No-Contest Plea in 1985 Death of Wife : Crime: Defendant had fostered reputation as hit man. But authorities say he was not linked to mob.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man who fostered what police called an unfounded media reputation as a mob "hit man" pleaded no contest Friday to charges that he killed his wife six years ago during a Thanksgiving Day argument and buried her in the back yard of their former Canoga Park home.

Michael J. Hardy, 46, entered the no-contest plea--equivalent to a guilty plea under California criminal law--in Van Nuys Superior Court to a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 1985 death of his wife, Deborah L. Hardy.

The victim's remains were uncovered behind a house on Sherman Way last year when Michael Hardy's 25-year-old son, Robert, who is now serving a prison term for burglary, told police about the killing and provided a map detailing where he had helped his father bury the body.

Hardy was characterized in a 1977 New York magazine article and more recently on the "Geraldo" television show as an organized-crime hit man who had killed 14 people. Police have said, however, that although he has a lengthy criminal record, they don't believe Hardy was ever a mob hit man.

Hardy faces up to 11 years in prison when sentenced next month by Judge Judith M. Ashmann. Hardy, who had initially been charged with murder, could have been sentenced to 42 years if his case went to trial and he had been convicted. He decided to plead no contest to the lesser charge, said his attorney, James E. Blatt, because "he didn't want to take the chance of going to prison for the rest of his life."

Exactly how Deborah Hardy was fatally injured on Thanksgiving Day, 1985, may never be known. Autopsy results were inconclusive and Hardy is the only living witness to the death, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Marsh Goldstein, who handled the case.

Robert Hardy, who said he helped bury the body but had not seen the slaying, told police that his father had admitted to him that he killed his wife with a blow from a flashlight.

But after his arrest, the elder Hardy claimed in statements to police that his wife was fatally injured when he pushed her down as she threatened him with a gun.

Because of those inconsistencies and the couple's record of violent fights resulting in police reports, the prosecution agreed to a manslaughter plea, Goldstein said.

"While there are overtones of murder, the essence of this case is that they had a long history of problems and he hit her too hard, and that is manslaughter," Goldstein said.

Blatt said that even if Hardy receives the maximum 11-year sentence, he could be released from prison in five years with time off for good conduct and the year he has already been in jail.

Hardy has three prior felony convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, child stealing and assault on a police officer with a firearm.

In a 1977 profile in New York magazine, Hardy boasted of having committed 800 car thefts and 250 robberies and having connections to organized crime. The article also indicated he was involved in 14 contract slayings. Last year, Hardy appeared in disguise on Geraldo Rivera's syndicated television show during a segment on purported hit men. He declined to confirm or deny his involvement in the slayings when Rivera questioned him.

"I'm not going to sit here on national TV and confess to murders because, you know, you really aren't paying me enough for that," said Hardy, who used the name Michael Hardin on the show.

Authorities said they found no indications that Hardy was actually a contract killer.

"I think he's a blowhard," said Goldstein. "He has lived a long and violent life but no hit man worth his salt goes around talking about it."

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