Prosecutors 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 officials said a tip from an FBI informant helped them foil a plot to kill Linda Lou Mannheimer, a mother of three 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 Lee Mannheimer and a high-ranking sales official of his company are also under investigation.
Lee Mannheimer, a resident of Thousand Oaks, is engaged in a divorce battle with his wife over assets and the custody of their 3-year-old son, court records show. He heatedly denied that he had any role in a plot to murder his wife and insisted that he also has been the victim of a murder threat.
"I'm not involved in any such thing, or ever will be," he said. "I have nothing to worry about."
The attorney for Anthony Francis Gigliotti, an employee of Mannheimer, 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 it later spread to Placer, Contra Costa and Ventura counties. It started with a cryptic message from the FBI to the Sacramento County sheriff's office: An informant said he had just been offered money to kill a woman in Southern California. Court records show that the promised payment was $10,000.
Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective David Wright said the information was used in helping to save Linda Mannheimer's life.
The informant had been given photographs of the woman, a description of her car, the addresses of her office and home, her work schedule, and what days and times she would have custody of her youngest son.
Working with that evidence, Wright said he was able to identify the potential victim as Linda Mannheimer, 42, a certified public accountant who had recently separated from her husband. She lives with two of her three children--the 3-year-old son fathered by Lee Mannheimer and a 14-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. A son, 17, stays primarily with his father in Seattle.
Wright informed Ventura County sheriff's deputies of the alleged plot. As is customary in cases involving several jurisdictions, 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 use an undercover officer to secretly tape record conspirators talking about the murder.
But Wright said officers had to cut short the operation when the nervous informant, who told authorities he had an Aug. 16 deadline to commit the murder, said the conspirators were putting pressure on him to act quickly.
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 Aug. 13--a Friday. Standing outside, she said, was Dennis Flood, the Justice Department's special agent in charge of the case, who announced quietly that "there had been a threat on my life."
She said her first reaction was shock and then the terrified 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 dawned on her.
That weekend--when 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 alone. The two older children were with their father in Seattle. The 3-year-old had been picked up by his father--Lee Mannheimer--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.
Wright's written summary of the reasons for Judd's arrest identified him as a middleman in the alleged plot.
Judd, who is free on $50,000 bail, has pleaded not guilty to the solicitation charge. His attorney, Harlen Hardesty of Roseville, declined to 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 was involved in the plot.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim Sands of Placer County said 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 said: "Nope. . . . They're obviously not right."
Gigliotti's attorney, William E. Gagen Jr. of Danville, said his client did act as an intermediary between Lee Mannheimer and Judd, but not for the sinister purpose outlined by law enforcement officials.
"(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 Lee Mannheimer wanted to find out what his wife was up to. Gagen said Gigliotti turned to Judd, a business associate, who contacted the informant. He said Judd believed that the informant had contacts with law enforcement that would enable him to get information about Linda Mannheimer.
Law enforcement officials 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 the case is under review by the Ventura County district attorney's office.
Ward and Ventura County Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard E. Holmes said 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 law enforcement officials 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 whackos running around out there."
He said he has received a death threat letter. He said he turned it over to the Ventura County sheriff's office.
Virginia Ellis reported from Sacramento and Dwayne Bray from Ventura.