More than two decades after a young mother's murder, finally an answer

Morrad Ghonim sped out of the parking lot with his young bride bleeding to death in the passenger seat next to him. On the way to a hospital, he barreled through a red light.

Through frantic screams, he told the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled him over that someone had just shot his wife, Vicki, through the window of the family’s burgundy Honda as they left a park in La Mirada. He didn’t get a look at the shooter’s face, he said. As her body went limp, their 6-month-old son watched from the back seat.

It was July 23, 1992, and Ghonim had just become a 19-year-old widower.

Detectives followed a few leads, but the investigation went cold. A breakthrough nearly two decades after the shooting would lead investigators to a drug dealer with a wild story — and a courtroom drama that ended Monday.

The morning after the shooting, Ghonim and a pair of somber detectives went to see Vicki’s parents.

He told them that he and his wife had taken their baby to Creek Park. It was a special place for the sweethearts — Morrad, 19, and Vicki, 17 — who sometimes had sneaked away from class at John Glenn High School to spend time there together.

Soon after they got to the park, Ghonim said, he heard a group of people catcalling his wife. He figured they were gang members. Vicki, whose loving but feisty personality sometimes got the best of her, screamed something back.

Ghonim said he got a bad feeling and ushered his family toward their car. As they settled into the Honda, he heard gunfire. The shooter had been hiding behind bushes, he said, so he never got a look at who had attacked his wife.

Police had collected a clump of clothes from the park that night, including a sweatshirt a witness recognized as one worn by a man jogging nearby right after the gunshots rang out. But detectives could never determine whom the items belong to.

Ghonim eventually remarried a woman from Jordan — his parents’ homeland. He and his new wife had five children. They raised Vicki’s son together. He fell out of touch with his dead wife’s family.

About a decade ago, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received grant money to reopen old cases and look at genetic evidence.

They tested a pair of black pants found in the bushes at Creek Park and turned up DNA from Leon Martinez, who was serving prison time for burglary.

At first, Martinez tried to pin the murder on a dead friend. But he eventually admitted to shooting Vicki Ghonim. It wasn’t the botched carjacking that authorities long had suspected. No, he told detectives, he was a hired hit man.

And his client was Morrad Ghonim.

Now a businessman living in Antigua with his third wife, Ghonim was extradited last year. He recently sat at the defense table in a Norwalk courtroom — his graying temples framing heavy eyes. 

As Martinez entered to testify, Ghonim cleared his throat and glared.

The two had met through a mutual acquaintance in 1992, Martinez said. After Ghonim bought  crack cocaine from him that same day, Martinez said, Ghonim asked if he knew anybody who would kill for money.

Martinez had recently traded drugs for a .22-caliber revolver, so he said he would do it.

They didn’t get into many details, Martinez said, but Ghonim told him that he wanted it to look like a robbery. They settled on a price: $20,000.

“He just wanted her dead,” Martinez said.

When he saw the burgundy Honda pull into the parking lot that evening, Martinez was high on cocaine. But he said he remembers walking up to the window and pulling the gun from his pocket. He stood a foot away, he said, and fired at Vicki’s head.

As she pleaded with him not to hurt her baby, he shot her again and again. The last time, he said, he put the gun directly to her eyes and pulled the trigger.

As her body slumped over, Martinez testified, Ghonim handed him an envelope of cash, reaching over his wife’s body.

“It doesn’t get more premeditated and deliberate,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Villa said during the trial.

After taking the money, Martinez said, he jogged away, shedding his top layer of clothes near some bushes. He then headed to a nearby Del Taco, where he waited for a friend.

During Martinez’s testimony, Ghonim scribbled notes. Sometimes he stared down, shaking his head.

Villa urged jurors to consider Martinez’s testimony along with that of his former friend, Deanna Woody, who had picked him up the night of the murder.

In 1998, Woody said, a tearful Martinez had confessed to her. She said she didn’t tell police until after a detective contacted her in 2009 because she feared for her life and her family’s safety.

She also testified that a few days before the slaying, she had seen Martinez with a man who she thought looked Middle Eastern. She said the man asked her if she was single and told her that he was having problems with the mother of his child — a student at John Glenn High. He said they were planning to split up.

The man also told Woody, whose child had recently had a heart transplant, that he too had had an operation on his heart, she testified.

But the defense pointed out that Woody had been unable to pick out Ghonim’s photograph from a lineup. And Martinez had changed some details while on the witness stand.

During previous interviews and court appearances, he’d said that Ghonim had paid him a lot less — putting the amount at $500 one time and $10,000 at another. Earlier, he’d told authorities that he had met Ghonim on numerous occasions to sell him drugs before he was asked about killing Vicki. 

Pressed by the defense, Martinez said, “My memory ain’t that good at all.”

And in several recorded phone calls Martinez made to his wife from behind bars, he said he had talked to the prosecutor about the case and was considering lying about Ghonim’s role in the killing.

“I could tell by the way the D.A. is acting that they need me,” he told her. “If I could make up a lie to convict this other guy, they’re going to do that.”

In another call, he said the detectives and attorneys wanted him “to basically sit and make a story up.”

Asked about the calls during the trial, Martinez said he was lying because he didn’t want his wife to know that he had  killed Vicki.

Ghonim’s attorneys argued that the recordings were clear proof that Martinez had lied for his own benefit.

After a jury convicted him last year of Vicki’s murder, Martinez struck a deal. In exchange for his testimony against Ghonim, he’d get 28 years to life in prison instead of life without the possibility of parole.

“He’s told so many different stories,” defense attorney Dmitry Gorin told jurors before they began deliberating last week. “He’s somebody that can’t be trusted and he’s the centerpiece of the government’s case.”

In his closing arguments, Villa asked the jury to think back a few days to when they’d heard from Ghonim’s second wife, Nisreen Alfaleh.

She testified that Ghonim has a scar on his chest from heart surgery he had as a child — a clear sign, Villa told jurors, that the Middle Eastern man Woody had spoken to years earlier was Ghonim.

Alfaleh also testified that during the winter of 2012, the couple got into a fight at a restaurant in Antigua. Alfaleh said she told her then-husband she was planning to take the kids and move to Texas.

“‘If you ever think of getting a divorce, I’ll hurt you,’” she recalled him saying. “‘It cost me $500 then, it won’t cost me much now.”

Why did you pick $500, she asked him? Are you referring to your first wife?

He didn’t respond, she said. 

The jury, which deliberated for nearly a week, reached a verdict Monday: Morrad Ghonim was guilty of first-degree murder. He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole at his sentencing Dec. 19.

Villa praised the panel’s decision, calling it a relief for Vicki’s family.

“It’s finally over,” he said.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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