Bill Macumber Freed Decades After Claiming Ex-Wife Framed Him for 1962 Arizona Double Murders

Did Wife Frame Husband for Arizona Cold Case Murders?PlayArizona State Corrections
WATCH Man Freed Decades Later, Still Denies Ariz. Double Murders

Bill Macumber, a convicted felon who spent almost four decades in prison for two murders he claimed his ex-wife framed him for, still denies he committed the crimes and said he "never lost hope" he would be granted his freedom.

"Justice however late is still justice," a teary-eyed Macumber told reporters at a press conference in Phoenix shortly after being released from prison. "When I was first questioned in 1974, I made the statement of innocence 10,000 times since, and I will take that statement to the grave."

The 77-year-old Macumber, who had no history of violence and has long maintained his innocence, was convicted in the 1970s in one of the most sensational murder cases in the history of Arizona. Macumber was twice sentenced to life in prison for killing Joyce Sterrenberg and Tim McKillop, both 20 years old, and leaving their bodies in the desert.

After years of missing out on weddings and the birth of grandchildren, on Tuesday Macumber entered a plea of no contest for two counts of second-degree murder in Maricopa County Superior Court under an agreement with prosecutors and received a sentence of time served, securing his freedom. Although the victims' family asked Judge Bruce Cohen to deny his request, prosecutors said they couldn't pursue a third trial because key evidence had been destroyed or lost.

Macumber has spent decades trying to clear his name. His son, Ron Kempfert, and the Arizona Justice Project have been advocating for his release for years, saying that Ron's mother, Carol Kempfert, framed him and that another man committed the murders.

When Carol Kempfert first heard the news that her ex-husband was set free, she was in disbelief.

"It took me a while to process that they would let him out," she told ABC News in an exclusive interview. "After the second hearing with the parole board, when they said that they didn't believe that I had framed him and sent him back to jail, I thought that was it and all of a sudden he's out."

Kempfert said she passed four lie detector tests when she was questioned by police and maintains that she never tampered with evidence. Despite the court granting Macumber's request, Kempfert said that doesn't prove her ex-husband's innocence and closure for her would have meant he stayed in prison.

"I knew what happened, I was there, and I know he committed them," she said. "I would have to think that I was crazy, and I'm not. I did not frame him, and he did admit it to me and he did do it, and the evidence was there."

"They need to know they just let a murderer loose," she continued. "I feel sorry for the [victims'] families because I know they were unhappy with this, and all I can tell them is I did my best and it just didn't work, and I'm sorry for that."

On May 24, 1962, Sterrenberg and McKillop were found shot and killed next to their car in an area now near Scottsdale. The case went cold for 12 years until Macumber's wife, Carol Kempfert, went into the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office department where she worked and told her supervisors that her husband had confessed to the murders. Macumber was arrested a week later.

In 1975, Kempfert testified against her now ex-husband, again saying that he confessed. During the trial, three pieces of evidence allegedly had been collected by investigators at the scene and were also presented: a .45 automatic pistol, a lifted palm print and bullet casings, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's office. At the time, prosecutors argued that the physical evidence linked Macumber to the murder scene.

Bill Macumber

That year, Macumber was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to two concurrent life terms. After successfully appealing his convictions, Macumber was retried in 1977 and again found guilty and sentenced to two life terms.

Despite having spent the last 37 years in prison for a crime he said he didn't commit, Macumber said he harbors no resentment.

"I don't know who I have to forgive," he said. "The jury did the only thing they could have done... I have a lot of questions, unfortunately the people who can give me the answer are all dead."

Ron Kempfert was overjoyed when his father walked out of prison.

"We just hugged each other," he said. "There was nothing to be said. It's what we have been waiting for for so long."

Kempfert, now 44, told "Nightline" in 2010 he had no doubt of his father's conviction until the Arizona Justice Project, an organization that works to free prisoners they decide could be innocent, approached him in 2003 and told him they believed his mother framed his father for the murders.

After recovering from the initial shock, Kempfert said he started to untangle what his mother had told him over the years, and slowly the possibility that his father was innocent began to make sense to him. He told "Nightline" he eventually came to believe that his mother had a powerful motive: Around the time she turned her husband into police, Carol Kempfert and Macumber's marriage was falling apart. At the time, she was working in the sheriff's office, where she had access to evidence from the cold case murder, and she had recently taken classes in lifting fingerprints.

Today, Kempfert maintains that she did not frame her husband.

"I passed four polygraphs and I'll be happy to take another, but I did not tamper with any evidence," she said.

But adding fuel to Ron's belief that his father was innocent, a man named Ernsesto Valenzuela allegedly confessed to three different people that he had committed the murders -- evidence the jury at Macumber's trial never was able to hear.

After Valenzuela died in prison in 1973, his former defense attorney, Tom O'Toole, came forward with his client's confession but the judge ruled it unreliable hearsay, reported The New York Times. O'Toole said attorney-client privilege kept him from presenting Valenzuela's confession until after his death.

"I believe [Valenzuela] told me about committing those murders because he got pleasure in committing those kinds of crimes and he relished it," O'Toole said. "He analogized shooting one of those people to it being like shooting a rabbit... he was thriving on it, he loved it."

Over the course of his time in prison, Macumber and his attorneys petitioned the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency unsuccessfully three times. But when they petitioned a fourth time in 2009, the board unanimously recommended his sentence be commuted, a rare move, saying, "An injustice has been done in Mr. Macumber's case" and that his wife had "motive, means and opportunity to falsely pin the murders on Mr. Macumber."

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer denied the recommendation for clemency.

In 2011, Macumber petitioned the Maricopa County Superior Court for post-conviction relief and was granted an evidentiary hearing. On Tuesday, prosecutors said in court they were unable to retry the case for a third time without the necessary evidence.

Regarding Carol Kempfert, her son Ron said, "I have not spoken to my mother in a long time, and I don't see that in the foreseeable future."

And when asked if she had any relationship with Ron, Kempfert said, "As far as I'm concerned, he's a Macumber, we're Kempferts."

Macumber and Carol Kempfert have two other sons, Steve and Scott. Steve died this June while Macumber was still in prison, and he said he hadn't spoken to Scott in 38 years.

His next plan, Macumber said, is to "spend a couple days going fishing," and he pledged to help the Arizona Justice Project, whom he called his "second family," reviewing cases of other elderly inmates.

"The world has passed me by in four decades," he said. "I am not interested in totally catching up, but I will catch up in the degree that I have to. I am computer literate, I am going to get on the internet and go to work."