A Burbank woman whose “psychic vision” led detectives to the body of a murder victim was wrongly arrested, a judge ruled Thursday, saying that Los Angeles police lacked sufficient evidence to tie her to the killing.
A Van Nuys Superior Court jury will decide today the amount of damages the woman, Etta Louise Smith, should be paid by the city for a four-day stay in jail she likened to being a “caged animal.”
Smith, 39, sued the Police Department alleging that detectives lacked reasonable grounds to arrest her in 1980 for murder after her “vision” led her to the body of a missing Sylmar nurse.
Smith’s attorney, James E. Blatt, said after Judge Joel Rudof’s verdict that his client felt that she had finally been taken seriously.
“After 6 1/2 years, that’s a tremendous relief,” Blatt said.
Two days after the nurse’s highly publicized disappearance, Smith reported to police that she envisioned the woman’s body dumped in a rural area above Lake View Terrace, testimony in the seven-day trial revealed. Within 45 minutes after relating her vision to detectives, Smith, accompanied by two of her children and a niece, found the body and led police to the location in Lopez Canyon.
Doubting her story, detectives questioned Smith for about 10 hours before arresting her on suspicion of having murdered the nurse, Melanie L. Uribe, 31. Smith, then a Pacoima resident, was released four days later and never charged.
Three men with no known connection to Smith eventually were convicted of the murder and are serving sentences of up to life in state prison.
Blatt argued that police never really believed that Smith was involved in the beating death, but suspected that she might have learned of the body’s location through means other than a psychic vision. Detectives surmised that a weekend in jail might scare Smith into divulging the true source, the lawyer asserted. At the time of Smith’s arrest, Blatt noted, police had a witness who had seen three men abduct Uribe.
‘Not a Crime’
“Finding a body is not a crime,” Blatt argued. “Having a vision . . . is not a crime. Having information about the murder itself is not a crime. Having information about the murder and not giving it to police is not a crime. . . . It just isn’t there.”
Rudof agreed, saying that “probable cause was not shown by the evidence.”
Assistant City Atty. Michael K. Fox argued that the officers acted reasonably. Confronted with a bizarre tale of a psychic vision, detectives believed that Smith could only have known of the body’s location if she was connected to the killing as an active participant, conspirator or accessory, he said.
Smith claims that she has suffered physical and emotional distress as a result of the arrest and has been hampered in her career.