The second alleged murder victim of the Billionaire Boys Club died an agonizingly slow death, locked in a steamer trunk in the back of a pickup truck, the prosecution's star witness testified Tuesday in the penalty phase of the trial of group founder Joe Hunt.
The witness, Dean Karny, cooly described in chilling detail the last hours of the life of Hedayat Eslaminia, a wealthy Iranian, and Hunt's calm demeanor at the time. Karny said he heard "knocking, screaming, pleading to please let him out and gasping" coming from the trunk containing the Belmont man as the truck sped down Interstate 5 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles on a summer night in 1984.
"I heard . . . a voice saying 'Please, sir, let me out' over and over," said Karny, 26, who has admitted participating in Eslaminia's murder and helping to plan several other slayings, but has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony in Santa Monica Superior Court.
Death in the Trunk
When the sounds finally stopped and Karny peered inside the trunk with a flashlight, he found that Eslaminia was dead, he told a crowded courtroom.
He said Hunt swore quietly and "then we just sort of sat there for a minute. I said, 'I guess we blew it.' "
It was Karny, once Hunt's best friend in the social and business fraternity dubbed the BBC, who led authorities to the body of Eslaminia, the father of a club member, in Soledad Canyon.
Karny also provided detailed testimony about the shotgun slaying of Beverly Hills businessman Ron Levin, who disappeared three years ago, but whose body has never been found. Hunt was convicted last month of first-degree murder with special circumstances in the Levin case, and will be sentenced either to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.
Although Hunt will not be tried for Eslaminia's death until the fall, Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Wapner introduced evidence about the second murder in an attempt to persuade jurors in the Levin case to send Hunt to the gas chamber. Under California law, such evidence of other criminal activity is admissible, even if the defendant has not been convicted or charged.
According to Karny, now closely guarded under the federal witness protection program, the plan devised by Hunt called for several members of the BBC group to kidnap the 56-year-old Eslaminia from his Northern California home by posing as delivery men, rendering him unconscious with chloroform and stuffing him in the "package" they had delivered wrapped in brown paper--a sturdy trunk.
Eslaminia would then be transported to a rented West Los Angeles house, where he would be kept in the basement until he signed over his assets and then killed, Karny said.
Hunt volunteered to be "the master of torture," should Eslaminia need persuading, Karny said. "He said none of us had the emotional constitution to do something like that and he could handle it."
Eslaminia's son, Reza, who is also charged in the murder, had told his friends that his father had been a high-ranking official in Iran during the Shah's regime and had amassed a $30-million fortune.
Karny said he had punched holes in the trunk to allow air in--"it wasn't the plan that he die in the trunk"--but added that he and Ben Dosti, who is also charged in the murder, quickly taped them over each time Eslaminia started making noises.
Last Signs of Life
After Hunt, who was driving, ordered him to check on the man, Karny unlatched the trunk.
"I saw a man inside in a fetal position with handcuffs on him . . . His stomach was moving up and down and he was drooling," Karny testified. "I took that to mean that he was breathing, so I closed the lid."
Minutes later, Karny said, he could find no pulse or movement.
Hunt was "calm and kind of soothing," Karny recalled. "It seemed like he was trying to be positive about the situation . . . He said that there were still things we could do. We still had Reza Eslaminia in our camp . . . so we could probably still manage to get what we wanted out of the situation, even though Mr. Eslaminia had died."
In surprisingly brief cross-examination, defense attorney Richard Chier sought to show that Karny and other BBC members, not Hunt, are culpable: "At the time (Eslaminia) died, his life was in your hands wasn't it?" he said as he sat down.