Authorities in Northern California say they have uncovered a murder-for-hire plot to kill the estranged wife of a prominent Ventura County businessman.
Law enforcement officers said a tip from an FBI informant helped them foil the plot to kill Linda Lou Mannheimer, a mother of three children and wife of Lee Mannheimer, the president of PerfectData, a publicly traded computer products firm in Simi Valley.
One suspect, John Herbert Judd Jr., a 49-year-old Placer County electronics technician, awaits a preliminary hearing in November on charges of solicitation to commit murder. Prosecutors say that Lee Mannheimer and a high-ranking sales official of his company also are under investigation.
Lee Mannheimer of Westlake Village is now involved in a divorce battle with his wife over assets and the custody of their 3-year-old son, court records show. He heatedly denied in an interview that he had any role in a plot to murder his wife and insisted that he has himself been the victim of a murder threat.
"I'm not involved in any such thing, or ever will be," he said emphatically. "I have nothing to worry about."
And the attorney for Anthony Francis Gigliotti, Mannheimer's employee, said the only involvement of the two was in trying to launch an investigation of Linda Mannheimer's activities--not to murder her.
The case began in late July in Sacramento but later spread to Placer, Contra Costa and Ventura counties. It started with a cryptic message from the FBI to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department: One of their informants was alleging he had just been offered money to kill a woman in Southern California. Court records later showed that the promised payment was $10,000.
But investigators initially did not know the woman's identity. Sacramento Sheriff's Detective David Wright began working feverishly to put the case together. "In these kind of cases our goal is always first to save the life of the victim--to stop the conspiracy," he said.
Ironically, the information that had been supplied the informant to identify his intended victim was the same information that Wright used to help save her life.
The informant had been given photographs of the woman, a description of her car, her office and home address, her work schedule and what days and times she would have custody of her youngest son--all to help him determine the best time and place to kill her.
Working with that evidence, Wright was able to identify the potential victim as Linda Mannheimer, 42, a certified public accountant recently separated from her husband. She lives in a condominium in Oak Park with two of her three children--her 3-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Wright immediately informed the Ventura County Sheriff's Department of the alleged plot. As customary in cases involving more than one jurisdiction, the case was turned over to the California Department of Justice.
Wright said the law enforcement team tried at first to set up a sting operation that would enable them to use an undercover officer to secretly tape the conspirators as they talked of the murder.
But, he said, they had to cut that operation short when the nervous informant warned that he would not be able to stall the conspirators much longer. Wright said the informant, who said he had been ordered to murder Linda Mannheimer by Aug. 16, told him the conspirators were putting pressure on him to act quickly.
"He (the informant) had been given a deadline to get it done and he had been told if he did not do it by then, they had other plans," Wright said.
Worried that another hit man might be hired, Wright said the law enforcement team determined it was time to tell Linda Mannheimer about the alleged plot.
Reluctantly agreeing to talk, Linda Mannheimer told The Times that she vividly remembers a knock at her door near dusk on Aug. 13--a Friday. Standing outside, she said, was Dennis Flood, the Justice Department special agent in charge of the case, who announced quietly that "there had been a threat on my life."
She recalled that her first reaction was shock and then the terrifying realization that she would have to get out of her house as soon as possible. "I didn't know who was waiting to jump out of the bushes," she said.
It was only later that the timing of the alleged plot hit her.
That weekend--the weekend law enforcement officers believed the conspirators wanted the murder carried out--was the first time since her separation from her husband that she was to be totally alone. The two older children by another marriage were with their father in Seattle. The youngest had been picked up by his father--Lee Mannheimer--at 4:30 for a weekend visit.
Once Linda Mannheimer was safely in hiding, Wright and Flood moved to arrest Judd, a resident of Roseville, a Placer County suburb of Sacramento, on Aug. 19.
Wright's written summary of the reasons for Judd's arrest identified Judd as a middleman in the alleged plot.
"At the direction of a Ventura County businessman, Judd offered a sheriff's operative money if the operative would travel to Ventura County and kill the estranged wife of the Ventura County businessman," the official arrest report states.
"Another suspect from the San Francisco Bay Area acted as an intermediary between the Ventura businessman and Judd," Wright's report continues. "Judd committed an overt act by giving the operative money, photographs of the victims and written identifying information enabling the operative to locate the victim.
"Judd was arrested prior to any harm coming to the victim," the report concludes. "Further arrests of the suspects in Ventura and the Bay Area are anticipated."
Judd, who is free on $50,000 bail, has pleaded not guilty to the solicitation charge. His attorney, Harlen Hardesty of Roseville, declined comment.
A day after Judd's arrest, Gigliotti, 47, who identifies himself as the national sales manager for Lee Mannheimer's company, was arrested in Contra Costa County on suspicion that he too was involved in the plot.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim Sands of Placer County said, however, that a decision was made not to file formal charges against Gigliotti until it could be determined which county would have jurisdiction over his case. Gigliotti was released.
Sands said Gigliotti is still under investigation. In an interview, Gigliotti strongly denied any involvement.
"I don't know about any ongoing investigation," he told The Times. Asked if he had been involved in a murder-for-hire plot, he added: "Nope. . . . They're obviously not right."
Gigliotti's attorney, William E. Gagen Jr. of Danville, said his client did act as an intermediary between Mannheimer and Judd, but not for the sinister purpose outlined by law enforcement officials.
"He (Gigliotti) acknowledges that he did contact Judd to find somebody who could develop some information about Mannheimer's wife and I don't think there was anything more than that," he said.
Gagen said Mannheimer wanted to find out what his wife was "up to." Gagen said Gigliotti turned to Judd, a business associate, who then contacted the informant. He said Judd believed the informant had contacts with law enforcement that would enable him to get information about Linda Mannheimer.
Authorities, however, are continuing to investigate the case as a suspected murder plot. Rich Ward, special agent supervisor in the state Justice Department's Los Angeles office, said it has not been determined which county will prosecute each aspect of the case. He said the case is currently being reviewed by the Ventura County district attorney's office.
Both Ward and Ventura County Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard E. Holmes acknowledged that Lee Mannheimer is part of their investigation.
"This is news to me," said Lee Mannheimer when asked about the investigation.
The businessman said he had been informed of the threat on his wife's life, but had no indication that investigators believed he had any involvement. He said he was contacted by Flood who "just simply told me that this thing has occurred and asked me if I knew anything about it. I told him not only did I not know about it, but I was very concerned about my wife's well-being."
Mannheimer said he was at a loss to understand who would want his wife killed, but "there's a lot of wackos running around out there."
He said he himself has received a death threat letter. He said he turned it over to the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.
Virginia Ellis reported from Sacramento and Dwayne Bray from Ventura.