By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
An erection killed Charles Ray George.
To be more exact, it was the desperation to satisfy an erection that killed the San Onofre nuclear-plant engineer on Jan. 29, 2001. That's the view of Daniel Louis Parra, a 37-year-old community-college student who owned an Orange County escort service, and his top stripper, 29-year-old Elizabeth Nava of Irvine.
You might think escorts hope to leave their customers happy, but an underwear-clad George was left dying in a pool of blood on his San Clemente living-room floor. Nava, a onetime dry-cleaning employee, ran from the scene without calling 911. Parra walked away calmly, still carrying the heavy flashlight he used to crack George's skull. Later, defense lawyers portrayed Parra as a "hero" for preventing the rape of his employee.
Law-enforcement officers see the gruesome killing differently. Deputy DA Michael F. Murray concedes George was looking for female companionship in his final hours but says the craving that ended the 54-year-old man's life had little to do with sex. According to Murray, George died solely because of Parra and Nava's greed.
"They wanted to satisfy their lust for money," the homicide prosecutor said. "They were taking money under the pretense of sex, and somebody got killed."
On Dec. 8, the two defendants sat quietly as a somber jury of seven men and five women found them guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances and a series of other felonies. Although sentencing by Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel isn't scheduled until next month, neither Parra nor Nava will ever walk free again. The verdicts carry mandatory punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Did the George murder, the five-week trial and subsequent convictions slow Southern California's escort/dancer/model/massage/stripper industry? Vice cops say no; business is flourishing. There is apparently no time for reflection when telephone pagers constantly ring, unfulfilled sexual desires govern men and so much cash is at stake.
But the case did highlight—if only momentarily—the cat-and-mouse game of a seedy, often-deceitful underworld that advertises on the Internet, in phone books and on the pages of The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times and OC Weekly.
On that January night three years ago, the six-foot-two-inch, 180-pound George sat alone inside his one-bedroom San Clemente apartment on the 3500 block of South El Camino Real. The divorcee logged onto his computer and found the website for OC Exotics. One advertisement piqued his interest:
I'm Gypsy. I'm a gorgeous Latina with all the right curves. I'm sexy and exotic-looking. I specialize in erotic rubs and sensual fun. If you think you can handle this hot body, I'll call you right back. I'm an independent escort.
Police say "Gypsy" is one of the aliases used by Nava, an illegal alien with a criminal record for violence and whose real name is Gracila Cortes Aguinaga. Authorities say the Mexican national had already been deported once but slipped back into California, where she has at least one child. She also used the names "Lisa" and "Sophia" during her stripper work.
When George dialed Nava's pager number, he had no idea he was making the last call of his life. Thoughts of the woman undoubtedly filled his mind. He placed condoms and a bottle of lube on his bedroom nightstand. At about 8 p.m., neighbor Ruschelle Hull--who was outside on a balcony, smoking a cigarette--saw a Latina go to George's apartment. Hull heard George say, "Come on in!" The door closed.
There's nothing illegal about a womanmodeling, dancing or stripping for money. Prostitution is, of course, against the law, but that doesn't stop men from paying money for sex or women from offering their bodies for a fee. To entice potential clients, escort businesses craft advertising to sell sex or, at least, the allure of sex. Their advertisements are worded carefully: "I love to go down on my knees and please." "Complete stress RELEASE." "No strict rules, no boundaries." "Tired of rip-offs? Call me." "I need fast cash & ready 2 give U what U want." "Hidden pleasures await you!" "I promise obscene things! "Hardcore pleasure. Non-stop. ALL NIGHT." "18 yr old sex crazed college student will do anything to stay in school." "Take a load off." "Let me be your Ho! Ho! Ho!"
Laugh if you will, but the messages work. Parra--who regularly employed eight or nine strippers--spent approximately $4,000 per month on advertisements for his LOL and Ambrosia escort services. Though an overwhelming majority of pictures in escort ads are fake and almost none of the girls are truly independent, a seemingly limitless stream of men--everyone from doctors and lawyers to engineers, software developers and unemployed freaks--responds. On the supply side, there is also never a shortage of would-be strippers. Parra's files contained hundreds of applications from an assortment of women.
