By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Three days before Christmas 2005, Marvin Vernis Smith stood at a massive dark stain in the beige carpet beside the bed in the master bedroom of his two-story Cypress home.
"Is that blood?‚" Smith asked. "What is that?"
The blood was that of Smith's wife, Minnie, who had been brutally murdered there a week earlier. Yet Smith didn't jump away from the gruesome mess. He didn't cry. He didn't choke up or scream.
McShane asked himself: What type of man reacts like that standing in his own wife's dried blood?
He asked Smith a different question: "Do you have any ideas who would want to do this to your wife?"
"My wife didn't have no enemies,‚" said Smith. "My wife didn't. I don't even think she know how to talk mean to people, you know?"
"You love your wife?" asked McShane.
"Oh, yeah," he replied.
Marvin and Minnie met in the 1970s and married in 1977. He moved into her Inglewood home, and together, they built a fortune worth more than $5 million. In 1994, they moved south to a two-story, six-bedroom North Orange County home worth $1.3 million. During their 28 years of marriage, Minnie worked as a security executive at Raytheon Corp., the international defense contractor. She retired in 2003 and devoted herself to her church and grandchildren. Marvin managed a small construction company and the couple's three Los Angeles County apartment complexes, which were financed in part with the proceeds from the sale of their Pee Wee's Market and Liquors in LA.
To all appearances, life was good for the Smiths. Except for Marvin's gaudy taste in jewelry, the couple didn't flaunt their wealth. Their cars were nice, but not ostentatious. They owned two vacation time-share units, but nothing too fancy. Indeed, they liked to share with friends how they'd bought the Cypress home significantly under market value.
McShane, the man assigned to solve Minnie's murder, looked at Marvin, who continued to stand at the spot of his wife's death without showing a hint of distress. The detective thought: Why isn't he asking about the blood on the carpet? What type of injuries his wife suffered? What type of weapon had the killer used‚ a knife? A gun? A bat? Or even: Did Minnie live until officers arrived?
The detective noted Smith's "bizarre behavior," his lack of curiosity. He asked, "Why would somebody want to do this?"
Smith sighed and said, "I don't know."
The next day‚ following a bombshell revelation during the execution of a search warrant‚ police believed they'd solved the case. McShane arrested Smith. The charge: murder for financial gain. He says Smith killed his 66-year-old wife and staged the crime scene to implicate a fictitious, crazed burglar.
The sensational case, which cops and prosecutors have compared to the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, finally reached the trial stage six weeks ago. It's an ongoing courtroom battle of wits and guts for Orange County's toughest criminal lawyers: Senior Deputy District Attorney Michael F. Murray and veteran defense attorney Jennifer Keller. They've gone after witnesses, cops, experts, the evidence, even each other in their efforts to answer this question: Who is the right-handed man who killed Minnie Smith?
What happened next isn't clear, but somehow Minnie's right sock was torn off in bed. Wearing a red nightgown and a matching oval silk hair cap, she retreated or was forced to the far side of the bed away from the bedroom entrance. She endured a defensive wound to the underside of her left forearm as if she'd raised her limb to block an assault. Three more vicious blows with the metal rod cracked the left side of Minnie's face and skull. One strike was so ferocious it crushed her forehead above her left eye. At some point, she collapsed, most likely unconscious and certainly disabled.
The killer tied Minnie's hands tightly behind her back with coat-hanger wire and wrapped duct tape around her ankles. A fourth blow landed on the back of her head.
He then either lifted her gown above her waist, or it shifted when he moved her body. Whatever the cause, Minnie was naked from the waist down.
As blood poured from her lethal head injuries, he used wooden matches to ignite the cardboard torn from the coat hanger. Minnie suffered burns to her calf and four toes. There were also peri- or postmortem rectal tears of indeterminate origin.
Later, attorneys and crime-scene investigators would argue over the meaning of the burns. Was it a bizarre sexual ritual? Had Minnie been tortured? Or had the fire simply been a way of erasing the culprit's fingerprints and DNA from the coat-hanger cardboard?
