Antonio Rivera

Parents convicted of murdering daughter later found alive

When the body of a little girl was found near San Bernardino, California, in 1973, the authorities concluded that it was that of three-year-old Judy Rivera, whose parents had been suspected of killing her eight years earlier.

When the parents, Antonio Rivera and Merla Walpole, went on trial in March 1973, they told a sad story: In 1965, Antonio was unable to support the family, and Judy was seriously ill. In desperation, Antonio and Merla decided to abandon the child, in the hope that she might receive the care she needed. So that she could not be traced back to them, they drove to San Francisco and left her at a filling station, where, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the next day, the little girl was found. The jury didn?t believe them, however, returning a verdict of guilty.

Before sentencing, however, Judge Thomas M. Haldorsen set aside the verdict, ordered a new trial, and directed the prosecution to investigate the defendants? claim. In October 1975, Timothy Martin, an investigator for the district attorney, located the little girl who had been left in San Francisco a decade earlier. Now thirteen, she strongly resembled Antonio and Merla. After blood tests and comparisons of bone formations indicated she in all likelihood was their daughter, the prosecution dropped the charges. The body found in 1973 was never identified.

Case Chronology

January 16, 1965 — A little girl believed to be about age three is abandoned at a filling station in San Francisco, California.

February 1, 1973 — The decomposed body of a battered child is found in a shallow grave near Fontana, San Bernardino County, California.

June 3, 1974 — Former spouses Antoni0 Rivera, thirty-seven, and, Merla Walpole, thirty-five, are charged with the murder of their daughter, Judy, who had disappeared in 1965 when she was three years old.

March 1975 — A San Bernardino Superior Court jury finds Rivera and Walpole guilty of second-degree murder following a trial at which Rivera and Walpole contended that they abandoned their daughter at a San Francisco filling station in 1965 because she was seriously ill and they could not care for her.

April 28, 1975 — Superior Court Judge Thomas Haldorsen sets aside the guilty verdict and directs the prosecution to investigate the Rivera-Walpole claim that they left their daughter in San Francisco.

November 22, 1975 — Judge Haldorsen dismisses the charges against Rivera and Walpole after Timothy Martin, an investigator for the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office, locates the child who had been abandoned in 1965 and after blood tests indicate that she is their child.

Case Data

Crime date: Presumably 1965
Jurisdiction: San Bernardino County, California
Crime: Murder
Defendants: Antonio Rivera and Merla Walpole
Age (at time of presumed crime): Antonio, 27; Merla, 25
Gender: Antonio, M; Merla, F
Ethnicity: Latino
Arrest date: June 3, 1974
Victim: Presumably Judy Rivera
Victim’s gender: Female
Victim’s ethnicity: Latino
Age: 3
Principal evidence of defendant’s guilt: Decomposed body of a battered child, presumed to be Judy Rivera, found on February 1, 1973, near Fontana in San Bernardino County.
Principal defense: Defendants testified that they had abandoned Judy on January 16, 1965, in San Francisco because she was ill and they were unable to care for her
Type of trial: Jury
Conviction date: April 1975
Convicted of: Second-degree murder
Sentence: Pending when conviction was set aside
Stage at which conviction exoneration occurred: Following jury verdict
Exonerated by: Discovery of Judy Rivera alive and well in San Francisco
Release date: September 22, 1975
Days of incarceration: 476
Prior record: Unknown
Compensation: None

— Rob Warden