Maid Acquitted in Producer's Beating Death

Times Staff Writer

The live-in housekeeper of slain producer Herbert Wallerstein was acquitted Wednesday of manslaughter charges in his death.

Mayra Melendez Lopez, 26, was accused of beating Wallerstein to death with a baseball bat, dumping his body in a car and setting it on fire.

A Van Nuys Superior Court jury found Lopez not guilty of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and arson. She was released from custody after the verdict.

Lopez, a Salvadoran immigrant who had worked for the Wallerstein family at their Woodland Hills home for seven years, burst into tears after the verdicts were announced and buried her face in the chest of her attorney, Deputy Public Defender Mark Lessem.

"Thank you, thank you," she whispered to the panel.

Taped Interview

Although Lopez did not testify during the trial, her 90-minute taped interview with police was played for the jury.

On the tape, Lopez admitted that she bludgeoned Wallerstein, 59, a former senior vice president at 20th Century Fox, with a baseball bat on Sept. 27, while other family members were vacationing in Mexico.

The defendant claimed, however, that she acted in self-defense only after he inexplicably kicked the family dog, threw ice cream in her face and pummeled her repeatedly, blackening her eye.

"He threw the tray and ice cream in my face," Lopez said. "I went to pick up the tray, he hit me. . . . When I fall down, he hit me in the eyes. . . . I took the bat . . . and hit him."

In an effort to conceal the killing, she said, she dragged Wallerstein's body out of the house and put it in the back seat of his car. She said her boyfriend then drove the car two blocks away and parked it.

Destroyed Fingerprints

Two days later, the boyfriend, who has not been located, grew concerned that his fingerprints might be discovered on the vehicle, so he set it afire, Lopez said.

However, the prosecution presented one witness who identified Lopez as the individual she saw walking away from the car minutes before it burst into flames.

Jurors, who deliberated for 2 1/2 days, said they were split several ways during their meetings but finally concluded that they all had "reasonable doubt," the legal standard for acquittal.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Norman F. Montrose, labeled Lopez's account of the killing a "fairy tale," and argued to the jury that Lopez used "excessive force" by striking Wallerstein at least three times with the bat--once in the groin and twice in the head.

"The problem with the prosecution is that there are only two people who really know what happened--one is dead and the other gave a self-serving statement to police," Montrose said. "I can't cross-examine a tape."

Lopez was initially charged with murder, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter by Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht, who ruled that the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence at the preliminary hearing to show that Lopez had acted with premeditation and malice.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World