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Woman wins battle with dad's killer

GRANTS PASS ' Brandy Trotter hasn't found peace following the murder of her father, whose only mistake was trying to stop a neighbor from beating his wife.

But with a check for &

36;30,000 ' proceeds from the sale of properties the killer owned ' she has taken something back.

Two homes belonging to the killer were auctioned off recently in a sheriff's sale on a tree-shaded lawn next to the Butte County Sheriff's Office in Oroville, Calif., about 240 miles south of Medford. The proceeds cover part of a judgment Trotter won in a wrongful death suit against the killer.

It is not going to bring my dad home, but just knowing that he (the killer) doesn't have a home ' he doesn't have anything ' that's somewhat satisfying, she said.

Trotter's voice thickens and her eyes fill with tears as she recalls her dad, Thomas Trotter. Brandy, 20, now lives in Grants Pass.

— From sitting through the Oroville trial, listening as her father's violent end was laid out in clinical detail, she knows what happened. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Trotter was murdered because he tried to do the right thing.

When Thomas Trotter, 34, lived in the foothills east of Oroville, Dennis and Diana Oates were neighbors.

Dennis had a lengthy criminal record, mostly thefts, but he also had a history of violence toward his wife, Ramsey said.

Oates was convicted of spousal abuse and put on probation in early 1995. But he continued abusing Diana, who by then had already filed for divorce.

In a fateful incident, Thomas Trotter stopped Oates when he punched Diana and ordered him from the property, Ramsey said.

Oates convinced himself the two were having an affair.

There was no affair. Mr. Trotter was just a nice neighbor, Ramsey said.

Trotter agreed to testify at a probation hearing that would almost certainly put Oates back in jail.

Jealousy, fear and rage boiled in Oates, and on July 1, 1995, it exploded, Ramsey said. That's the day Thomas Trotter vanished.

An intense investigation proved to the court that Oates came to Trotter's home, shot him to death and dumped the weighted body into nearby Lake Oroville.

Brandy Trotter was 11 when Oates was captured in November 1995. She was 15 when the trial began.

The trial was hard for her, but something she had to do. Watching passively wasn't enough, though.

I had to do something, Trotter said. I couldn't just sit there. I had to let him know how I felt.

She wrote a letter and read it in court before Oates' sentencing.

I just told him he ruined my life, Trotter said. He took my father away from me.

(My father) won't be there for my first date. He won't be there for my high school graduation. He won't be there to walk me down the aisle. He won't be there to see his grandchildren.

(Oates) showed no expression on his face, she said. I think maybe he heard some of what I said, but not completely what I said.

Oates was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison with a 10-year add-on because he used a firearm.

But Trotter's grandparents, who also live in Grants Pass, wanted more for her. They wanted Oates to lose something tangible.

Getting a wrongful-death judgment in a civil court lawsuit was going to be easy against a convicted murder. Finding something to take away from Oates was another issue entirely.

Doug Jacobs, a long-time Chico attorney, took the case.

I gave up believing in the Easter Bunny a long time ago, Jacobs said. We didn't think we were going to get anything, but I wanted that judgment in place.

In April of 2000, Oates was ordered to pay Brandy &

36;750,000. But the ruling was largely meaningless.

It is bad business to take a case against somebody serving a life sentence, Jacobs said. You are beating your head against the wall.

Before Oates was imprisoned, he did have something valuable: two houses east of Oroville. But before Trotter's award, he signed the properties over to his estranged wife, Diana.

With three children of her own, Diana was moving forward on the divorce. With her husband in prison for life, the urgency to get things finished might have faded.

She was adamant about one thing ' Dennis Oates would never again get anything from her, and she said as much in her 1997 will.

Oates had no other assets, and with the property in Diana's name, Trotter's &

36;750,000 judgment was worthless.

Then fate stepped in yet again.

Out of gas and walking with a friend on a curvy, fog-shrouded road east of Oroville on Jan. 10, 2002, Diana was run over and killed while trying to flag down a car, police say.

Will or not, with no divorce in place, California law required that half of Diana's estate go to her husband. Oates now had something worth taking.

After two years of court wrangling, Brandy was given authority to sell the two properties at auction early this month. They sold at half their value for &

36;90,000. Half of that went to Diana's three children.

After Jacob's fee and other costs, Brandy's share came to &

36;30,000.

The money is not really going to do anything, Brandy said, adding she has no plans for the award.

I have mixed feelings, she admitted about her dad's killer. I feel sorry for him. I don't know how he was raised. I know nothing about his background. I'm disgusted about what happened and feel sorry for him.

But still the heartbroken daughter conceded, I hate him to a certain point.

It's taken extremely long for the process to go through. I'm glad it's over ' over as it can be.

Brandy Trotter of Grants Pass holds a picture of her father, who was killed in 1995 after trying to stop a neighbor from beating his wife. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell