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The main characters in a silent movie that played in Judge William R. Froeberg's Santa Ana courtroom on March 25 were two accused killers: an ex-NFL linebacker and his onetime girlfriend, a prolific gold digger and convicted serial thief. Eric Naposki and Nanette Ann Packard wisely remained mute in Froeberg's presence. But a deaf person could have followed the proceedings just by watching the defendants' animated expressions—of shock and hatred—when prosecutors Matt Murphy and Keith Bogardus spoke.
While Packard is mousy, Naposki is a physical beast of a man, with a rosy-cheeked, cherubic face, thick black eyebrows on milky white skin and a shiny bald head that seems perpetually cocked back in defiance. He strutted so dramatically into the 10th-floor courtroom for a pretrial hearing that you'd have thought he learned to walk by watching Shaft. After sitting down at the defense table, Naposki glanced at Murphy, contorted his face as if he'd sniffed something putrid and bobbed his head, unmistakably saying, "Here I come, pal." If he wanted to sack Murphy, it must not have dawned on Naposki that, at least in this arena, where brains prevail, he was thoroughly outmatched.
But it was Naposki's defense lawyers who blitzed Murphy that day, arguing that the veteran prosecutor was unethical, that Newport Beach police were incompetent and that the government's case was a sham that must be tossed out.
"Mr. Naposki has suffered acute prejudice, and dismissal is the only way to remedy this," defense attorney Gary Pohlson told Froeberg.
Murphy charged Naposki and Packard with murder last year in the 1994 cold-case slaying of millionaire Orange County businessman William McLaughlin. Packard was McLaughlin's live-in girlfriend, and he pampered her with loads of cash, a luxury car and her own beach house. He named her the beneficiary of his $1 million life-insurance policy. He didn't know Packard returned his generosity with contempt. Police said she used his house as a love pad for a long list of men she met at bars or the Sports Club in Irvine.
To authorities, the murder motive is obvious: to steal McLaughlin's fortune, which included a checking account that usually held no less than $650,000; a private plane; a Las Vegas house; and a Newport Beach estate steps from the Pacific Ocean.
Packard and Naposki—who played for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts—quickly became suspects after the crime, police allege. Packard had spent the days before and after the killing stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from McLaughlin, moves she tried to conceal by transferring some of the funds to a Nevada shell corporation she'd created. She bought gifts for herself and Naposki or simply handed him large sums of McLaughlin's money.
Packard allegedly also urged witnesses to not tell detectives that she'd spent the hours before the slaying with Naposki—who, according to prosecutors, owned a 9mm handgun like the one used in the killing, had bragged that he wanted McLaughlin dead, kept the millionaire's license-plate number scribbled on a note in his car, was desperate for a big payday after his football career crashed and worked as a nightclub bouncer just 140 feet from McLaughlin's front door.
The original prosecutor on the case declined to file charges. It took 15 years, a new prosecutor (Murphy) and a new detective, DA's office investigator Larry Montgomery, to review the case, uncover fresh, incriminating evidence and stun the exclusive coastal community with dramatic arrests. The decidedly modest Montgomery, a member of the Orange County Taskforce Aimed at Catching Killers, Rapists and Sexual Offenders Unit (TracKRS), is one of the region's best sleuths.
But defense lawyers insisted there is no new evidence and that police stalled in making arrests, which allowed exculpatory records to disappear and witnesses' memories to fade. They also said police ignored likelier suspects. In fact, the defense claimed it has narrowed the real killer's identity to two people: McLaughlin's son (who has since died, but whom they claim had a rocky relationship with his father) or someone connected to an ex-business partner who had lost a $9 million judgment to McLaughlin shortly before the killing.
Denise Gragg, Packard's public defender, said the defense no longer possesses evidence that establishes an alibi for Naposki and Packard: records of an alleged pay-phone call Naposki made at a Denny's restaurant in Tustin at 8:52 the night of the killing, which occurred 10 miles away 17 or 18 minutes later. (A 911 call by McLaughlin's son established the time of death.)
"All the records that would support their alibis were not kept by police," Gragg told the judge. "Any type of phone call makes it impossible for Mr. Naposki to have committed the crime. . . . If Mr. Naposki has an alibi for the killing, Mrs. Packard [who drove Naposki to Tustin before going on a shopping spree at South Coast Plaza while McLaughlin was being gunned down] cannot be guilty."
To allow the case to proceed to trial, Gragg said, would be "the height of unfairness" when the defendants have been robbed of their best defense: "a complete alibi."
But prosecutors Murphy and Bogardus said the call was never made, and therefore no records ever existed. Even if Naposki could place himself in Tustin at that time, prosecutors said, he still could have gone to McLaughlin's house via the 55 freeway that connects the two locations, used a front-door key given to him by Packard, fired six shots into McLaughlin as he made a sandwich in his kitchen, and then traveled the short distance to his job at the nearby Thunderbird nightclub, arriving about five minutes after the slaying.
"All the relevant evidence gathered and preserved points squarely at Mr. Naposki and Mrs. Packard," argued Bogardus, who said that although the defense claims "sound forceful," they are "little more than paper tigers."
Bogardus called records of the 8:52 p.m. phone-call alibi "speculative" and urged Froeberg not to hand prosecutors "the ultimate punishment"—dismissal—based on "notoriously riddled speculation."
He also asked rhetorically: Why should prosecutors be blamed after the defense lost its copies of the supposedly exculpatory records?
Yet Gragg—a powerful, accomplished courtroom advocate—sees sinister conduct.
"They deliberately let this [pay-phone-call] evidence disappear," she said. "There was an alibi that we can't put in front of a jury anymore. That's prejudice."
Froeberg listened patiently to both sides and said he'll decide in the coming days if defense complaints have case-ending merit.
This column appeared in print as "Illegal Procedure? Cops lost key alibi evidence in a Newport Beach murder case involving an ex-NFL player, defense lawyers say."