Hollywood nightclub owner Eddie Nash and his bodyguard were acquitted of murder late Thursday, a resounding defeat for prosecutors who have tried for a decade to resolve the “Laurel Canyon murders"--killings that came to symbolize fast California lifestyle gone awry.
Nash, 61, slapped both hands on his desk and smiled broadly, showing emotion for the first time in his long ordeal, as the jury cleared the way for his departure from jail for the first time in more than two years. His co-defendant, Gregory Diles, smiled and hugged his attorneys.
“There just wasn’t enough evidence to convict them,” juror Bobbi Scoville, 42, a Hawthorne air traffic controller, said afterward. “The only thing that bothers me (about the verdict) is that I don’t know if there will ever be a final settlement of this case. I’m afraid the only people who will ever know who killed those people are the murderers.”
Prosecutors Dale Davidson and Carol Najera of the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, who were trying the two men for the second time after a mistrial last year, left the courtroom without speaking. Last year, jurors voted 11 to 1 for convicting Nash and 10 to 2 for acquitting Diles.
“We’re obviously disappointed in the verdicts,” said Sandi Gibbons, a district attorney’s spokeswoman. “However, a jury has decided the case.”
The four July 1, 1981, bludgeoning murders took place in what was described as a “drug den” on Wonderland Avenue, a few blocks from a house owned by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. The victims were two women and two men who were heavily associated with drugs. The prosecution described three of the victims as “penny-ante crooks.” A fifth woman survived but was unable to testify because of her injuries.
This trial was the third in the case. The first, in 1982, resulted in the acquittal of John C. Holmes, then the nation’s premier pornographic film star. Nash and Diles were charged after prosecutors said new evidence came to light in 1988. The star witness, Scott Thorsen, was a former lover of Liberace who had his face made over to resemble that of the late pianist.
The three trials exposed the seamy underside of Hollywood as few other courtroom dramas ever have. The accused included Holmes, Diles, a 300-pound bouncer and bodyguard, who lost over 100 pounds in jail, and Nash. Nash, whose birth name is Adel Nasrallah, was an owner of striptease joints and Hollywood nightclubs. He spent more than two years in jail in the mid-1980s on narcotics charges.
“From the bottom of my heart, I don’t think either one of these people had anything to do with these murders,” said Michael M. Crain. He and Richard Lasting were court-appointed attorneys for Diles.
Edward Rucker, who with attorney Bradley Brunon represented Nash, congratulated the jury as they filed out of the courtroom.
He gave credit for the acquittal to conscientious jurors who he said were able to set aside Nash’s lifestyle and criminal record in making their decision.
All four attorneys had put on an unusual defense in the case in which they in essence accused another man, a convicted narcotics dealer named Paul Kelly who is now in state prison. They argued that Kelly had been sent out to murder the four as part of a complicated plot involving revenge for drug deals gone sour. Kelly was called to the courtroom outside the presence of the jury, but took the 5th Amendment instead of testifying.
Two of the jurors said the defense case was so compelling that they would like to see Kelly put on trial for the murders. Another said that while defense evidence against Kelly raised doubts about the guilt of Nash and Diles, it might not be sufficient to convict Kelly.
The prosecution’s case was complicated by witnesses who had been heavy drug users and convicted drug dealers. In his closing argument, Davidson stressed to the jury that the district attorney’s office had made a “societal decision” to proceed. Otherwise, he said, such bloody underworld murders would proliferate simply because “John Q. Citizen” witnesses are not available.
The murders took place around 4 a.m. on July 1, 1981. A neighbor was awakened by screams, looked out the window, and saw lights on in the house. Instead of calling police, she turned on her television set to drown out the noise.
“Who knows who’s been on primal scream therapy or tripping on some drug?” another neighbor later said.
It was agreed that at least three killers went in with lengths of pipe and at least one baseball bat, bashing the sleeping victims dozens of times. Afterward they washed up, leaving the water running.
A grainy videotape taken of the murder scene showed a trail of blood leading from one room of the house to another. When it was later presented to a jury, the case marked the first time in American jurisprudence that a videotape of a murder scene was admitted as evidence in a criminal trial.
Killed were William DeVerell, 44; his girlfriend, Joy Audrey Miller, 46, and Ronald Launius, 37, of Sacramento. All three had been involved in a robbery of Nash two days before in which large amounts of cash, jewels, narcotics and some guns were taken. The prosecution contended that the murders were ordered by Nash in retaliation for that robbery.
Two others had chosen that night to visit the Wonderland home. They were Barbara Richardson, 22, and Launius’ estranged wife, Susan, 25, both of Sacramento. Susan Launius was left for dead, but she survived with brain damage and partial paralysis. Later, the most she could recall was three “shadowy figures” in the night.
The only print police found at the scene was identified as that of Holmes, whose attorneys claimed that he was forced into the home at gunpoint. He died in 1988 of the complications of AIDS, never having publicly revealed what he knew about the murders.
The other men in the house that night, investigators concluded, wore gloves or daubed their hands with a special liquid to disguise their prints.
It was that lack of concrete evidence that jurors said was critical in their acquittal. No murder weapons were submitted into evidence.
The defense contended that a man named Howard (Fat Howard) Cook of Los Angeles, who was owed money for drugs, sent Paul Kelly and other men to the house. Evidence against Kelly included a taped interview that police conducted with his girlfriend, Maggie Coffman, days after the murders.
“You know I love you and I want to marry you,” Coffman said Kelly told her hours before the murders. “But I have to eliminate a few, a few people that you care about, right?” One, she told police, was Launius.
Prosecutor Davidson told the jury that Kelly may have been one of the killers that night, but that Nash ordered the killings.
“The book’s still open on Kelly,” he told jurors. “He is in state prison and this case is not done.”