It has been 28 years since Gina French’s husband, Jay, was shot to death, but the emotions are still raw.
Jay was 27 years old, a father of a young son who bore his name. And unbeknownst to both her and her husband, Gina said she was also pregnant with Jay’s second child.
But Jay was brutally murdered Jan. 5, 1984, shot in the back in the South Pasadena apartment where he both lived and worked as a maintenance man.
Before Jay died, he whispered clues to the identity of his killer, clues Gina and the French family say all pointed to one man–then 27-year-old Frank O’Connell.
But the former football standout during the entire 27 years he spent behind bars. And in March, a Pasadena judge found faults with the evidence of O’Connell’s original murder trial and overturned his 1985 conviction. He was released on $75,000 bail April 24 to the fanfare of media and supportive family and friends.
But French family members say O’Connell’s release opened old wounds that never really healed. Despite newly uncovered evidence O’Connell’s defense say will exonerate him, the French family still remain convinced it was O’Connell who pulled the trigger.
“Watching Frank get released was like Jay getting shot all over again,” said Jay’s sister Judy Baker.
‘Out on a Technicality’
Jay French’s family described him as a happy-go-lucky, charismatic young man who valued the importance of family. Gina recalls family outings going water skiing on the lake and winters riding ATV’s.
But Jay was embroiled in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife Jeanne Lyon over their son Jay Jr. Family members all point to Lyon as the instigator, someone who seemed to actively plot to gain custody of her son.
Gina claims Lyon kidnapped Jay Jr. on numerous occasions, forcing Jay Sr. to track down Lyon and his son.
Gina also claims Lyon made numerous threats on her ex-husband’s life.
“We all knew Jeanne was capable of doing something horrible,” said Gina. “It was just a matter of when.”
Then, on Jan. 5, 1984, at around 1 p.m., Jay was fatally shot. Gina and family members rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. Jay was gone.
Although Jay had been shot in the back, he was able to catch a glimpse of his murderer.
In his dying words, he described the yellow Ford Pinto he saw his shooter get away in. He didn’t know his name, but Jay recognized him as someone he had seen with his ex-wife.
Later, two eyewitnesses would pick O’Connell, who had briefly lived with Lyon, in a police lineup. One eyewitness claimed to have recalled O’Connell asking for a jumpstart on a yellow Pinto.
“How could two separate eyewitnesses pick Frank out in a lineup? They didn’t know Frank or ever seen him before the murder, but they picked him,” said Gina. “Frank is guilty by association. We all know Jeanne had a hand in this and Frank was involved with Jeanne.”
O’Connell claims his involvement with Lyon was purely platonic, and that he stopped living with her and all contact with her six months before the murder.
“The officers tried to say I had this love relationship with this woman and it was nothing like that,” said O’Connell. “She offered me a place to stay and I lived there. We didn’t have this boyfriend –girlfriend thing, it was just a convenience.”
One of the two main eyewitnesses in the case has since passed away, while the other recanted his testimony.
Still, the French family doesn’t buy the new evidence, or O’Connell’s claim of having three alibis at the time of the murder.
On the day O’Connell’s conviction was overturned, family members rallied at the courthouse wearing ribbons and photos of Jay and his son.
“Frank got out on a technicality but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent,” said Baker. “Nobody proved him innocent.”
“I feel sorry for what [O’Connell] went through in prison, but there’s no one else to point the finger at,” said Gina. “The person [Jay] had after him was Jeanne and Frank hung with Jeanne.”
Lyon, the woman both the French family and O’Connell implicate with involvement in the shooting, has since disappeared to Oregon after Jay’s murder. She was never tried or convicted in Jay’s murder, a point the French family say they don’t understand.
“I was glad the person who did it got caught, but the person who caused it wasn’t caught,” said Gina. “Frank was a pawn in [Lyon’s] little game. He may have done the deed, but she was the ringleader.”
O’Connell, who is making plans to move to Colorado to live closer to his son, said he is disappointed the French family continue to implicate him in Jay’s death.
“I’d like to sit and talk to them if they wish,” said O’Connell. “I wish they’d take a look at the transcripts, evidence and all the documentation – not just what’s presented in court – so they can see for themselves that I’m innocent. I didn’t kill their son.”
Gina French admits she never researched the evidence beyond what was relayed in court, but she feels she doesn’t need to.
, Gina said she hopes there will be justice for her husband.
“Frank gets released, where’s Jay? If he gets released then I want Jay to be replaced,” said Gina. “Frank went out and has gotten remarried and has stepchildren. Jay couldn’t watch his children grow up. What makes [Frank] think the 27 years in prison made up for what he did to Jay and my family? Jay’s family is still suffering. My son will never know his father.”
Baker echoed her sister-in-law’s heartache.
“I have nothing to say, I’m emotionally numb,” said Baker. “I just can’t believe there’s not going to be any accountability for my brother’s death.”