The killer ransacked the home and found‚ and emptied‚ secret combination floor safe in a closet, but he left valuables including expensive art, crystal and a plasma-screen television. Among the most prized items burglars like to steal are firearms, police say. Weapons fetch good money on the black market. But this thief left behind a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun in a master-bathroom cabinet and a large arsenal of rifles, pistols and ammunition in a large garage safe.
If the intruder feared detection, he didn't show it. He likely wiped the bloody murder weapon, returned it downstairs to the fireplace tool rack and walked to the bar area of the family room.
Before the killer left, he grabbed a half-gallon bottle of Hennessey's liquor and, though it was probably earlier than 9 a.m. on a Thursday, poured an unknown number of shots into a plastic-coated Styrofoam cup from a Best Western motel and drank.
* * *
Though she says Minnie Smith's murder was "a horrible, horrible crime," Keller ignores few avenues to undermine the government's case against Marvin Smith. She has repeatedly questioned the integrity of prosecutor Murray, chastised cops, angrily challenged spectators in the audience, suggested that Minnie's grieving son Bennie (a Los Angeles probation officer who vomited when he learned of his mother's death) should be a suspect, kept tabs on the Weekly's inquiries about the case, and had associates spy on upcoming government witnesses waiting in the hallway. When she has thought that those witnesses have compared notes before testifying, she has pounced as soon as they arrive on the witness stand.
That intensity is not the only reason some prosecutors fear her. She is personally close to their boss, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Indeed, she has always been one of his major campaign backers. The DA's ex-wife, Kay Rackauckas, is an ex-prosecutor, a onetime Murray colleague and now Keller's private-law-practice partner. Keller's husband is Joseph Michael Beecher, a retired judge. Would she use her courthouse connections to help a client?
"Keller can play nasty," said one veteran deputy district attorney after a guarantee of anonymity. "She won't hesitate to hit below the belt if she thinks it will help her client. I've learned over the years to be very leery of her."
Not unexpectedly, Keller isn't impressed with the case against Smith. Time and again, she's labeled the Cypress Police Department as inexperienced (the city is relatively murder-free each year), racist (white officers "disrespectfully‚" called Smith by his first name in the hours after Minnie's body was found) and incompetent (detectives failed to exhaust the possibility of other suspects).
But even without ridiculing the police, Keller thinks she has a winning defense.
"Marvin Smith didn't and couldn't have done it," she told the jury in her opening statement last month. "It is physically impossible."
* * *
Yet all the success didn't soften Smith's rough edges. In 1991, he pistol-whipped Minnie so violently that she suffered a black eye and a gash in her head. The injuries required overnight hospitalization and as many as a dozen stitches in her scalp. Afterward, she bought the Smith & Wesson to protect herself.
Smith didn't confine his violence to his home. In 1992, Smith approached a man in the parking lot of Pee Wee's and told him to leave. The man complied, but not fast enough for Smith. According to court records, he pulled a silver revolver from his waistband and struck the man in the back of the head. In 2003, he clubbed one of his apartment tenants in the head with a baseball bat during a rent dispute, other court records show.
But Smith's biggest vice was women: He maintained extramarital relationships with a series of Southern California women. It may have helped that he loved to talk. He was also financially generous. Some of his girlfriends still affectionately call the trim, 5-foot-8, 70-year-old man "Big Daddy." When he recently heard one of his lady friends say his nickname in the courtroom, he smirked.
The good life is now only a memory. Home is a cramped, two-person cell in the Orange County Jail. He's been held without bail for two years.
* * *
As the lead detective in the Smith case, McShane‚ "Officer of the Year‚" in Cypress in 1996 and 2006‚ has been one of the prime targets of Keller's wrath. When she cross-examined him, she didn't hide her contempt. She spent an enormous amount of time trying to imply that McShane is dishonest, insensitive, racist and unskilled.
During Keller's 90-minute grilling, McShane‚ who began his career as a Los Angeles County reserve sheriff's deputy‚ remained calm. He even smiled a few times at the insults. Afterward, he smiled again and told the Weekly, "Okay, I'm no Columbo, but I work my ass off."
McShane is modest. He has earned admiration from his department. For years, new hires had been given an unsolved cold case: a 1981 murder-for-hire in his city. It took more than 15 years, but McShane did what nobody else could do: He officially solved it. Thanks to him and backup from his detective colleagues, three killers are now in prison.
