Nearly nine years after four bludgeoned bodies were found in a Laurel Canyon drug den, the trial of a convicted narcotics dealer and his bodyguard who are charged with the murders finally began last week--with 36 jurors, six attorneys, and a courtroom rearranged to accommodate them all.
The unusual proceeding before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis Rappe makes possible separate, but simultaneous, trials before two juries for Adel (Eddie Nash) Nasrallah, 60, and Gregory DeWitt Diles, 41.
Most witnesses will have to testify only once, and evidence admissible and pertaining to only one of the defendants will be heard only by that defendant's jury. For example, if and when prosecutors introduce statements allegedly made by Nash implicating himself and Diles, Diles' jury will be excused--and vice versa--to comply with California law.
The grisly killings--punctuated by the screams of a man pleading, "Don't kill me!" which awakened at least one resident of the rustic canyon neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours of July 1, 1981--took place in a house on Wonderland Avenue once occupied by members of the rock 'n' roll band Paul Revere and the Raiders. Just down the block was a home owned by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.
There was no evidence of forced entry into the house. The bodies were discovered several hours after the killings by a professional mover working next door who entered through an open front door after hearing a woman moaning.
For years, authorities publicly insisted that they knew who was responsible for the slayings, but lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.
The trial caps a lengthy investigation, the acquittal of another suspect and new evidence that led to formal charges against Nash and Diles two years ago. Each faces four counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and special circumstances allegations that could result in a death sentence if they are found guilty. Both are being held without bail.
The murders were originally blamed on porn film star John C. Holmes, who was acquitted in 1982 and who died of complications from AIDS in 1988.
Six months after the actor's death, Nash and Diles were charged with the murders, in part because of significant new evidence provided by Scott Thorson, a former lover of the late pianist and entertainer Liberace.
Nash was once described by Holmes as "the most evil man I've ever known." He spent two years of an eight-year sentence in state prison for possessing for sale about two pounds of cocaine valued at nearly $1 million. Diles was convicted of drug charges in a separate case.
The trial, which is expected to last six months, began dramatically with a videotape of the gory, ransacked murder scene. And the proceeding has already offered a glimpse into the workings of a brutal underworld of drugs, guns and big money.
"What this case is truly about is savage bloody murders that . . . happened because the defendant in this matter (Nash) was robbed," Deputy Dist. Atty. Carol Najera said in the prosecution's opening statement. "We are talking about five people that were bludgeoned with a metal pipe, beaten, having their heads beaten in, having their faces beaten in. Four of these people died of this beating. One of them had her skull cracked open and remembers virtually nothing about this."
The victims were William Deverell, 42, Joy Miller, 46, Barbara Richardson, 22, and Ronald Launius, 37. The survivor, Susan Launius, 25 at the time, suffered brain damage and has been unable to identify the assailants.
Prosecutors contend that the murders were ordered by Nash, a wealthy nightclub owner and drug trafficker, in retaliation for the robbery of his Studio City home some 40 hours earlier.
The robbery was said to have been set up by Holmes and carried out by Launius, Deverell and two others, David Lind and Tracy McCourt, both of whom have admitted their participation and are testifying against Nash and Diles.
Defense attorneys claim such witnesses--drug users with criminal records--are unreliable and that they received special treatment from authorities in exchange for their testimony.
"It is difficult . . . to capture the dark hues of that kind of a world . . . populated by desperate people; a world devoid of the type of value system that you know and that you operate on," defense attorney Edward Rucker, who represents Nash, told jurors in his opening statement.
"When this case is over . . . you're going to know who is responsible for this," he said. "We are going to give you the name of the man who sent those people down there and we are going to give you the name of the man who went into that house and did this, all right. . . . I'm not going to tell you now."
At the preliminary hearing for Nash and Diles last year, Thorson, 32--author of "Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace" and then in jail awaiting trial on charges of receiving stolen property--testified that he frequently bought cocaine at Nash's house.
Thorson said he heard Nash vow to "have those people on their knees" for having robbed him of $1 million in drugs, money and jewelry. He said Nash threatened Holmes, whom he suspected of being an accomplice in the theft, and banged him against a wall, demanding the identities of the robbers, and instructed Diles and Holmes to retrieve the stolen goods.
Thorson, who is expected to testify, said at the preliminary hearing that Nash later lamented his actions.
"He felt he was responsible for sending Mr. Holmes and Mr. Diles there and it had all turned into a bloody mess," Thorson testified. "He felt the whole thing had gotten out of hand."
Defense attorney Richard Lasting, who represents Diles, told jurors in his opening statement that evidence will show Thorson "to be an opportunistic liar."
An admitted participant in the robbery prosecutors believe triggered the murders, Lind took the witness stand for most of last week.
He and a friend went to the Hollywood police station the day after the murders, claiming to know who the killers were.
The tattooed, gray-bearded Lind, 49, was frequently cantankerous and profane. He began many of his courtroom answers with "Try this . . . ," and finished others with "You got that, pal?"
"We have established I'm not a very nice guy and I lie sometimes," he said at one point after being questioned about his drug-and-robbery-studded past. But "no matter what I've done, I never killed anybody. They did," he said, pointing to Nash and Diles.
He testified that his memory of events nearly nine years ago is hazy and clouded by drug use.
However, Lind said he does remember his apprehension about the robbery. And the feeling that "the certain type of dope dealer you didn't rob was Mr. Nasrallah (Nash). It was obvious from the time we got in the house that we were over our heads."
Lind said that he and the other two men who did the actual robbery cheated Holmes, who planned it, and McCourt, the driver of the getaway car, out of their fair share of the loot.
The witness said he had been staying at the Wonderland Avenue house, but did not come home the night before his girlfriend, Richardson, and the others were killed. He testified that he stayed with a prostitute at a San Fernando Valley motel and then lingered to transact several drug deals. He said a friend called him with news of the slayings.
"He said, 'Everybody's dead, don't go to the house.' "