The business is simple. When potential customers call, they talk first to the escort agency's female "booker," who often pretends to be the model in a specific ad. This woman screens for underage callers, pranksters or police and makes legitimate customers feel comfortable by engaging in friendly small talk.
The booker also pumps potential customers for information. On internal "Show Information" sheets, she records the date of each call, customer name, phone number, address, directions, model sought, fee amount and "special information"-- which could note anything from a client's airline flights or specific desires. If a deal is made, the booker usually sets an upfront fee of $150 ($70 for the girl; $80 for the escort service). That price covers a striptease of less than 30 minutes. Men perceived to be wealthy could be charged $200 or more for the same dance. Cops say strippers hit "the jackpot" for themselves when they lure additional fees from customers.
But the booker's priority is securing reservations. A handwritten instruction manual found at Parra's Bellflower office reveals the game plan to play on callers: "If he asks what you do for $150, say you can't say too much over the phone, but say, 'We will have a good time, lots of closeness, touching, getting naked. You'll be satisfied.'"
Contingency scenarios included:
"If you are comfortable with some people, you can say 'full service.' If he asks for a specific act, then there are three [options]: 1. Hang up. 2. Try to work around it. 3. Book it; then hit and run"--escort parlance for tricking a customer into paying for sex but fleeing with his cash before delivering on the promise.
Prosecutor Murray believes the hit-and-run scam was standard operating procedure for Parra and Nava.
"Their goal was to find potential people to rip off," said Murray. "They thought they had a fool-proof plan because men wouldn't feel comfortable calling police to complain. They were selling sex without the intention of engaging in sex, and then laughing at their victims."
The degree of frustration George felt when he discovered Nava wasn't a prostitute—or, perhaps, wasn't one unless she received additional incentive--may remain a mystery forever. George can't speak. Nava isn't talking.
But 25 minutes after entering the apartment, Nava used her cell phone to call Parra--who'd been waiting outside in his late-model, dark-colored Hyundai. She'd later tell her lawyer that George wanted sex, she wanted out, and Parra wanted to protect her. Police believe another version is likely: George merely wanted his money back.
Neighbor Hull remembers she was working on her computer when she heard a "really loud thump" that shook the building. It was Parra--a tall, heavyset man--trying to kick down George's door. Parra lawyer Christian R. Jensen said every "reasonable person" dealing with the potential rape of an employee would behave as his client did.
"Charles George died at the hands of Daniel Parra," Jensen told a jury. "We're looking at the mindset of Mr. Parra on the evening of Jan. 29. All the neighbors heard a commotion. They said there is something going on in there and it's bad. What were Mr. Parra's actions? He was using any means necessary to get in. Three times, he tried to get in through the window. He is desperate. A witness says he's going to call police, and Mr. Parra says, 'Go ahead.' He's not doing anything secretive. But this work can get dangerous. People can get hurt. People are drunk. People are on drugs and have weapons. It's a violent situation. Mr. Parra eventually gets the door open."
Daniel Louis ParraThere's little disagreement that when the door opened, Nava fled silently by Parra on her way to the Hyundai. Parra then entered the apartment wielding his industrial-sized flashlight. Moments later, a witness at the apartment complex saw a distraught George, dressed only in his underwear, trying to escape through his front door.
"Parra was wearing a military-style jacket that night," said prosecutor Murray. "And people saw the arms of someone wearing a military-style jacket grab Mr. George, spin him around and pull him back inside the apartment. Then there are a series of crashes and thuds."
Terror likely consumed George's final moments. Evidence indicates he attempted to lock himself in his bedroom, but Parra kicked the bedroom door down with such force he cracked it in half. When Parra finished beating his customer with the six-pound flashlight, he casually walked out of the apartment, paused only to call an alarmed bystander "stupid," climbed into his Hyundai and drove away with Nava.
Paramedics found a bloody George lying on his floor in a coma. He was taken to Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center but never regained consciousness. He died the next day.
An autopsy determined George had been bludgeoned with a heavy object. The coroner found numerous defensive wounds on the victim's arms and hands; bruises to his torso and rib cage; and lacerations to his lip, face, and all over the back and crown of his skull, which had been shattered. A massive brain hemorrhage caused death.
Investigator Bill Vining, a 24-year-veteran of the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), is known among colleagues as a low-key yet tireless sleuth. He's been assigned to murder cases for the past six years. Vining says citizen tips commonly help solve murders. But there would be no tips in the George case. Escort-industry employees don't like to talk to homicide detectives.
