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
"They were treating it as a homicide," Cator believes. "But the next morning, the coroner wrote it off as a drug overdose."
Despite the coroner's finding that her death was accidental, Newport Beach police were suspicious enough about the GHB they found in Bakhtar's home—and his story about Andrea passing out in his car—that they forwarded the case to the Orange County district attorney's office.
But the DA declined to prosecute Bakhtar.
On Sept. 30, 2003, Matt Murphy, the DA homicide unit's senior deputy district attorney, told Newport Beach police the case was going nowhere.
"Having reviewed the investigation surrounding the death of Andrea Nelson, it does not appear additional follow-up is necessary," Murphy wrote. "Despite the circumstances of her arrival at the emergency room, due to the known history of drug use, absence of GHB in the toxicology tests, and the coroner's opinion of accidental death, it appears insufficient evidence exists at this time to pursue a homicide charge against Mr. Bakhtar. There are several narcotics-related charges that should be pursued, however."
Linda Cator has filed a wrongful deathcase against Bakhtar and has posted a website, www.andrearemembered.com, that claims he killed her daughter. In her pursuit of justice, Cator has alienated her own family and much of Orange County law enforcement. She's threatened lawsuits against the cities of Tustin and Irvine asserting that Officers Stickles and Hallinan failed to protect her daughter. She wishes she never had gone to police in the first place.
"Had I known then what I know now, I never would have allowed them to use Andrea as an informant," she says. "I would have found a good lawyer."
Now, Cator's in the process of selling her house to pay for a lawyer and to fund her own homicide investigation.
Her obsession with her daughter's death is fueled by her own sense of guilt—for forcing Andrea to become an informant, for yelling at her about losing her jacket, and for allowing her to go back to Bakhtar's house to pick it up. She knows her daughter died with a lot of drugs in her system, and that she had used drugs frequently with Johar, but she's convinced drugs aren't what killed Andrea.
Cator's Chatsworth-based attorney, Norman Gregory Fernandez, says he plans to prove Nelson met "with wrongful death" but can't say at whose hands.
"It's going to be a very interesting case," he says. "It may be that we will be adding more defendants to this cause of action. We are doing a comprehensive investigation and will let the chips fall where they may."
Assuming Cator's wrongful-death lawsuit goes to trial, Fernandez is likely to call as an expert witness Dr. Harry J. Bonnell, a Georgetown University-trained pathologist. Bonnell worked as a medical examiner for two decades, including 10 years as San Diego's deputy chief medical examiner. He's testified in more than 470 cases, most of them criminal cases in which he's worked with prosecutors. Bonnell says he's far from convinced that Nelson's death was accidental—and is absolutely certain the Orange County coroner did a sloppy job in making that determination.
"The findings don't jibe with the history provided by Mr. Bakhtar," Bonnell says. "In other words, she had been dead longer than when he said she became unresponsive. . . . Her pupils were already fixed and dilated. She was cold to the touch. This is not somebody who has just gone unresponsive in the car."
According to Bonnell, Nelson's autopsy report shows she had a bruise on the inside of her lower lip. He thinks it's possible someone tried to suffocate her. The coroner, he says, "tried to write that off as a result of resuscitation. But when you do that, if you have any bruising, it's inevitably to the upper lip or teeth." Then there are the lungs. "In most drug overdoses, the lungs are heavy," he says. "But in hers, the lungs are of normal weight. There are also . . . pinpoint hemorrhages in the lungs. That is not something you see in drug overdoses. That's something you see in upper-airway obstruction, when somebody is smothered or suffocates or chokes on a hot dog."
The fact that the coroner found no GHB in Nelson's blood doesn't surprise him. "GHB has a short half-life," Bonnell says. "It gets cleared from the bloodstream pretty quickly, which is why you need to test the kidney or the urine. From what I see, they just tested the blood, and they didn't test the stomach contents."
While Bonnell believes it's possible Nelson died of a drug overdose, he says it's just as possible that she was murdered. "It could be she died from the cocaine," he says. "The levels are consistent with other cases. But it could be she took cocaine and somebody put their hand over her mouth."
In September 2002, Buena Park policedetective Jason Parsons, who had sex with Lisa Piho, and Officer Tom Collins, who covered it up, were fired. On March 7, 2003, Tustin police officer Anthony Bryant, Johar's friend who ran background checks on Mr. J's employees, lost his job. By then, Sammy Johar had already jumped bail on a narcotics charge and fled the country. His father, Mohamed Johar, did not return a telephone call to an answering service for Mr. J's. Sammy Johar's whereabouts are unknown; he is still wanted by the Orange County Sheriff's Department for possession of dangerous drugs.