Woman Who Tricked Parents in Kidnap Hoax Given 3 Years

Times Staff Writer

Mary Beth Lara, the Los Alamitos woman who extorted more than $200,000 from her parents in an elaborate kidnaping hoax, was sentenced to three years in prison Monday in what a prosecutor called "a pathetic example of how low people can sink."

"It is hard to get justice in a case like this," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans, who prosecuted Lara and two of her friends who systematically extorted money from Lara's parents over a two-year period.

"It is pathetic," Evans said. "It is hard to believe that people can sink that low. But there you have it--they can and they do."

Lara, 36, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and extortion in a case that indirectly led to the death of her father from a heart attack and left her mother heartbroken and virtually destitute.

Between mid-1984 and August, 1986, prosecutors said, Lara faked her own kidnaping and sent up to 150 ransom notes to her parents to extort money to support her drug habit.

Her parents, Louis and Grace Arnold, apparently believed each time that drug dealers had kidnaped their daughter, and each time they willingly paid the ransom. In the end, Evans said at least $200,000 was extorted from Lara's parents, but he said the figure could have been as high as $300,000.

Louis Arnold suffered a heart attack in July, 1986, apparently while reading one of the ransom notes. He died eight months later at the age of 70.

Evans said the stress of his daughter's repeated kidnapings apparently was a contributing factor in Arnold's death.

Lara, dressed in a red Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, tennis shoes and brown corduroy pants, showed little emotion when Superior Court Judge Myron S. Brown sentenced her to prison and an additional three years' probation once she is released. Her prison term begins immediately.

But Lara's 18-year-old daughter, Teli, who accompanied her mother to the Santa Ana courthouse, wept softly in the rear of the courtroom as Lara was led away by deputies to begin serving her sentence. Teli Lara refused to speak with reporters.

Grace Arnold was not present for her daughter's sentencing, but Evans said she is still standing behind Lara.

"Her mother still loves her very much," Evans said. "She barely acknowledges that it happened at all. There are some pretty powerful emotions involved in this case.

"This whole case is a travesty," added Michael A. Leversen, Lara's attorney. "I can't imagine the parents paying time after time after time. It's not logical that they would keep paying 200, 300 times. Why didn't they call the police?"

Leversen said the money that was extorted by Lara and her two companions "is gone. That money won't ever be recovered." He speculated that it went for drugs and noted that Lara is undergoing methadone treatment to kick a heroin habit.

Leversen described Lara as a "throwback to the 1960s. She reminds me of a hippie, free thinking. She's a nice lady." He said his client had shown "absolute remorse for what has happened. Her mother is now destitute."

"There is still a lot of love in that family," he added.

Prosecutors say the kidnaping and ransom scam went on for two years, during which time Lara's parents used up their savings, mortgaged their property, dipped into their retirement funds, and borrowed heavily from family and friends to meet the repeated demands.

It was not until Aug. 5, 1986, that police were called after Lara's brother, Russell Arnold, became suspicious. Russell Arnold, a Daly City contractor who already had poured $20,000 of his own money into the plot, had come to see his parents when one of Lara's accomplices arrived at the door with a new ransom demand. This time, the kidnapers said they wanted $500 or they would cut off one of Lara's ears.

Russell Arnold called the police and the accomplice, Noreen F. Nickel, was followed to a parking lot where Lara and the other person involved, Steven C. Hagen, were waiting. All three were arrested.

Nickel and Hagen already have been sentenced and are serving prison terms for their roles in the hoax.

For prosecutor Evans, Lara's sentencing on Monday marked the final phase of "one of the strangest cases I've ever worked."

"After all this, including the death of her husband, the mother is still very bummed out that her daughter is going to prison," Evans said. "After all this, the mother still loves her daughter very much."

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