Pregame Show
A decade and a half after a wealthy Newport Beach man’s murder, his girlfriend and a former NFL player stand accused of the killing

Chains wrapped around his wrists and ankles, ex-NFL player and accused murderer Eric Naposki shuffled noisily into an Orange County courtroom this month. The former New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts linebacker cocked his shaved head to the right, put a sour expression on his face and sighed as he sat near his alleged co-killer, Nanette Packard McNeal. Or was it simply boredom that Naposki wanted to project for an overflow audience that included producers for ABC’s 20/20, CBS’s 48 Hours and NBC’s Dateline?

There’s no mistaking what is attracting the network news magazines to the cold-case 1994 ambush murder in an exclusive, gated Newport Beach community yards from the slamming waves of the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the aforementioned arrogant jock, there’s William Francis McLaughlin, the loveable, ultra-wealthy victim who seems to have misjudged the character of his live-in girlfriend, McNeal, a serial thief addicted to high-end South Coast Plaza shopping and cheating with a ripped, 6-foot-2, 240-pound pro-athlete-turned-bouncer.

In the early 1990s, McNeal landed McLaughlin with a personal ad that stated, “I know how to take care of my man if he knows how to take care of me.” McNeal, who didn’t have a penny of her own prior to the murder, received the proceeds of a $1 million life-insurance policy upon McLaughlin’s death.

The trial, which could start as early as spring, should ooze drama. It took 15 years for a detective to chase down abandoned leads and make dramatic arrests in May. Count on four feisty defense attorneys to challenge that work and blame dimwitted cops for permanently botching the investigation early on. Representing the state is Matt Murphy, a lanky veteran homicide prosecutor whose youthful appearance and gentle demeanor belie stone-cold tenacity.

The two-day preliminary hearing in Judge Robert C. Gannon Jr.’s courtroom demonstrated that emotions on both sides are still raw. Family and friends of McLaughlin, who was shot six times by an intruder as he made a sandwich in his kitchen on Dec. 15, 1994, were visibly relieved that justice could be so close. They wore buttons with McLaughlin’s picture.

Those supporting the defendants—particularly McNeal—didn’t hide their frustration. During presentations by Murphy, they’d routinely roll their eyes, moan, and look at one another and shake their heads.

Defense lawyers have been vocally contemptuous of the case, as well. Gary Pohlson, a seasoned pro who represents Naposki, seemed exasperated that prosecution witness Thomas A. Voth, one of the Newport Beach police detectives on the case, answered Murphy’s questions while relying on a notebook that hadn’t been supplied to the defense. Pohlson got Voth, who is now retired, to concede that in the years since the killing, the district attorney’s office rejected filing charges against McNeal and Naposki after opining that the circumstantial evidence against the pair wasn’t strong enough to win convictions.

While Pohlson soberly probed for new evidence, public defender Michael Hill, McNeal’s lawyer, treated Voth like a schoolkid who hadn’t finished his homework. A large, witty man with a booming voice and a thick Irish accent, Hill was incredulous that police now reject the Naposki-McNeal alibi: that the two couldn’t have killed McLaughlin because they were 40 miles away attending a youth-soccer match in Diamond Bar. The public defender annoyed the court stenographer with his continual rapidfire questions. But there was no doubt he frustrated Voth more.

After getting the detective to admit that the pre-murder time line “to the minute” is crucial in the case, he asked a series of questions, each of them ending in a “no”: Other than one adult couple, did you interview any of the kids or other parents at the soccer match to confirm or challenge when Naposki and McNeal claimed they left on the night of the murder? Did you interview any of the referees to determine when the game and trophy ceremony ended? Did you search to see if any parents videotaped the game and possibly captured images of those watching? Did you think a man who’d lost a bitter, multimillion-dollar business litigation with the victim could be involved in the killing?

“Slow down,” the judge told Hill at one point.

“I get excited,” he replied, smiling.

On day two of the hearing, Hill asked Larry Montgomery—the acclaimed DA’s investigator whose work led to the arrests—if Newport Beach police had “adequately” investigated the alibi in 1994 and 1995, when recollections were fresh. Montgomery sat silently on the witness stand for 10 or 12 seconds.

“The record should note the pause, judge,” Hill said.

“I think that more could have been done,” the detective finally answered. “However, not enough information was available [at the time] to determine if that was a valid alibi or not.”

Murphy acknowledged that Hill’s questioning “seemed impressive,” but he pegged it as meaningless. Based on the 911 call by the victim’s son, who was home at the time of the killing, the murder likely happened within a minute or two of 9:09 p.m. McNeal told police in her first interview that she and Naposki left the game at 8 p.m. Two eyewitnesses who saw the couple there say they left no later than 8:20 p.m.—still “plenty of time” to make the 35- or 40-minute drive (depending on traffic) to the murder scene, according to the senior deputy DA.

It’s law enforcement’s theory that McNeal dropped off Naposki at his apartment in Tustin so that he could take his own vehicle to McLaughlin’s or she drove him straight there. Either way, cops believe McNeal established an additional fraudulent alibi by buying a vase at Crate & Barrel inside South Coast Plaza 20 minutes after Naposki fired six 9 mm shots into the 55-year-old McLaughlin, and then fled 250 feet away to his job as a bouncer at the Thunderbird nightclub (now closed) in Lido Village. That night, Naposki arrived at work late for his 9 p.m. shift.

While the defense claims Murphy doesn’t “have a scintilla of evidence,” the prosecutor introduced non-exculpatory evidence including:

• Montgomery found a new eyewitness who claims Naposki told her prior to the killing that he wanted McLaughlin dead.

• Though Naposki and McNeal had combined assets worth no more than a couple of thousand dollars, they were observed repeatedly shopping together before the murder for a large, million-dollar-plus home in Irvine’s exclusive Turtle Rock area.

• The killer obtained a key to silently enter McLaughlin’s home.

• Naposki had recorded McLaughlin’s license-plate number in a notebook he kept in his vehicle.

• Though police hadn’t publicized the caliber of the murder weapon, Naposki distanced himself from owning a 9 mm handgun, the type used by the killer. Eventually, Naposki admitted he had owned a Beretta 9 mm, but, he claimed, he’d given it to a friend prior to the murder; that friend denied the story, claiming he was given a .380 caliber handgun, which contained the “exact same brand” of ammunition used by the killer.

• McNeal asked people not to tell police about her romance with Naposki.

• In the hours surrounding the murder, McNeal forged $350,000 in checks from McLaughlin’s bank account to herself.

“As soon as Bill McLaughlin realizes that Nanette is stealing from him, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that their relationship is not going to be healthy,” said Murphy. “The evidence is overwhelming that these two people conspired and murdered him.”

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

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