Lady Killer

An OC jury ponders this question: Who is the right-handed man who murdered Minnie Smith?

Murray provided a context that helps his case: "Did you tell the grand jury that Minnie Smith [before her murder] had accused Mina Hernandez, you and everyone else of having an affair with her husband?"

"Yes," she said.

Though Smith had told police his marriage had been "good," there was substantial conflicting evidence. Telephone records reviewed by OC Weekly show that from Nov. 28, 2005, until the day of the murder, Marvin called Minnie seven times, including twice after Murray says she was already dead: 8:35 and 8:36 a.m. on Dec. 15. During the same two-week period, he called just three of his mistresses 392 times.

But Minnie was talking to others. Two weeks before she was murdered, she called Lorraine Latham, her sister, to share a secret. According to court records, Minnie said Marvin had ordered her to move out of their Cypress home, or "somebody is going to get hurt."

A week before her death, Minnie told close friend Mildred Patterson that Marvin had accused her of sleeping with another man when, in fact, she'd attended a wedding reception with hundreds of friends. "I think I'm gonna get out of here," she told Patterson. "But if I do, he'll probably do something to Bennie, or he would come and kill me."

*   *   *

Forensic specialists in the Orange County Sheriff's crime lab estimate Minnie died between 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Keller notes that Smith has alibi witnesses or documents from about 7:18 a.m. (a gas-station receipt) to 6:30 p.m., when he called 911. That's not exactly true. There was a point in the afternoon when nobody saw Smith and he was within two minutes of home.

But the man who puts a question mark in the prosecution's time line is Tony Tupuola. In 2005, he worked a route that included the Smith residence. On the witness stand, he recalled that his wife had seen a news report about a murder on Beach Circle. He rushed to the crime scene and told a news crew that he'd witnessed Minnie drive into her garage at 1:30 p.m. The claim got him on television.

On the witness stand on Nov. 29, Tupuola told Murray he didn't actually see Minnie in the car, but he assumed it had been her because the car pulled into the garage at the Smith home. He also said the Lexus he saw that day was a different color (beige) than the white Lexus he'd seen her drive on other occasions.

When it was Keller's turn, she didn't prolong her cross-examination: "Are you sure you saw that Lexus pull in around 1:30 p.m.?"

"Yes, give or take five minutes," Tupuola replied.

Keller sat down. She had scored. Had Minnie been alive until the afternoon when Marvin was at his physical-therapy session in Lakewood?

*   *   *

Before allowing Marvin Smith back into the crime scene a week after the murder, Detective McShane says, "my mind was wide open [about potential suspects]." Smith made the list if for no other reason than suspicions that the killer had taken time to stage a burglary. And, unlike Marvin's, Minnie's character was pristine.

"Not one person has ever had a bad word to say about Minnie Smith," McShane said. "Not even any of the mistresses."

Other facts weighed, too. Though Minnie's son Bennie had called every day demanding status reports on McShane's progress catching the killer, Smith‚ who was spending time with Beverly Hubbard at an LA love nest they shared‚ never called the detective once. It took two days of negotiations to get Smith to return to his house so he could tell McShane what had been stolen. When he arrived, he brought with him DeWayne Dade, a camcorder-toting criminal-defense lawyer.

But the walk-through pushed Smith to the top of the suspect list. The night of the murder, he'd told two police officers that both he and Minnie used and never locked a secret master-bedroom closet-floor safe that contained $30,000 in cash and a cache of expensive jewelry valued at more than $200,000. (The safe was concealed under carpet and Marvin's shoes.) During the walk-through, Smith's story changed. He told McShane, "I couldn't open that safe if my life depended on it‚" and, "Only Minnie uses it."

What was missing? asked McShane.

A glass jewelry music box containing "expensive jewelry . . . containing 2- or 3-carat rings, nice bracelets, diamond bracelets," explained Smith. "I had a, uh, big, uh, Cadillac emblem that had diamonds all in it. I had another emblem. It was like a [sighs], like an inch-by-2-inch square, uh, had an M in it."

At 7 a.m. the next day, Dec. 23, McShane and five other officers served a search warrant at one of the Smiths' properties on Baring Cross Street in Los Angeles. Smith wasn't there at the time. Officers hoped to find financial documents relating to the Smiths, but what they found was even more stunning.

"I popped the trunk of Smith's Mercedes and looked underneath a jacket," said McShane. "I remember saying, Holy crap."

Jackpot: the glass jewelry music box, Minnie's large jewelry collection including pearl necklaces, her social-security card, Marvin's gold Cadillac chain medallion and Marvin's gold "M‚" medallion. The items had been wrapped in fresh duct tape from the same Massachusetts production lot as the duct tape used to wrap Minnie's ankles at the murder scene. Total value: more than $244,000, according to an appraiser.

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