Tale of Complex Slaying Cover-Up Unreels : Court Hears Tape of Maid's Statement About TV Producer's Death

Times Staff Writer

A live-in maid who has admitted killing her employer in Woodland Hills concocted an elaborate scheme to cover her actions, including wearing a blond wig when she buried blood-stained evidence, according to a tape recording of her statements to police.

In the 90-minute taped interview with investigators, Mayra Melendez Lopez, 25, said she cut off parts of a mattress that was spattered with television producer Herbert Wallerstein's blood and later told police that the family's dogs had chewed the bed.

The tape was played Tuesday during Lopez's preliminary hearing on a murder charge in Van Nuys Municipal Court.

Lopez said on the tape that she gathered the sheets, bloody clothing, Wallerstein's credit cards and other personal effects, and the baseball bat she used in the bludgeoning, then donned a blond wig and buried the items in a field across from El Camino High School in Woodland Hills.

Los Angeles Police Detective Joseph Diglio said Lopez later led investigators to the field, where the items, including the wig, were recovered.

The body of Wallerstein, 59, was found Sept. 29 in the back seat of his burning car, which was parked in a residential area blocks from his home.

Lopez told investigators that she killed Wallerstein on Sept. 27 after he flew into a rage for no apparent reason and kicked his dogs, then cursed and hit her twice, knocking her to the ground. Her attorney said he will argue that she acted in self-defense and that the killing was justifiable homicide.

Prosecutors say they don't know the motive for the killing and have presented no evidence disputing Lopez's account of events in the house. But they say the calculated cover-up shows that Lopez knew she was guilty of a crime.

Lopez has not testified at the hearing. But on the tape of her interview with detectives Nov. 26, she said of Wallerstein: "He tried to kill me. He was like crazy. . . .

"When I fell down, he hit me in my eyes. He wouldn't let me get up."

While Wallerstein's body was still on his bedroom floor, Lopez said, she removed his watch and rings to make it look as if the attack were part of a robbery.

She said she also attempted to remove his pajama pants with the intention of dressing him in street clothes so that she would not be suspected as the killer. However, she said, she was unable to change the clothing, so she left him in his pajama top and undershorts.

Lopez said she put Wallerstein on the bed sheet and dragged his body out the front door, then placed him in the back seat of his car in the driveway.

Asked by detectives how she alone could have hoisted the body into the car, she replied: "I am very strong."

According to a medical examiner's testimony, Wallerstein was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 167 pounds. A police report lists Lopez at five feet and 150 pounds, but she said on the tape that she can lift more than 200 pounds.

Although a witness testified Monday at the hearing that she saw Lopez running from the direction of the car just minutes before it burst into flames, Lopez told police that she did not set the vehicle afire. Police have said they believe Lopez set the car on fire.

Boyfriend Helped

She said her boyfriend went to the Wallerstein house a few hours after the killing, drove with her to abandon the car, and then came back two days later and started the blaze in an effort to eliminate traces of his fingerprints.

Lopez said the boyfriend, Israel Lopez Rodriguez of Canoga Park, dressed in her hat and shirt to disguise himself as a woman when he ignited the fire.

"He looks a little like me," Lopez said on the tape.

Rodriguez has not been located by police.

Lopez said on the tape that she found $600 to $700 in Wallerstein's wallet and gave it to Rodriguez, who was planning to return to their native El Salvador. She said he begged her to go with him, but she felt she could not leave Wallerstein's widow alone that soon after her husband's death.

"How could I leave? I had to take care of them. She couldn't be alone," Lopez told police.

Lopez said the fight began after Wallerstein asked her to bring him some ice cream. When she returned with the dessert, she said, he threw it at her and said: "I'm sick and tired of this dog and you and everything."

Asked by detectives what might have provoked Wallerstein to hit her, she said his television work had slowed and he was in poor health, suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes and gout. Lopez, who had worked for Wallerstein nearly seven years, said he had previously treated her well and had never hit her or abused her.

Excited About Work

Ted Wallerstein of Sherman Oaks confirmed Tuesday that his brother had the health problems that Lopez mentioned, but he said his brother had recently obtained financing for several new movies and was very excited about the upcoming work.

"The whole thing is unbelievable," Ted Wallerstein said. "He was such a nonviolent person, even from the time we were kids. And the stuff about beating the dogs . . . he was an absolute dog-lover."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Norman F. Montrose said he doubted Lopez's account of the events.

"It's almost unbelievable that suddenly a man in his own house . . . over a dish of ice cream just suddenly goes berserk," Montrose said.

Judge James M. Coleman will decide today whether the prosecution has presented enough evidence to hold Lopez for trial.

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