Celebrity Convict's Myth Exposed : Admitted Killer's Possible Parole Prompts Protests

Times Staff Writer

The battered body of a 15-year-old girl was found along the bank of a sand pit in a small New Jersey town. Her skull had been crushed with a 44-pound boulder and her body beaten with a baseball bat.

Edgar Smith, a 23-year-old acquaintance of the girl, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. While on Death Row in a New Jersey prison, he began corresponding with conservative columnist William F. Buckley, who eventually became convinced of Smith's innocence. Smith's fight for freedom soon became a cause celebre on the East Coast.

In 1971, after 14 years on Death Row, the longest stretch in the nation's history at that point, Smith was released from prison. A New Jersey judge ruled that his statement to police had been illegally obtained.

During the next few years Smith parlayed his identity as a wrongfully convicted man into a living. He appeared on hundreds of radio and television talk shows and lectured at colleges, collecting $1,000 speaking fees.

But in 1976, the myth Edgar Smith had carefully constructed was suddenly exposed as a lie.

Smith abducted a woman in San Diego and stabbed her with a six-inch butcher knife. But unlike the New Jersey killing, there was an eyewitness to this crime--the victim. Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun survived the stabbing and testified against Smith.

During the trial, after spending two decades protesting his innocence, Smith finally admitted killing the girl in New Jersey.

Smith was convicted in San Diego of kidnaping and attempted murder and sentenced to San Quentin Prison. He first became eligible for parole in 1982, and has been turned down five times, but during the mid-1980s his prison psychological evaluations steadily improved. The California Board of Prison Terms this month will set another parole hearing date, providing Smith with his latest chance for freedom.

Many who are familiar with Smith's crimes are outraged by the prospect of his release. A flood of letters, including a number from New Jersey residents, has been sent to the parole board, urging that Smith never be released.

"He killed one girl, got a second chance and then tried to kill me," Ozbun said in an interview. "I don't want him released. Ever. I don't want anybody else to go through what I went through."

Neither Smith nor Buckley would grant interviews. But in a letter to a Times reporter, Smith railed against his former prosecutors in New Jersey and, in a leap of logic, blamed them for his attack on Ozbun, and claimed that he, too, is a victim.

"Don't ask me why I did it," Smith wrote from prison. "Ask those self-righteous public servants why they gave me the opportunity to do it. Ask them why they did that to Lisa Ozbun. And ask them why they did that to me . Those are the questions they aren't going to want to answer, but which need answering, which Lisa Ozbun and I need answered."

Argument Called Rhetoric

Many who have followed Smith's case say his argument is simply rhetoric from a jailhouse lawyer who is fighting to get out of prison again.

"If the parole board lets him out, I guarantee you, they'll regret it," said Ron Callisi, who wrote a book about the Smith case and whose father prosecuted Smith in New Jersey. "Look, this guy's a sick ticket. He enjoys killing women. When are people going to finally realize Edgar Smith can't be trusted?"

The jury in New Jersey deliberated only 2 1/2 hours--including a lunch break--before deciding in 1957 that Smith had murdered high school sophomore Vickie Zielinski.

The prosecution argued at the trial that Zielinski had spent the evening studying with a friend and was walking back to her parents' house when Smith, an unemployed machinist who lived in a trailer park with his wife and small daughter, offered her a ride home. Smith instead drove Zielinski to a sand pit on the edge of town and attempted to seduce her. When she resisted and ran from the car, he chased her down a hill and attacked her with a baseball bat, according to court records. Smith then dragged her, still alive, back to the sand pit and crushed her skull with a boulder.

The jury, dismissing Smith's claim that he had last seen the victim on the night of her death with one of his friends, recommended the death penalty. During his first few years on Death Row, few expressed much interest in his case. Smith busied himself studying law and filing numerous appeals of his conviction.

He regularly read the prison chaplain's copy of the National Review, the conservative journal William F. Buckley edits. But when the chaplain was transferred, Smith could no longer find a copy of the magazine. Buckley heard about Smith's plight and gave him a free subscription and the two began corresponding.

Smith asked Buckley to talk to a private detective whom his mother hired to investigate the murder. Buckley became interested in the case and, after studying the court record, was convinced that "the state's narrative of the case was inherently implausible," he later wrote.

Smith and Buckley were an unlikely pair--the convicted murderer and the ultraconservative columnist--and their friendship attracted much attention. Buckley championed Smith's cause in his columns and encouraged him to write about the case. Smith eventually published two books while on Death Row.

