Woman's Business Partner Arrested in Her Slaying : Crime: Richard L. Lockridge is being held without bail. Police say a dispute over ownership led to Kim Martello's strangling.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three weeks after the body of a 28-year-old Orange County woman was found in the desert near Palm Springs, her business partner was arrested Friday as the suspect in her strangulation.

Richard L. Lockridge of La Crescenta, a 37-year-old father of two, surrendered quietly to Fullerton police as he arrived at work about 8:30 a.m., authorities said. He is likely to be arraigned Tuesday on a murder charge in Municipal Court in Fullerton. He was being held without bail in the Fullerton City Jail.

He is suspected of strangling Kim Martello of Fountain Valley in the warehouse of their ERB Foods office on South Hale Street in Fullerton on July 22, then dumping her body a few hundred yards off California 111 near Palm Springs. It was found three days later by two transients; the identity was confirmed through dental records.

Martello, a former San Diego tour guide who became a business consultant, apparently was a silent partner in ERB Foods, a multimillion-dollar yogurt and dessert-supply company that Lockridge took over last year, authorities and associates said.

Police allege that a dispute over ownership of the company led to Martello's death. "We believe that's the reason she was killed," Fullerton Police Capt. Lee DeVore said.

Although police were reluctant to provide details, DeVore and Sgt. Dan Becerra, who led the investigation, did say that they believe the slaying could be related to suspicious real estate dealings.

DeVore said Fullerton police have been in contact with authorities in Glendale, where Lockridge and Martello have title to a home. Police are trying to determine whether they gained that title illegally, without the knowledge of the owner.

Neither had been charged in relation to that transaction, but Sgt. Becerra said it is now the subject of civil litigation. Becerra also said investigators believe that the funds acquired through that real-estate deal helped Lockridge and Martello buy ERB Foods for $700,000 last year.

News of Lockridge's arrest rocked the company, which has 25 employees. It listed annual revenue of $12 million with Dun & Bradstreet Corp., the New-York based business information service.

Jeff Newton, ERB general manager, said he arrived at work Friday morning to discover his boss being taken away by police. Investigators had waited for Lockridge to arrive, then arrested him quietly, Becerra said.

"I don't have the faintest idea what's going on," Newton said. "Richard has always been the owner as far as I knew. I have never been aware that Kim Martello was an owner. . . . "

Martello, he said, worked as a consultant to ERB and also did her own commodities-brokering work out of the office for a variety of outside clients. According to business associates and documents provided to The Times, she worked with Japanese investors and claimed access to tens of millions of dollars in credit from overseas investors.

"Nobody understood just what she was involved with," Newton said of the office staff. "She was involved with millions of things, everything under the sun."

Robert Ludovise, a Laguna Niguel businessman who organizes educational programs for doctors, formed a company called Intertrade with Martello and another investor in late 1989 to stimulate trade with Eastern Europe, but their plans fell through about a year later.

Ludovise said he remembers Martello's saying that she had worked as a tour guide at the Wild Animal Park in San Diego, where her family is from, and that she so impressed a group of Japanese tourists at the park that they hired her to help run a new restaurant in the area.

Her business interests broadened from there, Ludovise said.

"She was just an incredible person, always looking for business opportunities," Ludovise said.

Becerra said that most who knew her also described Martello as a hard-driving businesswoman with myriad investments and professional interests.

Martello lived with her boyfriend, Chris Hirtler, a tennis instructor, in a modest community in Fountain Valley.

"I can't talk about it," Hirtler said. "I don't want to risk messing up the case, and I want him to be punished as much as he possibly could."

Investigators initially thought that Martello was last seen alive leaving the ERB offices on the morning of July 22, en route to a business appointment. But DeVore said Friday that it is now thought that she did not leave the building alive.

Investigators spoke with Lockridge several times after the slaying, DeVore said, "and his statements were inconsistent from the beginning, we felt." He gave differing alibis for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, Becerra added.

There is also physical evidence linking Lockridge to the crime, he said, but he would not elaborate.

Devore said that Lockridge and Martello had "an ongoing problem with their business relationship," but that investigators are still trying to determine what specifically may have caused the violence.

Filings with the secretary of state's office list Lockridge as president of ERB Foods. Authorities said they believe Martello was a part-owner, but city spokeswoman Sylvia Palmer Mudrick said she could not say "who owned what, or if one owned more than the other."

Newton, the general manager, said of Lockridge and Martello: "They seemed to get along perfectly well. It's all very strange to us" at the company. "We're in a state of shock. . . ."

"He was a super guy, very generous, well-liked by the employees. And in light of what I've heard today, it's shocking because he's such a gentle guy. I've never even heard him raise his voice," said Newton, who has worked at ERB for six years. Lockridge took over the company nine months ago, but Newton would not say who the previous owner was.

Lockridge lives in the La Crescenta area of northeastern Los Angeles County in an older two-bedroom home with his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 5. No one was home late Friday afternoon.

A neighbor who asked not to be identified said she was shocked by the news.

"Its really strange. This seems like the 'Twilight Zone,' " the neighbor said. "He was a normal dad, a normal family type of dad." In fact, in the time since Martello was killed, police and the neighbor said, Lockridge had taken his family on a cruise to the Bahamas.

Times staff writer Amy Kazmin contributed to this report.

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