Trial Set in 10-Year-Old Beverly Hills Murder Mystery : Ex-Hughes Aide Says He’s Victim of a Political Set-Up; Prosecutor Describes Him as Con Man
The only thing open and shut about the 1974 murder of Alfred Wayne Netter was what the maid did to the door when she found his body. She slammed it shut and stifled a scream.
But for the Beverly Hills police, Netter’s death at the Beverly Hilton was a gnawing mystery, until they finally connected it to a former Howard Hughes aide, who is scheduled to go on trial today in the decade-old slaying.
Because Netter, a Vancouver businessman, had been stabbed repeatedly in a room strewn with tabloid ads for out-call massage parlors, police at first thought his killing might have been sex-related. But there were many other possibilities.
Years passed without solid leads. Then one former business associate from Canada pointed his finger at the Hughes aide, John Herbert Meier. And police began focusing on a maze of corporations in the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Liechtenstein in search of a financial motive.
Meier, police say, turned out to be the man behind the corporations. And police came to regard him as an extraordinarily gifted con artist who had arranged Netter’s death to cash in on an insurance policy.
Beverly Hills police Detective Larry Leffler, who built the case against Meier, said that Meier was a hidden beneficiary of a $400,000 insurance policy on Netter’s life.
Meier, 50, has had a jet-setting career. He had been Hughes’ “scientific adviser” in Las Vegas, an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate from New Mexico, and a diplomatic representative for the king of Tonga.
He also had been a figure in Watergate. And he claims now that he is being set up for Netter’s murder by political enemies still angry over his role in providing information to Senate Watergate Committee investigators about Hughes’ relationship with former President Richard M. Nixon.
In court papers, Meier’s former attorney has woven an elaborate theory of conspiracy. Arrayed against Meier, the attorney said, are unnamed former aides to Nixon, a “sympathetic operative” in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, and the Summa Corp., a Hughes entity said to have “far-reaching . . . clandestine . . . tentacles.”
Summa is said to be anxious to force Meier to pay an $8-million judgment that the corporation won against him in a suit that accused him of defrauding the Hughes empire in the pursuit of worthless mining claims.
“It seems that the John Meier story is one that only the most imaginative screenwriter could create,” said the former attorney, Regis Possino, who was recently disbarred for offering to sell 350 pounds of marijuana to undercover police officers.
Earl Durham, the San Diego lawyer who replaced him, is less certain than Possino of the precise dimensions of the alleged plot.
“I think we’ve either got Summa Corp. behind this or another government agency, the feds, or maybe another individual . . . I just don’t know,” he said in an interview. “But Nixon keeps coming back into my consciousness.”
Durham said he agreed to represent Meier without fee after he was approached by “a patriot” who wanted to make sure that the purportedly penniless Meier wasn’t framed.
Meier may have been a key to Watergate. He told Senate investigators in 1973 of his friendship and travels with Nixon’s brother, Donald, and of what he knew of a $100,000 campaign contribution from Hughes to the President’s reelection campaign.
And afterward, the Watergate committee’s chief counsel, Samuel Dash, theorized publicly that Nixon’s fears that Democrats had obtained damaging data about Donald’s business affairs may have led to the Watergate break-in.
Watergate Link Denied
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Brenner, who is prosecuting Meier in Netter’s death, said Watergate has nothing to do with his case.
“Mr. Meier is a world-class, top-level con man who somehow or other in the dying years of the Hughes empire, like a lot of other parasites, hit upon that particular empire and started to feed on it,” Brenner said.
“As such he was able to insinuate his way into higher circles. Never with the type of people he claims he was with (such as the reclusive Hughes himself). But rather hangers-on such as Donald Nixon. . . .”
It is Brenner’s theory that this ability of Meier to “insinuate” himself came into play in Netter’s death.
Much has been written about Meier. According to published accounts, he was working for a small Hughes subsidiary in the area of electronic data processing when, in the late 1960s, he was brought to the attention of the billionaire who had hidden himself away in the penthouse of the Las Vegas Desert Inn.
Meier--known as “Dr. Meier” despite his apparent lack of a college degree--was named scientific adviser to Summa’s predecessor, the Hughes Tool Co.
He was told to try to persuade the government to stop testing nuclear weapons underground in Nevada, a practice that Hughes reportedly feared would topple his hotel.
Meier was also placed in charge of a Hughes plan to acquire and eventually tap Nevada’s abandoned gold and silver mines.
But Meier, while being paid by Hughes to buy mining properties, was also being paid by a company that was selling mining properties to Hughes.
Many of the mines Hughes acquired proved worthless and a court ultimately held that Meier, because of breaches of fiduciary duties, owed $8 million to the Hughes organization.
But what got Meier fired from Hughes’ Nevada operation was his refusal to honor an indirectly delivered White House request that he break off his relationship with Donald Nixon.
Former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, writing in his book, “Witness to Power,” said that Meier and the President’s brother “talked the same language . . . the lexicon of the big deal.”
Ehrlichman related that the President had his brother’s phone tapped and had his brother followed, primarily to document the relationship with Meier out of fear that some deal they cooked up would come back to haunt him politically, as had an earlier loan that Donald had accepted from Hughes but had not repaid.
Moves to Canada
Not long afterward, Meier was indicted on charges of income tax evasion--for allegedly having failed to report more than $2 million that the IRS claimed he made in the Hughes mining transactions.
Claiming that the charge against him was politically motivated and that the data used to indict him had come from the illegal tap on Donald Nixon’s phone, Meier forfeited $100,000 bail rather than stand trial.
By then, Meier had moved to a Vancouver suburb and could not be compelled to face the charge because income tax evasion is not an extraditable offense.
