REDWOOD CITY — A property manager accused of beating his elderly employers to death in their upscale Millbrae home was found guilty Friday of two counts of first-degree murder by a San Mateo County jury.
Joseph Cua, 54, of Burlingame, killed Fernand Wagner, a 78-year-old retired restaurateur and investor, and his wife, Suzanne, a 68-year-old hairstylist, on June 13, 2006. He bludgeoned the elderly couple to death, striking his victims a total of 76 times, according to prosecution witnesses.
Dressed in a neat, charcoal-gray suit Friday, Cua received the news of the verdict with the same equanimity he displayed throughout his four-week murder trial.
But members of the Wagners' family dissolved in tears as the clerk read the verdict from the six-man and six-woman jury, which found Cua guilty on both first-degree murder counts and a special circumstance for double homicide that makes him eligible for life in prison without parole.
"We've been living with the pain for two years," Nicole McDevitt, a niece of the Wagners, said outside of court. "Right now we just feel relief."
The jury took a little more than one full day to deliberate Cua's fate, according to forewoman Heather Harms. She said the quick decision resulted from evidence at the scene of the crime, referring to testimony that investigators had found Cua's blood and DNA in the Wagners' home.
Police arrived at the Wagners' house at 623 Lomita Ave. to find the couple on the floor drenched in blood, according to prosecutors. Fernand Wagner lay face-down on the floor. His wife lay on her back. She was naked from the waist down, and an incision had been made into her vagina, the prosecution said.
While the prosecution said Cua was the last person to see the Wagners alive, the defense argued during the trial that he happened upon their dead bodies and fled the scene after realizing he would be suspected of the murders.
Defense attorney Edward Pomeroy argued during the trial that two key factors presented a reasonable doubt that his client committed the crime: the presence of other individuals' DNA and a bloody footprint that didn't match the shoes that Cua had worn on the day of the murders.
The defense attorney said he would appeal the decision and explore filing a motion for a new trial.
Prosecutor Sean Gallagher said he was pleased with the quick verdict in a murder case that he told jurors revolved around money.
The prosecutors argued during the four-week trial that Cua had already embezzled more than $250,000 before he killed the couple.
The Wagners had begun to realize their employee's deceit days before they were murdered, and Cua beat them to death because he knew they had caught on to his embezzlement, Gallagher argued. Cua also believed that he would inherit even more money in the event of their death, the prosecutor said.
The "tragedy" of the murders became "pathetic and sad" because Cua, who once served as trustee for the Wagners' estate, no longer controlled the multi-million dollar real-estate investments that the couple had made on the Peninsula, Gallagher said outside of court Friday.
Cua was a "sociopath" who "lived a fantasy life detached from reality," the prosecutor added.
At the time of the murders, Cua had been leading "totally split lives" — a marriage in Southern California with a wife and daughter and a bachelor's life in the Bay Area with a steady girlfriend, according to Gallagher.
His only "legitimate" source of income — serving as property manager for the Wagners — earned him a small fraction of his "lavish" lifestyle, which left him with a monthly credit card bill of anywhere between $6,000 and $10,000, Gallagher said.
"He had been embezzling for years, and his whole lifestyle was based on the funds he was siphoning off," Harms said following the verdict. "If that was jeopardized, then his whole life would basically come crashing down."
"His whole life was a lie," added juror Zinta Zarins, who directs a choir in San Francisco. "All of that came into play (during the deliberation), but we always had to come back to the facts (of the crime) and not the fact that he's some shmuck."
Nonetheless, the jury's understanding of the case seemed to mirror the prosecution's argument that Cua was a pathological fraud who stole from his employers and killed them when his criminal scheme was about to unravel.
The only actual debate among the jurors was whether Cua had planned to murder the Wagners or was suddenly swept away by a murderous rage, according to Harm.
Only one juror initially doubted that Cua had committed murder in the first degree, and that individual quickly accepted the majority opinion after sleeping on the decision Thursday night, Harm said.
Cua is expected to return to court on Sept. 3 for sentencing. He remains in custody without bail.
Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at 650-348-4331 or email@example.com.