More than six years after a Sylmar nurse was brutally murdered, a Burbank woman whose "vision" led investigators to the body is suing Los Angeles police for falsely arresting her as the suspected killer.
Etta Louise Smith's desire to be a good citizen by reporting her "psychic experience" to authorities backfired and resulted in a four-day stint behind bars, her attorney said Wednesday in opening statements to a Van Nuys Superior Court jury hearing the trial of the suit.
"It was the ultimate nightmare for a civic-minded person," attorney James E. Blatt said.
Smith, 39, was released from jail and never charged. She is seeking unspecified damages from Los Angeles for the "humiliating" experience, which included a strip search, Blatt said.
She had no connection to the victim, Melanie L. Uribe, 31, who was kidnaped, raped and beaten to death, or to the three men who eventually were convicted of the crime, Blatt said. The three are serving sentences of up to life in state prison.
Smith, the mother of three, does not claim to be psychic, but had a "powerfully unusual" experience that led her to the body, Blatt said.
Assistant City Atty. Michael K. Fox, representing the city, acknowledged Wednesday in his opening statement that investigators uncovered no evidence linking Smith to the killers. But Fox asserted that officers had sufficient cause to arrest Smith after she related details that they believed could have been known only by someone connected with the murder, then led them to the body.
"Reasonable police officers, confronted with reasonable beliefs, a string of bizarre, very suspicious circumstances, had sufficient, legal, probable cause to arrest Etta Smith," Fox told jurors. "Police officers are, by their nature, a somewhat suspicious lot. We're dealing with a brutal, savage, somewhat sadistic murder."
The search for Uribe began after she failed to report for work at Pacoima Memorial Hospital on Dec. 15, 1980.
Two days later, after hearing news reports about the missing nurse, Smith, an aerospace worker, "had a feeling, a vision, a psychic experience, whatever you want to call it," Blatt said. The vision placed the woman's body in a remote hillside area in Lopez Canyon, above Lake View Terrace, he said.
Overcome by a feeling of dread, Smith left work at Lockheed Corp. in Burbank and went to the police Foothill Division station to tell investigators that she believed she knew where the body could be found, Blatt said.
After pointing out the location to police on a map, Smith, who then lived in Pacoima, went home, collected two of her children and a visiting niece and drove out to the area, Blatt said. The family searched along the canyon road for about 30 minutes before Smith's daughter spotted the victim's nude body from the roadway, Blatt said.
The group summoned a forest ranger and police and led them to the spot where the body had been abandoned.
"From the moment of finding that body, everything would turn upside down for her," Blatt said.
Detectives questioned Smith for several hours before arresting her the morning of Dec. 18, police reports show. She was left in a cell barefoot and was given nothing to eat or drink for 24 hours, Blatt said.
In the meantime, one of the killers had bragged about the murder to residents of his Pacoima neighborhood, Fox said. An informant notified police, and the suspect was arrested Dec. 21, he said.
That suspect confessed and implicated the two others, Fox said. According to police reports, the three jumped into Uribe's pickup truck as she was waiting at a traffic light on Foothill Boulevard, then drove her into the canyon area, where she was robbed, raped and beaten over the head with a rock.
Smith was released from custody the afternoon of Dec. 21 after detectives interviewed the suspects and uncovered no connection to her, Fox said.
Blatt said Smith left the Van Nuys police station "stripped bare as a human being."
Police gave her "no apology, no thank you, just open the door and goodby," Blatt said.
Testimony in the trial before Judge Joel Rudof, is expected to last a week.