In an Esquire magazine article questioning Smith's conviction, Buckley wrote: "Doesn't it strain the bounds of credibility that an essentially phlegmatic young man, of nonviolent habits, would so far lose control of himself, in the space of a minute or two, as to murder under such circumstances a 15-year-old girl he hardly knew?"

Buckley donated his fee from the article to Smith and helped set up a defense fund. Smith eventually had enough money from the fund and his book sales to hire top legal representation to challenge his conviction.

Judge Sides With Smith

The prestigious Washington law firm of Edward Bennett Williams took over his case in the late 1960s, and by 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if an incriminating statement that Smith made to police had been legally obtained. A circuit court judge in New Jersey ruled that Smith had not been advised of his legal rights and that his statement had been obtained by coercion. He ordered Smith be retried or released.

"We were prepared to retry Smith, but, without his statement, we had a weak case for first-degree murder because we couldn't prove premeditation," said Edward Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Smith's final appeal. "We felt certain we could convict him of second-degree murder. But he'd already served 14 years--far more than the average second-degree sentence. He'd already maxed out."

Smith was released from prison, picked up in a limousine, and then appeared on Buckley's television show, "Firing Line." He spent his first night out of prison in a suite at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City.

Smith's release and his celebrity status struck a raw nerve among those who prosecuted him, Fitzpatrick said. And many in the New Jersey town where Smith lived were incensed, Fitzpatrick said, by the way he "tried to put the blame" on one of his friends.

"When Smith got out of prison, a lot of people assumed the friend did it," Fitzgerald said. "I know this guy went through hell and never recovered from it. He had to move away from this area, the area where he grew up and where his family lived.

"He was another victim of Smith."

Smith cashed in on his celebrity during the first few years after his release. He wrote another book, called "Getting Out," and sold a number of articles about prison reform to newspapers and national magazines. But his message soon grew redundant. And the Edgar Smith living in suburban New Jersey did not have the cachet of the Edgar Smith facing the electric chair.

When Paige Hiemier married Smith in 1974, he was broke and having trouble interesting editors in his stories.

"I was 19 years old and very naive," said Hiemier, who divorced Smith after his second crime. "I was impressed with him. He was friends with Bill Buckley and all these other famous people. And he'd written three books. In all of them he proclaimed his innocence. I believed him."

The couple moved to San Diego in 1974. He found work as a security guard for an exclusive apartment building in La Jolla. Apparently, Hiemier said, his background was never checked. He later worked as a public relations director for a small business in Chula Vista, but when the company disbanded he was out of work again.

Their marriage was strained, Hiemier said, because she was going to nursing school while working full-time as a bank teller, but Smith made no effort to find another job. They frequently argued but, Hiemier said, she still had no idea that Smith was capable of a brutal murder.

"He never once hit me; he was never violent at all around me," Hiemier said. "The only time I really questioned was one night we were roughhousing in the living room, just having fun. He suddenly grabbed me by the neck and was actually choking me. For no reason. I was really scared. I shouted that he was hurting me, and he stopped. That's when I started to have some doubts."

Turned Down for Job

Smith finally resumed his job search in the fall of 1976, Hiemier said. He approached an editor at the San Diego Union, a friend of Buckley, about a job, but the editor told him there were no openings.

The next day he abducted Lefteriya Ozbun.

"I don't think Edgar can handle life outside of prison," said Hiemier, who now is a nurse in New York City. "He'll be fine for periods of time, but when he's frustrated or feeling rejected, he can't deal with it. I know he was feeling rejected by me at the time, and I know he was feeling rejected by the newspaper. And, like the first crime in New Jersey, he reacted with violence."

Ozbun, 33, a seamstress at a Chula Vista garment factory, was walking toward the company's parking lot, where her husband was waiting to take her home. But before she reached the lot Smith jumped out of his car, put a knife to her throat and said: "Keep your mouth shut or I'm going to cut your throat right here."

Smith threw her in the front seat of the car, taped her wrists together and drove off.

"I started yelling: 'What are you doing? What do you want with me? Where are taking me?,' " recalled Ozbun, a Greek immigrant, in a heavy accent. "He just said: 'Shut up. I'm going to take your money and stick this knife in you.' I told him I had three kids and if he wanted my money, he could just take it. But he just said, 'Don't be stupid,' and kept driving."

