Johnny Volpato Trials: 1981 & 1986

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Johnny Volpato Trials: 1981 & 1986

Defendant John S. "Johnny" Volpato
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Dick A. Blenden
Chief Prosecutor: Ernest Carroll
Judge: Bill Sadler
Place: Carlsbad, New Mexico
Dates of Trials: First Trial: September-October, 1981; Second Trial: October 1986
Verdict: First Trial: Guilty; Second Trial: Not guilty
Sentence: First Trial: life with no parole for 30 years

SIGNIFICANCE: Witnesses whom police ignored in the first trial testified during the second trial with an entirely different outcome. Still, the question remains among the people of Carlsbad: Is Johnny Volpato guilty or innocent of murdering his wife?

Shortly before midnight on February 5, 1980, Johnny Volpato pulled up to The Corner Drugstore, which he owned, in downtown Carlsbad. Sitting beside him in his late-model Datson was his 36-year-old wife, Elaine. The after-hours drugstore run wasn't unusual for the pharmacist, father of two, and rising local political star. Volpato often opened his drug store at all hours to fill customers' emergency prescriptions. In fact, he even ran ads in the local newspaper with his home phone number so that he could be reached at any time.

A Robbery Gone Wrong or a Planned Murder?

On this night Volpato had received such an emergency call at home around 11 o'clock. Elaine allegedly decided to accompany him since she needed a few things from the drug store. Soon after the two walked inside, someone knocked on the front door. Volpato answered. An Hispanic man came inside and, as he asked for his prescription, pulled out a gun.

At this moment, Elaine came from the back of the drugstore, saw the gun, screamed, then ran down a back hallway toward the back door. The gunman shot her. The 43-year-old Volpato ran to the phone and as he dialed 911, the gunman also fired at him. A second man entered, and he and the gunman filled a box with drugs and fled. As Volpato crawled toward the front door he collapsed. He was wounded in his hand and shoulder.

Emergency personnel rushed the pharmacist to Dallas for emergency surgery; Elaine died. Autopsy reports concluded she was shot four times, twice in her chest and twice in the back.

At first, the folks of Carlsbad rallied around the injured and grieving Volpato. No one seemed to doubt his story that robbers had killed his wife and left him for dead. After all, in the years since he had graduated from the University of New Mexico's pharmacy school in 1961, the father of two had become a social and political pillar in the small desert town. The meticulously dressed, well-spoken Volpato served on the city council, participated in community affairs, and even dispensed free medicine to those in need. The Corner Drugstore became the gathering spot for Carlsbad's movers and shakers.

A Troubled Marriage

But Johnny Volpato had a wild side. Beyond the duties of his drugstore, his family, and his political career, Volpato spent long, boozy hours in Carlsbad's nightspots with his pals. His womanizing exploits became well known, even to Elaine. Not long before her death, Volpato walked out on his wife. She filed for divorce. But after a year of separation, Volpato convinced her to give the marriage another try, and he moved back into their fashionable home on the Pecos River. The Volpatos appeared to be a happy couple again. Still, ugly rumors of Johnny's marital infidelities persisted.

By the time Volpato returned home from his Dallas hospital stay, local police had tough questions for him. Why had the robbers only wounded Johnny in the hand and shoulder, yet shot the fleeing Elaine four times, twice from behind, and strangely, twice from the front? Where was Johnny's own Colt 38 revolver, a gun like the one used to kill Elaine? Why couldn't he produce it for police? Was the popular pharmacist trying to avoid a costly and embarrassing divorce by murdering his wife?

A search of the Volpato home yielded a bullet that proved similar to the bullets lodged in Elaine's body. Careful inspection of The Corner Drugstore revealed a small niche under a wooden staircase, where police believed Volpato could have hidden the Colt 38. Splintered wood suggested that Volpato later pried the gun from its hiding place and disposed of it.

A year after Elaine's death, police arrested Volpato, charging him with first-degree murder. The news divided the people of Carlsbad into warring factions: You were either for Johnny Volpato or against him.

In his trial, Volpato took the stand to claim police framed him. He called the trial a "political execution" maneuvered by the same people who had once befriended him. Prosecutor Ernest Carroll presented a circumstantial case. He described what he termed "silent witnesses," including the incriminating bullets found in Volpato's home, the coroner's report revealing how Elaine died, and the break-up of his marriage.

The jury debated 20 hours before returning a guilty verdict on October 8, 1981. Volpato was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 30 years.

New Witnesses Testify in Second Trial

Volpato appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which in 1985 granted a new trial. An expanded defense team presented three new witnesses in Volpato's second trial in 1986.

One witness, Delores Looney, testified that she saw two men outside The Corner Drugstore at around midnight on the night Elaine Volpato was murdered. As she continued in her car down the street, she said she heard a sound that she later concluded was gunfire. She testified that she had not gone to police because she was afraid of repercussions against her son, who had troubles with the law.

Two nurses who worked at a nearby hospital also testified that they saw two men running from Volpato's drugstore on the night of the murder. They said at the time that they were sure they had witnessed a robbery and reported their suspicions to police. They said police did not take their report seriously. The prosecution countered that, after six years, these new witness accounts were not credible.

The jury apparently thought they were. On October 31, 1986, they found Johnny Volpato not guilty of murdering of his wife. Back in Carlsbad, townsfolk still aren't so sure.

B. J. Welborn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Transcript, City Confidential: Carlsbad. A&E Home Video. 1996.