"It was all gumshoe detective work," he recalled. "There are a lot of similarities between that case and the Smith case. Both killers are arrogant, selfish guys who came into marriages with nothing and got greedy. There is no doubt in my mind that Marvin is 100 percent responsible for his wife's murder.‚"
But both Keller and McShane agree on three points: The killer is right handed (though Murray believes the evidence is inconclusive on that point), he repeatedly swung the murder weapon with tremendous force, and Smith is right handed. Nevertheless, according to Keller, these facts preclude Smith as the murderer. Why? On Nov. 3, 2005‚ six weeks before Minnie's death‚ an orthopedic surgeon performed open surgery on Smith's torn right shoulder rotator cuff.
"That surgery makes it physically impossible for Marvin to have committed the crime," said Keller. "It was a major procedure. It's slow to heal and takes six months to regain normal function."
Ironically, the day of Minnie's murder was Marvin's first day of physical therapy. Medical records at the clinic show that he arrived in advance of his afternoon appointment and was, according to Keller, advised not to "push or pull or raise his right arm above his head."
Keller asked the jury: How could a man in such a serious condition complete a therapy session that day without showing severe signs of pain "several hours after brutally murdering his wife?"
To answer that question, the defense hoped to call John R. Brault, a senior biomechanist, for expert testimony. But Judge McNerney said Keller offered him too late in the case. According to the defense, Brault was ready to testify that "given the timing of Mr. Smith's right-rotator-cuff repair, it is unlikely that he would or could have used the fireplace-log turner with his right upper extremity to cause Mrs. Smith's skull fractures."
To help dramatize that point, Keller displayed in the courtroom an Orange County Sheriff's Department post-arrest photograph of Smith's fresh surgery scar. "That right arm had just gotten out of a sling a couple of weeks earlier," said Keller. Smith nodded in his seat at the defense table. Jurors looked intrigued and scribbled in their notebooks.
* * *
But no prosecutor generates more fear in criminal defendants (and their lawyers) than Murray, Smith's prosecutor. A West Point graduate who is married to an FBI agent, he often speaks in a five- or six-word cadence, tolerates no nonsense, and has the posture of a drill sergeant. He stands only about 5-foot-9, but wild-eyed murderers have cringed when he entered their courtroom.
Inside the DA's office, the Smith case originally seemed like a 50-50 gamble for a conviction‚ especially with the talented Keller handling the defense, according to law-enforcement sources. That was before Murray took over earlier this year. With help from DA Investigator Bob Sayne, Murray immersed himself in the case for months, second-guessed every tidbit and emerged as someone who can speak in encyclopedic detail about the crime for hours without looking at a single note. That aggressive style might explain why Keller tried to have Murray replaced as her opponent.
Murray hasn't been distracted. He believes one of several keys in the murder case is Smith's extensive philandering‚ especially with Beverly Hubbard. A tiny-if-plump 71-year-old woman with good taste in clothes, Hubbard had had a relationship with Smith for 25 years. She did not want to testify. Indeed, in the weeks after Minnie's murder, Detective McShane found Hubbard shredding documents relating to her and Smith.
Murray called Hubbard as a key witness, but she hired a lawyer to fight testifying. She threatened that she would exert her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination if questioned. Murray trumped her. He forced her to the witness stand by granting her immunity from prosecution.
During a prior, secret grand-jury hearing, Hubbard had first denied, then admitted to, having a sexual relationship with Smith. But she contradicted that testimony when she took the witness stand late last month. Murray asked her to describe her relationship with Smith. "He's my brother," said Hubbard, who is not related to the defendant.
Murray asked if she had had a sexual relationship with Smith. Hubbard's face grew animated as if stung. "No," she declared.
This exchange followed:
Murray:Do you recall your grand-jury testimony?
You testified that you did have sex with him?
What's the truth?
Keller‚ who had failed in pretrial motions to bar the prosecution from raising infidelity issues‚Äîobjected for the jury, but Superior Court Judge Daniel B. McNerney ordered Hubbard to answer.
"I'm not sure of your definition [of sex]," Hubbard said to Murray. "Can you explain?"