Ozbun knew she had to fight her way out of the car before Smith reached his destination, because once he stopped, Ozbun said, she was certain he would kill her.

"I could see it in his eyes," Ozbun said. "I'd never seen eyes like that. They were so cold and filled with hate. I knew if I didn't fight I'd never see my kids again."

As Smith headed south on Interstate 5, Ozbun, who is 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 100 pounds, kicked out the windshield with her platform shoes. She freed her hands, grabbed the steering wheel and jabbed at the horn. Smith stabbed her, up to the handle of the butcher knife, piercing her liver and diaphragm and missing her heart by a quarter of an inch. But Ozbun continued to struggle, lunging with her feet for the brakes and fighting for control of the steering wheel.

Escapes From Car

The car weaved onto an exit ramp and Smith slammed on the brakes. As the car skidded to a stop at the bottom of an embankment, Ozbun managed to open the side door and crawl out of the car, falling to the ground, the knife sticking out of her side. As Smith sat dazed in the car, a man selling flowers nearby ran over to Ozbun.

She looked up and weakly asked him to get her purse from the front seat because her paycheck was in it. After the man grabbed the purse, Smith regained his composure and sped off. But witnesses had noted the license plate, and the police were again after Edgar Smith.

Smith evaded capture for about two weeks, borrowing money from relatives, and staying at friends' apartments on the East Coast. When Smith ended up in Las Vegas, he called Buckley, who was out of town, and left his phone and room numbers with a secretary. She contacted Buckley.

Then Buckley, the man who had picked Smith up in a limousine after his release from prison 4 years and 10 months earlier, promptly turned him in to the FBI.

At Smith's trial, he admitted molesting an 11-year-old girl when he was a teen-ager, and he admitted killing Vickie Zielinski. San Diego Assistant Dist. Atty. Richard Neely asked Smith at the trial, why, after all these years of deception, he suddenly found the need to unburden himself of the truth.

Has a Revelation

Smith said that while he was on the run after abducting Ozbun, he visited the cemetery where Vickie Zielinski was buried, and he had a revelation. "For the first time in my life I recognized that the devil I had been looking at in the mirror for 43 years was me," Smith told the court. "It was at that time I recognized that my life had reached a point at which I had a choice of doing two things: I could kill myself or I could return to San Diego and face what I was."

But Neely said in a recent interview that Smith's reasons for admitting killing Zielinski were self-serving. At the time of Smith's San Diego trial, "kidnaping to commit robbery with bodily harm" was punishable by life imprisonment without possibility of parole. But there was only a 25-year sentence for kidnaping with intent to rape.

So if Smith could convince the judge that he had a history of sex offenses and he had actually been trying to rape Ozbun, he would be spared a life term. And if Smith could convince the judge that he was a "mentally disordered sex offender," which he argued, then he could be sentenced to a medical facility, rather than one of the state's maximum security prisons.

The judge, however, was not persuaded by Smith's sudden burst of honesty. He sentenced him to life without possibility of parole. But a year later, as a result of new legislation, Smith became eligible for parole in 1982.

Keeping Smith behind bars "will be a struggle every year," Neely said.

Tells of Future Job

Smith informed the Board of Prison Terms before his last parole hearing in 1987 that he was married (to the mother of a former cellmate) and was helping his wife run a travel agency, a position he would assume full-time if released.

A prison evaluation made that year, obtained by The Times, concluded that he "has gained significant maturity, insight and self-awareness. . . . At this time, there do not appear to be any psychiatric reasons for a parole date not to be granted."

But the following year, Smith's psychiatric evaluation had a more critical conclusion. Smith still had "conflicts which could lead to recurrences of his violent behavior with women," the report stated.

After this evaluation was released, Smith canceled his 1988 parole hearing and began a psychiatric therapy program at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville. He was scheduled for another parole hearing this summer, but Smith petitioned the court to stay his hearing because he opposed the inclusion of his military psychiatric reports in his parole file. The issue will be resolved late this month, a court spokesman said, and then he will immediately be assigned another parole hearing date.

The parole delays are simply ploys by Smith, said his former wife, Paige Hiemier.

"Edgar is a master at manipulating the system," she said. "He manipulated his way out off Death Row in New Jersey. He conned Bill Buckley. And now he's doing in California what he's always done. He's working the system, until the odds are in his favor for parole. But people should realize that his last victim is very lucky to be alive today. The next woman he goes after may not be so lucky."

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