying Mr. Donelson's death and Ms. Clark's injuries fell within the accident coverage. Mr. Janulaitis was so emotionally overwrought that he was not in control of his actions, making the shootings accidental, Mrs. Donelson and Ms. Clark argued.

But an Orange County jury ruled that the shooting was willful, and no insurance funds were paid.

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