Hubbard had resisted Murray's question at this point for more than five minutes, and he'd grown testy. She'd taken seven, eight or nine seconds to answer simple "yes‚" or "no‚" questions. Murray stood upright, shook his head, pointed both hands in her direction and said slowly, "Did you ever have any sex with Mr. Smith?"
"No," said Hubbard, who then babbled incoherently, without a question pending, about her mother, her father, her own husband and a 2001 trip to the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. She finished with a declaration that made several jurors go bug-eyed: "It [Smith's penis] wouldn't penetrate!"
To impeach Hubbard, Murray subpoenaed Wendy Davis, another one of Smith's mistresses. Davis testified that Hubbard and Smith had a sexual relationship. Murray asked her how she knows. "'Cause I seen them having sex," Davis replied. "I walked in on them in 2000. . . . The lower parts of their clothes were off, and they was engaged in sex."
* * *
At 6:30 p.m., Smith parked in the driveway. He usually entered the house through the internal garage entrance. However, on this night, he said, he walked to the front door. The claim is critical in the case because Smith's story would disintegrate if he'd seen his wife's white 1999 Lexus sedan parked in the garage.
At the front door, he said, he noticed the shade down. "It comes down automatically at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, and it goes back up at 8 o'clock in the evening," Smith told McShane. "So if my wife is home, uh, then the shade is up. . . . So when I pulled up and I saw the shade down, I knew she wasn't home."
"Okay," McShane said.
"When I get here [the front porch], if, if my wife is home, there's a light on in the family room. The TV's usually on when my wife is home. . . . So I know she's not home. Well, I put my, my key in there. I, I know it's locked. I know. I know. I, I think it's locked. I didn't even try. I just put my key in there and turned it, and I just knew she wasn't home.‚"
"Okay," McShane said.
"When I walk in, I notice the burglar alarm's not on. It's dark. No lights in here . . . I went directly to the kitchen, turned the light on, and then I saw a drawer was out, half-open. So I'm wondering why she left that drawer open, and so I knew she left in a hurry or something like that. . . . I saw the clay pot. Now, what in the world is that pot turned over. Then I saw the [breakfast nook] window open. I, I, oh, oh, somebody's been here. Somebody's in here! I said, I got to get out of here.' I said, I, I got to get out of here 'cause somebody's in here,' and so I turned around, and I said, Let me get out of here.' I turn around. I go back out this way same way [to the front entrance] I came in. I saw a light flash upstairs, and I made about four steps up. Then I heard somebody talking. When I heard somebody talking, I knew somebody was in here, I got to get out of here. I went back down and went out the door and called, called the police."
Smith ran to his GMC truck, and, though he claimed he believed a burglar was in his second-story bedroom, he grabbed a cell phone to report a burglary, but not the .45-caliber handgun that was also in the truck's center console. He didn't call his wife while he waited for police to arrive.
Later, Smith's pre-arrest recounting of events gave McShane and Murray plenty of fodder: If Smith saw flashes of light and heard voices when he began to flee through the front door, why hadn't he seen those same conditions when he entered at the same spot in the dark house?
Perhaps to help jurors handle that issue, Smith has been using a prop. His hearing hadn't been an issue in numerous pretrial hearings over two years. In the weeks before jury selection in his trial, Smith complained of an ailment: poor hearing. Jurors now see him wearing headphones with an audio booster each day.
Of course, that information won't be available to the jury. But this will: Smith's careful explanation of why he didn't think his wife had been home may falter. McShane got Smith to repeatedly describe his entrance and exit from the crime scene. He never mentioned that he raised the front door shade. In fact, he said, "I attempted to push the button to let the shade up, but I can't see [the control panel] because it's too dark. It's just too dark to see it."
When police arrived, they found the shade up‚ the position Smith said would indicate his wife was home.
* * *
"I seen on the television that Minnie Smith had been killed," said Matthews. "It shocked me. She shouldn't have died like that. . . . She was a nice lady."
Eight days after the murder, Matthews contacted McShane. He wanted the police to know not only about Smith's trysts, but also that he complained about his marriage.
"[Smith] said, The only way to get out of this marriage is to die," Matthews recalled during testimony. "Cause I ain't gonna give Minnie half of what I got so another man can live off it."