When Vining and fellow deputy Dan Salcedo arrived at the crime scene, they found "a real whodunit." Neighbors who saw the killers didn't know their identities, and the getaway Hyundai was using fake paper license plates. Detectives started from scratch.
"We interviewed the witnesses and determined that the victim had apparently hired a girl," said Vining. "That's about all we knew at first."
There were few additional clues except that the killers accidentally left two pieces of clothing near George's body: an orange spaghetti-strap top and a black, full-face ski mask with only eye slits. Both items carried DNA, but whose?
Some phone companies erase specific details of local calls after about 48 hours. Vining and Salcedo quickly obtained George's records and discovered two calls on the evening of his death: one to an escort service called Society X in Torrance and another to a voice-mail pager belonging to a female named Gypsy. The detectives then tied Gypsy to the escort-service website they found on George's home computer.
During the week after the killing, Parra and Nava fled north in their Hyundai. They first told friends George attempted rape; later, they'd say George had succeeded. They were clueless that OCSD detectives executed 13 countywide search warrants in the case and were methodically closing in on not only their identities but also their soon-to-be hideout location.
A paper trail revealed Parra's half-Chinese, half-Latino heritage; his Gulf War service in the Air Force; his studies at a Cerritos community college; his divorce from a marriage that produced a son; his work as a bouncer at a Los Angeles bar; his 1997 arrest and acquittal on weapons charges; and his violence-prone escort operation run from an office on Bellflower Boulevard. In one instance, Parra threatened and then sprayed a can of Mace into the face of a disappointed customer who tried to get Parra's license-plate number.
The detectives also learned about Parra's relationship--at times, romantic--with Nava and that he'd recently purchased a Hyundai like the one used by the suspects in the George murder. Parra listed his ex-wife, Mary Jane Parra of Shasta County, as a reference on his credit application at the Huntington Beach dealership. Tipped by the OCSD, deputies in Shasta County drove by the ex-wife's trailer-park home and found the Hyundai. The unwitting woman soon learned that police wanted her ex-husband and Nava for murder.
"We surrounded the trailer with Shasta County deputies and used a bullhorn to tell Parra and Nava to come out," said Vining, who found $2,000 hidden in Nava's shoe during the arrest. "We surprised them, but they eventually came out and invoked their Fifth Amendment privileges."
Parra and Nava had lived as fugitives for only eight days.
Deputy DA Murray is a West Point graduate married to an FBI agent. He's arguably the most hard-charging county prosecutor in Orange County. In a courtroom, he impresses judges with his memory, captivates juries with his oratory and frightens murder defendants with his passion. He defeated famed defense attorney Leslie Abramson in a Vietnamese-gang double-homicide trial earlier this year. Murray had no sympathy for Nava or Parra, whom he mocked as low-life con artists willing to do anything for "the almighty dollar."
But Murray had a problem. Some prosecutors thought Parra should be charged with second-degree murder and Nava shouldn't face any charges. After all, Parra hadn't premeditated murder and Nava hadn't even touched George. In fact, after her arrest in Shasta County, another Orange County prosecutor then supervising the case freed the stripper. The original prosecution theory was simple: Nava responded to George's call, danced, legitimately took her fee and fled with Parra's lethal if unnecessary assistance. Using this scenario, Nava wasn't culpable and Parra faced prison time with parole possibilities if convicted.
To Murray, however, both Parra and Nava committed first-degree homicide. Killing a person--even accidentally--while committing a serious crime such as robbery is felony murder under California law. Using this statute wasn't far-fetched. In their investigation, Vining and Salcedo discovered that a string of Parra's clients had been threatened, beaten and extorted over the years. The detectives and Murray concluded the escort service was essentially a burglary/robbery operation in disguise.
"Parra targeted his victims," said Murray. "How do we know he intended to steal? It all goes back to his business practices. It's a scam. It's nothing but that."
Detectives found evidence that:
*A Parra employee accepted money for sex from a man, then said she needed to put the cash in her car for safekeeping but returned with Parra, who displayed handcuffs and voiced threats before fleeing with the man's money.
*Two Vietnamese brothers staying at an Orange County hotel gave a Parra stripper $200 for sex, and then watched as she quickly sped away in a truck driven by Parra.
