Still Seething Over His 1967 Crime, a California Town Fights Parole for Murderer William Fain

updated 06/06/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 01:00AM

On a summer night in 1967, a 22-year-old named William Archie Fain was cruising the back roads of California's San Joaquin Valley in search of a victim. Around midnight, he drove up behind the car of Mark Ulrich, 17, an Oakdale high school student who was taking two female classmates home from a graduation party. Flashing his headlights until Ulrich pulled over to the roadside, Fain killed him with a shotgun blast at point-blank range. Then he abducted and raped the girls. Four hours later Fain was arrested on the porch of his cousin's house nearby. The investigation revealed that he had had several previous brushes with the law and had received an undesirable discharge from the Marine Corps three years earlier. Convicted of Ulrich's murder and 11 other felonies, including the rape of a third woman, he was sentenced to death. After the verdict was overturned on a technicality, Fain was sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin.

It might have been just one more brutal crime briefly grabbing the headlines until the penitentiary doors clanged shut on the killer. But now, almost 16 years later, William Fain is the pivotal figure in a bitter dispute between the California justice system and citizens clamoring for harsher treatment of violent criminals. Twice in the past seven years, Fain has been ordered free on parole. Both times the people of Oakdale have protested his imminent release with such vehemence that the California parole board has rescinded its decision. Last month California Gov. George Deukmejian stepped into the controversy after the state appeals court ruled that public outcry was no reason for denying parole to Fain—a decision that could influence future parole appeals by such infamous California murderers as Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson. Deukmejian, who campaigned for the governorship in 1982 as "the state's No. 1 crime fighter," has ordered Fain to be kept in prison under an obscure and rarely Invoked law empowering the Governor to "revoke the parole of any prisoner."

The Governor's action is now under review by the state appeals court, and no one is more concerned with the outcome than those in Oakdale who remember Fain's crime. "He didn't care whether my son lived or died," says Lucile Ulrich. "Why should he be out on the streets in society after what he did to Mark and the two girls? He should stay in prison forever." County Supervisor Dan Terry explains: "We're not vigilantes and we don't have a hanging-tree philosophy about this. We want the punishment to fit the crime."

Oakdale's Keep Fain In Committee has already written legal history by making him the first California prisoner held past his proposed release strictly because of community pressure. Says Sally Goehring, Mark Ulrich's cousin and chairperson of the committee: "As a family we don't feel that 16 years for so many felonies is sufficient. Nor do we feel he is a safe risk to be put back on the streets. We don't want any other family to go through what we have gone through."

On the face of it, the state parole board's decision to free Fain in October 1976 was certainly nothing unusual. Though the California-born murderer had been in trouble with the law from the age of 14, by all official accounts he had reformed during his imprisonment at San Quentin. He became a born-again Christian, was cited as a model prisoner who got along well with other inmates, and displayed a "less than average" potential for violence, according to a psychiatrist.

Still, the Oakdale community (pop. 8,500) objected, with a petition bearing 22,000 signatures. Then resentment of the California parole board turned to fury when the Oakdale Leader published leaked transcripts of the board's 1975 hearing on Fain. The "Dynamite Minutes" revealed the panel was only sketchily informed on the case, had agreed to write off some of Fain's past crimes, including robbery and prison escape, and had downplayed the viciousness of the rape-murder. "The reaction was astonishment and outrage," recalls editor Stan Cook. "It got the ball rolling for the movement around here." The board admitted it was in error and backed down. When a second release date was set for January 1982, the anti-Fain group mobilized again. This time they picked up the ground swell of a nationwide trend against leniency for hardened criminals and a growing impatience with parole boards, which are perceived as being too quick to release such cases. The Oakdale committee again forced cancellation of Fain's parole, with 62,500 signatures and supporting resolutions from city councils, county supervisors and the state legislature.

The Fain case has already influenced the passage of tougher laws in California. As of November 1978, the minimum sentence for Fain's crime—first-degree murder with aggravated circumstances such as rape—is death or life imprisonment without parole. "People are demanding changes," says State Assemblyman Gary Condit, who pressed the Governor to use the 1913 statute to hold Fain in prison. "We have got to make the laws tougher so that this kind of situation will never recur."

In Oakdale there is a feeling that Fain has been neither rehabilitated nor made to pay sufficiently for what he did. "He's a brutal, vicious, cunning and premeditating individual," says Stanislaus County D.A. Donald Stahl, who believes that Fain "pervasively manipulated" the parole board by lying about or minimizing his offenses. "No one can say whether he'll kill again if he gets out, but he should be kept in prison for just retribution." California Board of Prison Terms Chairman Rudolph Castro admits: "I'm apprehensive. My personal view is that the man is being released too early."

Fain's lawyer, Robert Bell, maintains his client has been made a political scapegoat by Governor Deukmejian. "Statistics show that people in for similar crimes get out, on the average, after 10 years," claims Bell. "Fain has already served 16. He's made the most of his prison time, and we are confident that he's never going to be in trouble again." Such promises, of course, offer little solace to those whose lives were irrevocably shattered by that June night 16 years ago. "If he gets out, he'd better have God with him," says Mrs. Ulrich. "He's so well known all over California that he'll need all the help he can get."

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