Trial opens in backyard drowning of ex-San Bernardino police officer’s wife

A former San Bernardino Police Department detective charged with drowning his wife in their backyard Jacuzzi didn’t expect a startled witness — peering through an opening in a block wall — to thwart his cover-up, prosecutors told jurors Thursday.

Blair Christopher Hall, 51, faces a single count of murder in the June 7, 2007, death of Cristi Lynne Hall behind their Calimesa home.

Free on $1 million bail, he sat inside a Riverside courtroom wearing a polo shirt and slacks, listening to Deputy District Attorney Burke English Strunsky during opening statements call the case one of “violent betrayal.” Later, his lawyer phrased it as a tragic accident.

Cristi Hall and her husband of nearly 30 years had gone out to the backyard hot tub that weekday morning just after 6 a.m., intending to bathe as their shower was being remodeled, Strunsky said. Their 22-year-old daughter slept upstairs.

According to Strunsky, the couple was in the tub together when the defendant forcibly pushed Cristi Hall’s head under the water and held it.

“She thrashes about, she struggles,” he told jurors. “She desperately struggles to get a final breath.”

Injuries to Cristi Hall included “massive bruising” and head lacerations, the prosecutor said. She also had some of her husband’s DNA under her fingernails, which Strunsky said pointed to her fighting back.

Blair Hall eventually got out of the tub, toweled off and went inside to wake his daughter. He then returned outside and wailed at the discovery of his lifeless wife, according to the prosecutor.

“Mr. Hall was able to put on a performance that can only be described as Oscar-worthy,” Strunsky said.

The key prosecution witness is a Navy computer technician who was on leave visiting her mother’s home abutting the Hall’s property. Lindsay Patterson was already awake when she heard what she called a “very panicked” scream.

She looked through a small diamond-shaped opening in the 5 ½-foot-tall block wall that separated the backyards. She said she saw a man push a woman’s head down into water before getting out alone with an expression of rage.

Victor C. Marshall, representing Hall, told jurors during his opening statements that Patterson’s vantage point was not reliable. He argued that his client stepped out of the tub and went inside to use the restroom when he noticed his wife underwater.

“He was delirious,” Marshall said of Hall, who left San Bernardino police in 1994 after saying he was shot during a robbery while working undercover.

During the trial, jurors are expected to hear from an aquatics expert who will testify, Marshall said, that Cristi Hall’s injuries were consistent with someone who slipped, fell and struck her head on the tub. The attorney said the couple was “still a team,” happy and prosperous.

He acknowledged they had both taken out life insurance policies, but that evidence would not show a murder occurred.

“There is a reasonable explanation for what happened,” he said.

Reach Paul LaRocco at 951-368-9468 or plarocco@PE.com

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