Murder case against preacher abruptly dropped in mysterious 1981 California tribal slaying

A self-professed hitman-turned-preacher who was charged last year in the mysterious 1981 murders of a California tribal leader and two others was ordered released from custody Thursday after state prosecutors abruptly dropped charges against him.

The surprising twist in a case that has fascinated conspiracy theorists and private investigators for years came on the 29th anniversary of the day Cabazon tribal leader Fred Alvarez and his two friends were found shot to death in the backyard of his home in desert dunes 120 miles east of Los Angeles.

No arrests were made until last September, when preacher Jimmy Hughes was taken into custody as he sat on a Honduras-bound plane on a Miami runway. The 53-year-old was extradited to California, where he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy.

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy requested dismissal citing the quality of evidence and new information. Judge Dale Wells agreed.

"We have lost confidence in our ability to proceed with the prosecution of this case," Murphy told the judge.

Hughes' wife Jessica whispered a prayer of thanks as the judge ruled. Her husband did not appear to react.

"We really don't have to justify ourselves because it is God who justifies everything," Jessica Hughes said outside court.

Earlier, the daughter of victim Ralph Bolger read a statement accusing Murphy of mishandling the case and imploring the judge to keep Hughes, who lived in Honduras before his arrest, behind bars.

"Be advised that even if the court and the attorney general fail me and society today, I will not give up seeking the truth and justice for my dad," Rachel Begley told Hughes.

Hughes' attorney Rene Sotorrio said his client would not comment because the case was dismissed without prejudice, which means it could be refiled at a future date. He declined to say if Hughes was cooperating with prosecutors.

The state attorney general's office does not plan to file any more charges in the matter, Murphy said. He declined to comment further.

Detective John Powers, the lead sheriff's investigator, still believes Hughes is guilty and hoped to someday resubmit the case with new evidence.

"I'll resubmit the case every day, to anyone who'll be willing to hear it and take it to prosecution," he said. "I'm just trying to find out who that is."

The criminal complaint filed in September 2009 alleged that Hughes conspired with non-Indian tribal financial consultant John Philip Nichols, his son and others to prevent Alvarez from exposing illegal activities on the Cabazon Indian Reservation.

Alvarez, a former college football lineman with tattoos, long black hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, predicted his murder in conversations with local newspaper staff, The Associated Press previously reported. His motorcycle had been tampered with, his mailbox shot up and his house ransacked.

Some believe Alvarez had discovered money-skimming by outsiders helping the tiny Cabazon Band of Mission Indians manage its fledgling casino. Others suspect, however, that he had stumbled onto plans for a top-secret weapons deal on reservation land.

Witnesses and court documents diverge considerably, however, on whether a secret partnership between the Cabazon tribe and the private security firm Wackenhut Corp. was a deal to provide security services, build a munitions arsenal or sell weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras, a U.S.-backed rebel group.

A tribal history commissioned in 1995 also details various attempts to start weapons production but paints Alvarez as a trouble-maker who was involved in criminal activity. The tribe denies any involvement in his death.

The elder Nichols was at the heart of most of the Cabazons' negotiations and was pushing the tribe in directions Alvarez wasn't comfortable with, according to his family.

Nichols, who died in 2001, was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the criminal complaint against Hughes.

Powers, the lead homicide investigator, has said he has no proof Alvarez was aware of a possible deal with Wackenhut.

But Alvarez did want to oust Nichols from the reservation over concerns about money-skimming at the casino, which could have thwarted Nichols' plans for business deals on the reservation, including with Wackenhut, Powers said in 2009.

The Florida-based company signed a joint venture with the tribe to win government security contracts, but the partnership fizzled when it failed to get bids, former Wackenhut spokesman Patrick Cannan said last year. He said to his knowledge the deal did not involve weapons.

Two men in separate legal filings, however, allege the Cabazon-Wackenhut partnership was intended to sell weapons to the Contras. The idea was to develop night vision goggles, machine guns and biological and chemical weapons to support foreign entities, including the Contras, according to an affidavit filed in an unrelated case by a man named Michael Riconosciuto, who said he worked on the deal. He is now in federal prison on drug charges.

And people claiming CIA ties wanted the venture to develop machine guns at a "top secret" tribal facility for distribution to Nicaragua, said a second man, weapons manufacturer Robert Booth Nichols (no relation to John Philip Nichols). In civil court filings, he said he pulled out because Wackenhut didn't provide State Department approval.

In 1985, the elder Nichols was charged in a separate murder-for-hire plot foiled by police informants. He served 1½ years. Authorities were unable to connect that plot to the murders.