By then also, Meier had met Netter and, if the prosecution is to be believed, had him killed.
Netter was a hero of Israel’s 1948 war for independence who had moved to Vancouver, taught Hebrew, been a stockbroker, then formed a company with a German businessman to market fledgling videotape technology.
The company, Transcontinental Video, was in trouble and so was Netter who, at the time of his death, had been sentenced to seven years in prison on a Canadian perjury conviction but was free pending appeal.
Netter and his partner had been trying to sell franchises for theaters that would show movies on videotape. But they were having trouble persuading studios to sell them rights to movies at reasonable prices. And without movies they couldn’t sell franchises because their franchisees would have nothing to show.
Meier was introduced by a small stockholder as a man whose old Hughes connections might help dispel the Catch 22.
Reportedly claiming that he had movie studio contacts from his days with Hughes and had invested in motorcycle films himself, Meier became a consultant to Transcontinental Video. Then he reportedly offered to set up a $250,000 loan for the struggling company from a group of Swiss investors who wished to remain anonymous.
Prosecutor Brenner said he can prove that, with the aid of a Liechtenstein banker, the loan actually came from Meier and that Transcontinental Video ultimately received only $100,000 of the money, while agreeing to repay $400,000 in six months.
Brenner said that Meier, as the supposed representative of the Swiss lenders, had placed one condition on the loan: that Netter obtain a life insurance policy for $400,000 made payable to a dummy corporation over which Meier had hidden control.
“After the loan was made, Meier and the unsuspecting Netter spent the next few months cavorting around the world, spending the loan proceeds,” Brenner said. “No effort was made to promote the interests of TCV . . . and Meier and Netter appear to have systematically looted TCV through the purchase of phony mineral claims from a Meier associate.”
When the loan came due in September, 1974, Transcontinental Video could not repay it. But Meier, on behalf of the purported Swiss investors, agreed to extend the deadline if Netter and his partner transferred all their shares in the company to Meier to hold as collateral, the prosecutor said.
Netter was slain several weeks later.
Evidence linking Meier to the death is entirely circumstantial.
Meier was initially implicated in 1978 by a former associate, Robert Roberston, who told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that he had been with Meier in a Calgary hotel room in 1974 and that Meier had known of Netter’s death before the maid in Beverly Hills had even discovered Netter’s body.
Robertson, a British subject who has been unwilling to disclose much about himself on the ground that to do so would violate his country’s Official Secrets Act, has said that he is a writer who got to know Meier in the early 1970s because Roberston wanted to write a book on Hughes.
He said he went to the police after Meier warned that he could employ an assassin to deal with Robertson if the contemplated book showed Meier in an unfavorable light.
Robertson said that Meier had previously introduced him to a purported “hit man” named William McCrory, who the prosecution contends actually carried out Netter’s murder at Meier’s behest.
But the defense, in pretrial hearings, has tried to portray Robertson as a liar. It has introduced testimony from Meier’s former tax attorney, who said that Robertson was in Los Angeles when he claims to have been in Calgary.
And the defense has tried to link Robertson to a motive for murder, noting that he had been installed as president of a Transcontinental Video subsidiary--one of two corporate entities through which the life insurance proceeds were to pass.
In addition, the head of the second entity--Vancouver lawyer Gordon Hazlewood--has said that a “half-crazed” Robertson confessed to him in 1975 that he had witnessed Netter’s death.
Hazlewood, though, didn’t tell anyone about the purported confession until 1982--in the midst of his own fight to avoid extradition, after the Los Angeles County Grand Jury had charged him with the murder, along with Meier and McCrory.
Hazlewood won his fight. A Canadian court decided there was insufficient evidence to extradite him and the charge was dropped.
McCrory was never found.
But Meier was not so fortunate.
When Roberston surfaced, Meier had long been finished with Transcontinental Video. He was busy in the remote Polynesian island kingdom of Tonga, where he had announced plans to start a bank, build an international airport, and turn Tonga into a tourist Mecca.
Meier was traveling on a diplomatic passport he had obtained from the king, which came in handy when he was arrested in Australia in 1978 at the request of the FBI.
Meier had been indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of obstruction of justice for allegedly having caused forged documents to be entered into evidence during trial of the civil lawsuit brought against him by Summa Corp. over mining claims. But the king’s passport gave Meier diplomatic immunity and he was quickly released.
Meier ultimately returned to Canada, however, and, after fighting extradition for a year, was returned to the United States, convicted on the obstruction charge and forced to serve 30 months in prison.
In 1981, when he was indicted in Netter’s murder, Meier again fought extradition--this time for 2 1/2 years.
While in Canada, Meier had also portrayed himself as a victim of political repression. And he made charges--later raised by members of Parliament--that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had infiltrated Canada’s security services and influenced Canadian provincial elections in the 1970s.
After an investigation, the Canadian government rejected the charges as not credible.
But Meier still had powerful allies. His lawyer during the latter stages of his extradition fight, for example, was a former Speaker of the British Columbia Parliament, Gordon Dowding, who was arrested on charges of obstructing justice while representing Meier.
According to Los Angeles authorities, the arrest was sparked by an informant who related that Dowding and Meier had agreed to draft a letter, purportedly from the Palestine Liberation Organization, that would take credit for Netter’s death and throw judicial proceedings into confusion.
Meier was jailed in Los Angeles for nine months after his extradition. Then he was freed after a preliminary hearing when two men posted a reduced $200,000 bond on his behalf.
Last week, he was reported back in Canada. And Deputy Dist. Atty. Brenner was wondering aloud whether he would show up for his trial.