Jurors scribbled again in their notebooks. Keller jumped from her seat beside Smith. The angry grilling began before she even reached the podium.
Keller:You were fired in 1997 for stealing?
You owed Mr. Smith $15,000?
No, I didn't owe him nothing.
After Mr. Smith put cameras in the liquor store, you got fired?
No. I quit.
Do you have a gambling problem?
Murray objected, saying the question was irrelevant to the case. Judge McNerney agreed.
Did you sleep with [another liquor-store employee]?
Isn't it true that only you at the store knew where Marvin lived?
Murray objected. McNerney agreed and shortly afterward tersely added, "Let's wrap this up, Ms. Keller."
When was the last time you asked Minnie for money?
To bolster her attack on Matthews, Keller later called to the stand his estranged wife, who complained Matthews hadn't paid her child support. She summed up his character in three words: "a habitual liar."
* * *
In a beautiful moment for the prosecution, Murray pierced Hubbard's dumb act with a single well-placed question: Don't you have an MBA from Pepperdine University? Hubbard looked at jurors, back at Murray and stared. She eventually replied softly, "Yes."
Her resistance continued.
Murray:Did you have just one bank account with Marvin?
Hubbard: [after an eight-second pause] Not that I can remember.
How many bank accounts did you have with him?
I'm not sure. [Note: there were three, according to court records.]
Why did you open a joint account with Marvin?
Because he asked me to. Marvin's my brother.
How much was in the account?
I can't remember.
Give me a ballpark.
Hubbard looked at the jury, pursed her lips and looked back at Murray with an unpleasant expression. After a 10-second delay, she said, "Somewhere over $200,000."
If jurors had been experiencing a post-lunch mental lull, it was over. What type of man would have a substantial, secret joint account with a mistress? Three jurors shook their heads.
Murray followed up: "Actually, it was quite a bit more than, right?"
"I can't recall," Hubbard replied.
The prosecutor produced a document. It was from World Savings. Smith had given Hubbard $230,979 to put in a joint account.
Why did he do this? Murray asked.
"He didn't tell me."
Murray let the suspicious answer resonate and fired: "At the grand jury, didn't you tell me under oath that he put your name on it in case of emergency?"
Hubbard pursed her lips, sighed, hesitated again, and then, as if exasperated, said, "Yes."
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.‚"
* * *
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?
* * *
"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‚Äîwho was spending time with Beverly Hubbard at an LA love nest they shared‚Äînever 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, ‚ÄòHoly 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.
About 30 minutes later, Smith drove up and found amazed police officers, including McShane. The detective consulted a prosecutor, and then swiftly placed Smith under arrest. Bennie showed up and couldn't believe the turn of events. Was his stepfather, the man who'd helped raise him, a killer?
* * *
But Keller isn't conceding the point. Indeed, she has an explanation that she says renders the jewelry recover moot for the prosecution. According to her, Smith mistakenly reported the items stolen. It was his custom to hide his wife's jewelry in a car trunk when he was upset, she says.
To support her claim, Keller planned to summon to the witness stand Ada Moses, who was married to Smith until 1976. Moses remains "best friends‚" with the accused killer. She attends court each day and smiles warmly at Smith when deputies bring him into the courtroom. Keller wanted Moses to tell jurors that during her marriage to Smith, he hid her jewelry in car trunks when he was angry.
But Judge McNerney didn't buy it. Outside the presence of the jury, he blocked the statement. When Moses took the stand on Dec. 11, she told a different story: She had seen two small plastic bags of men's and women's jewelry inside the trunk of Smith's Mercedes three months before the murder. Keller asked Moses if she'd lie for her ex-husband. "Not at all,‚" she replied.
Murray looked incredulous. Moses' fresh claim aimed directly at the heart of the prosecution's case. She'd always refused to give police an interview, and she waited until October of this year to tell one of Keller's associates about her observation. The prosecutor wanted to know why she'd withheld such serious information from law enforcement and "let Marvin sit in jail for two years.‚"
"Frankly, it's my impression that you massage the truth,‚" Moses shot back.
Asked outside the courtroom if he found Moses credible, Murray cocked his head to the right, raised an eyebrow, smiled and said, "No comment.‚"
Update: See this case's verdict over at our staff blog, Navel Gazing.