*A customer suspicious of a Parra escort tried to cancel his appointment only to have a handcuff-toting Parra arrive and threaten to call police if he didn't pay additional sums he called a "cancellation fee."
*Nava visited the Orange County hotel room of an out-of-town businessman and got $150 for a dance and additional sums for promised sex before calling Parra, who entered the room, broke the client's jaw with a flashlight, emptied a can of pepper spray in his face and stole his laptop computer.
On Murray's orders, deputies re-arrested Nava as part of a criminal enterprise that killed George.
The trial focused on a few questions: Was Nava's stripper ad selling legal entertainment, illegal sex or simply the allure of intimacy? Or was it a clever vehicle for thieves to enter houses, apartments and hotel rooms of unsuspecting men?
George Douveas, deputy alternate defender for Nava, wasn't amused by law enforcement's conclusions. Douveas called Murray's case "novel and creative" and his logic "legal gymnastics." He asked: If Parra and Nava were crooks, as the prosecutor alleged, why didn't they steal George's wallet containing $312, his checkbook and a gold ring laying on a table?
Murray had an answer. He claimed the defendants didn't have time to steal on that occasion because they'd caused a commotion in the apartment complex by beating George to death. According to the prosecutor, burglary is committed when a person enters a dwelling merely with the intention to steal.
But Douveas wouldn't flinch. The usually soft-spoken defense attorney said Murray's theory of a criminal conspiracy by Parra and Nava was ridiculous. He noted that Nava performed 150 legitimate stripper shows in six months and encountered trouble only twice because of "aggressive clients."
"The evidence indicates this wasn't about greed," said Douveas. "It's about personal escorts, strippers. We're not here to discuss morals. Stripping is legal, and it's a legitimate business protected by the Constitution. They had an office. They paid rent. They paid taxes."
They also targeted horny men. According to Douveas, everything from brewing companies to hamburger chains to automobile manufacturers use sex to sell products. He said escort businesses are like any other business. They want advertising to grab the attention of potential customers.
"If you can use sex to sell beer, you're going to use sex to sell a stripper service," Douveas told the jury. "But you're selling sex appeal. You are not selling intercourse. It's the illusion of sex. The ads are racy, provocative, and they're also vague."
Douveas and Jensen, on Parra's behalf, argued George was either too horny or too foolish to understand he wasn't paying Nava for prostitution. "The ad said, 'Gorgeous Latina. If you think you can handle this hot body, call,'" said Douveas. "It was not an offer. It was an opinion. It's so vague. . . . Unfortunately, some men try to take advantage of the girls."
Both defense lawyers said that customers "who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer" are the reason strippers like Nava must travel with powerful male guardians like Parra.
"There is no sex, and yet Mr. Murray says that because the girls won't commit a crime [prostitution], they're committing another crime [stealing money from suckered customers]," said Jensen. "It's absurd. It defies logic. It doesn't make sense. This is a modern society. These men are not vulnerable. They know it's illegal to pay someone for sex. Where's the false promise? If the girls promised sex and didn't deliver, there's your false pretense. But that's not what happened here. It's all a word game."
It took the jury took less than two days to reach a verdict in early December. Jurors found both defendants guilty of murder, conspiracy to commit burglary, two counts of burglary, two counts of robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and two special-circumstance counts of murder in the commission of a burglary or robbery. A slouched Parra said nothing as deputies led him out of the courtroom in handcuffs. Tears filled Nava's eyes as a pained expression swept her face, but she also remained silent.
A male juror, who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, believes he'll long remember the arrogance of Parra's operation. "They had no conscience," he said. Parra's escorts routinely memorialized their scams with handwritten notes such as "Guy wanted sex; took money and ran" or "Short show. Client angry. Took money" or "Drunk asshole. Took guy's $." In another document, Nava wrote, "Hit and run" and then drew a smiley face next to her words.
After the verdict, Murray looked satisfied. "The key was that these two defendants engaged in felonious conduct," he said. "They schemed to steal from would-be Johns, and now they will have to suffer the consequences of what they did--particularly to Mr. George."
The consequences are bleak. Parra and Nava remain locked in the Orange County jail. Early next year, they'll both be transported in chains to their new, permanent home: state prison.
There, nobody pays for sex.