Observing the ongoing Eric Naposki murder trial in Santa Ana, I recalled an old Columbo episode. Police lieutenant Columbo—played by Peter Falk, who recently died—blurts out to a homicide suspect, "What a coincidence!"
The suspect, positive he's erased his ties to the crime, replies, "What's that?"
Columbo notes that the killer is left-handed, and then pauses to let viewers know the game is up. "You're left-handed."
Real crime-solving isn't as simple as it's depicted on TV. But if an Orange County jury convicts Naposki—a cocky, former National Football League linebacker—for the 1994 murder of a Newport Beach millionaire, it might be due to a Columbo-type moment. Worse for Naposki, he would have himself to blame.
In the wake of the killing of William Francis McLaughlin, police detective Thomas Voth easily tied Naposki to the victim. McLaughlin, a 55-year-old earning more than $100,000-per-month, and Naposki, a 27-year-old club doorman who couldn't afford to buy a car and rented a modest Tustin studio apartment, simultaneously dated the same 29-year-old woman: Nanette Johnston.
Suspiciously, Johnston, who will face a jury later this year as a co-conspirator in the case, asked witnesses to not tell police she'd spent the hours before the murder with Naposki. Indeed, she withheld the fact from detectives. But there is plenty of evidence that neither had otherwise made much effort to hide any affections. People saw them kissing in public spots such as the Sports Club in Irvine. Though they had combined assets of almost zero, they shopped as a couple for homes worth just less than $1 million in Irvine's Turtle Rock and told a realtor they'd buy after receiving a future financial windfall.
McLaughlin was clueless about his fiancee's promiscuity, which included intimate relations in his house with numerous men, police discovered. He let her and her two young kids live in his ritzy Balboa Coves house, loaned her $35,000, bought her a car and an engagement ring, paid her credit-card bills, and left her $1,150,000 in his will. He didn't know Johnston used his money to buy gifts for Naposki and was stealing more than $600,000 from his bank accounts.
Though Johnston asserted an alibi (a South Coast Plaza Crate & Barrel receipt time-stamped 19 minutes after the killing, though the store was located 11 or 12 minutes from the crime scene), McLaughlin's will made her a suspect the instant someone with a key entered McLaughlin's home and neatly fired six copper-jacketed, hollow-tip bullets into the businessman's torso. When police first interviewed Naposki—who'd visited a gun-firing range in the weeks before the murder—he lied about dating Johnston. In the audio recordings of the interviews, which the prosecution played in court last week, he told Voth and Detective Steve Van Horn, "Nanette's a pretty good friend of mine."
Horn: "Define 'good friend.'"
Naposki: "We've been friends for two and a half years."
He also suggested the only reason detectives had spotted him with Johnston at McLaughlin's beach house after the murder was because he was babysitting for her.
Voth: "You're just a friend who is helping her out?"
Naposki: "Pretty much."
When Naposki was supplying those answers, he had been sleeping with Johnston for at least a year and had already taken a romantic trip with her to Jamaica. They had also traveled together to other states to meet each other's parents. Later, when detectives asked him why he'd lied, Johnston arrogantly claimed he wanted to protect "my girl."
But that deceit won't be the most troubling thing for the jury when it deliberates sometime this month. As defense lawyers point out, there is no physical evidence—fingerprints or DNA—that unmasks the killer. Yet at the top of a mountain of circumstantial evidence for prosecutor Matt Murphy is this: Naposki's possible link to the murder weapon.
Eight days after the killing, Naposki—who, on the night of the crime, arrived late for his job as a bouncer at the Thunderbird nightclub, located about a football field from McLaughlin's home—told police he didn't own any guns.
It was another lie told by the man who assured detectives, "I want to be totally helpful to you guys."
Unimpressed, the cops later returned to the gun issue.
Van Horn: "You said you don't own any firearms at all."
Naposki: "I, uh, bought one. Um. I haven't seen it in so long. I, uh, bought one in Dallas that I gave to my dad [a New York resident]. It was a .380 [handgun]."
The former member of the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Barcelona Dragons ended the interview boasting, "I'm not worried about anything."
But the cops probed Naposki's gun claims, and in a second interview, detectives Craig Frizzell and Voth confronted him.
Frizzell: "Where is your 9 mm [gun]?"
"I have no idea," said Naposki, who bought a $700 Beretta 9 mm gun four months before McLaughlin's murder and had earlier purchased two Bryco-Jennings .380 handguns.
Frizzell: "You have no idea?"
Naposki: "That's my statement. I don't want to waste time taking about that anymore."
Voth: "Help us out."
Naposki: "No. . . . It doesn't matter. . . . I don't want to talk about it. . . . Here's the thing: No matter what happened to any guns, any time, anywhere, I didn't do anything wrong with anything, okay? That's my statement. . . . You see, this is the stuff that is irrelevant."
Frizzell: "You made it pretty clear that you had only one gun."
Frizzell: "That's a big discrepancy."
Naposki: "Uh-huh. . . . Is this important?"
Voth: "We have to verify your story."
Frizzell: "The way I see it, we have a missing 9 mm Beretta handgun."
Naposki may have panicked. He offered more brazen historical revisionism. "You guys asked me if I had any guns," he told the officers. "I was upfront and honest with you about it. I said, yeah."
Jurors listened intently to the interviews, which contain Naposki's angry cries of innocence even while he's being deceitful. At one point, when caught in a lie about his guns, he said, "I misled you—big deal. Slap me on the wrist."
The panel of citizens eventually will have to ask itself: Why did Naposki distance himself from owning a 9 mm exactly 50 days before the public learned what caliber bullets hit McLaughlin?
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Better yet: At a time when only one person—the killer—knew he'd used an Italian-made Beretta 92F, why, out of the hundreds and hundreds of handguns in the world, was Naposki lying about owning precisely that one?
It's a question that would prompt Columbo to utter, "What a coincidence!"
This column appeared in print as "Eric, Get Your Gun: Missing murder-weapon discrepancies loom over Eric Naposki's trial."