Trial Under Way in Dual Murder Case : Courts: Mary Ellen Samuels allegedly had her husband killed and then had the hit man executed.
Flourishing a large blown-up photograph of the defendant wearing only $100 bills and a smile, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday, “This is the real Mary Ellen Samuels . . . clothed only with the blood money of her husband.”
Spectators gasped. Camera operators from tabloid television shows zoomed in. And jurors leaned forward in their seats as Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi walked the picture past the jury box in Van Nuys Superior Court.
So began the two-month murder trial of Samuels, 45, who is accused of hiring a hit man to shoot her estranged husband, a Hollywood camera operator, and then hiring more hit men to kill the original executioner to hide the crime.
Defense attorney Philip Nameth asked jurors to keep an open mind until the outwardly demure Samuels can explain how she came to strike such a pose when she takes the witness stand in about six weeks.
Samuels is charged with two counts each of murder, soliciting murder, conspiracy and a single count of attempted murder. If convicted, she could become the fifth woman currently on California’s Death Row, according to the Department of Corrections.
Financial gain motivated Samuels to murder, Maurizi alleged. The couple, married in 1980, were divorcing and Mary Ellen Samuels “wasn’t satisfied with half the good life,” Maurizi said. Although she had filed for the divorce, she didn’t want to give up her husband’s pension, insurance policies and a Subway sandwich shop he’d bought her, the prosecutor said.
Robert Samuels, 40, who had worked on films such as “Heaven Can Wait” and “Lethal Weapon,” was found dead in the hallway of his Bahama Street home in North Hills on Dec. 9, 1988. Dressed only in boxer shorts, he appeared to be headed toward his tanning bed when the gunman--whose identity is unknown to this day--surprised him, hit him over the head, then shot him through a pillow with a 16-gauge shotgun, according to testimony.
“One of the first things this poor grieving widow did was fly to Las Vegas and buy a fur coat,” Maurizi said.
For the defense, Nameth suggested that Samuels, who was not initially a suspect, was framed by the now-retired police detective in her case after she refused to date him. The detective kept photographs he’d found of her dressed in a bikini and negligee, told her when his wife was out of town and invited her out for dinner and drinks, Nameth said.
Nameth also told jurors that Robert Samuels had a drinking problem. The defense attorney also said that he abused Mary Ellen Samuels and molested her daughter Nicole Samuels-Moroianu, then a teen-ager, when he drank.
Maurizi said the allegations of abuse were nothing more than a manipulative woman’s attempt to gain sympathy for her murder plot, which she discussed with “anyone who would listen” during bar-hopping outings with friends. She also discounted the allegations against the detective as another attempt at manipulation.
“Robert Samuels made one mistake,” Maurizi said. “He provided too well for his family in the event of his untimely death.”
Simply put, Maurizi said, “Robert Samuels had outlived his usefulness to her. . . . She wanted it all. She wanted the limousines. She wanted the fancy cars and the fancy clothing.”
In a related development in another courtroom on Thursday, Samuels was replaced by Susan Conroy--Robert Samuels’ sister--as administrator of his estate. Attorney Robert Pike said only about $33,000 is left in the estate.
Nameth said the late hit man, James Bernstein, acted on his own out of twisted love for Samuels-Moroianu, who claimed to have been raped by Robert Samuels, her adoptive father. He is believed to have hired the gunman who killed Robert Samuels.
But Maurizi said the 27-year-old Bernstein, a low-level drug dealer, was manipulated by Samuels-Moroianu and her mother. For a while, Maurizi said, Bernstein “enjoyed being kept by two beautiful women.” Samuels-Moroianu “even pretended to be engaged to him,” she said.
Bernstein had to die, Maurizi said, when he showed weakness under police pressure. If he confessed, Maurizi said, it would mean an end to the limousines, Porches and trips to Cancun that Samuels had enjoyed during the months after her husband’s death.
Samuels-Moroianu’s status as a witness was unclear Thursday. She hopes to testify about the abuse for her mother’s defense, Nameth said, but has been identified by prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case. Judge Michael Hoff denied a defense request to give Samuels-Moroianu immunity from prosecution on Thursday.
Other prosecution witnesses who were involved in or knew of the plots will be testifying under grants of immunity or under terms of plea bargains that allowed them to plead guilty to lesser charges.