Nicole Samuels Moroianu's face betrayed no emotion Thursday as she told the jury at her mother's murder trial in Superior Court that her stepfather had beaten and raped her starting when she was 12.
Moroianu, 24, said she didn't tell anyone for several years, afraid her disclosure would break up her parents' marriage. She said she felt embarrassed and ashamed.
When she finally ended her silence during her sophomore year at Alemany High School--first telling a school counselor whose name she said she couldn't recall, then telling friends--she spoke only about the beatings, Moroianu testified.
She told her mother about the alleged sexual abuse in October, 1988, about a year after her parents had separated.
Two months later, Robert Samuels, a 40-year-old motion picture camera operator who had adopted Moroianu as a child, was shot to death inside the house the family used to share on Bahama Street in Northridge.
Prosecutors say the killer was hired by Moroianu's mother, Mary Ellen Samuels, who inherited about $500,000 when her estranged husband died. Samuels also is accused of hiring other killers to do away with the original hit man, James Bernstein, a 27-year-old reputed cocaine dealer who had proposed marriage to Moroianu a few months before he was strangled in June, 1989.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi says Bernstein was slain because Samuels feared he would cooperate with police.
Moroianu says she is testifying "to help my mom," who she professes is innocent and has been falsely accused by fair-weather friends. Although prosecutors have named Moroianu as an unindicted co-conspirator in the slayings, Moroianu waived her right not to incriminate herself and took the witness stand late Wednesday for her mother's defense.
"This ain't no Menendez," defense attorney Phil Nameth said, referring to the controversial abuse defense employed by the Beverly Hills brothers in the killings of their parents. Instead, he said, Moroianu's allegations of sexual abuse provided the motive for Bernstein, driven by love for Moroianu, to kill Robert Samuels.
As she described intimate violations by a man she repeatedly referred to as "my dad," Moroianu spoke in a monotone and diverted her gaze. Across the courtroom, Mary Ellen Samuels dabbed occasionally at her eyes.
Moroianu testified that Robert Samuels began fondling her when she was 12, and raped her eight times between the ages of 13 and 16, when she said she left home.
It started with slapping, she recalled:
"I didn't feed the dogs correctly and he slapped me on my face and said, 'Does this look good to you? Does this look like something you'd like to eat?' "
About a week later, she said, he pushed her: "I believe this time it was because I wasn't picking up the dogs' bowel movements correctly. He pushed me down and he said, 'If you're not going to pick it up the right way, you can eat it.' "
Her eyes reddened and filled with tears as she recalled these incidents. But after the lunch break, Moroianu seemed emotionally detached as she described the eight alleged rapes.
"She's holding back," defense attorney Nameth said. "She doesn't want to cry in court."
Moroianu said her stepfather usually came into her room as she slept, on weekends when he had been drinking. Once, she said, he woke her by pouring ice over her head, then lifting her by her nightgown.
Her father also struck her mother when he drank, Moroianu said.
"I don't believe her. Bob wasn't that type of person," said Robert Samuels' sister, Susan Conroy, who has attended the trial daily. "Like mother, like daughter. After all, she is fighting for her mother's life."
In her testimony, Moroianu also disputed testimony by prosecution witnesses, many of them her former high school friends, that she had asked them to find a gun and spoke of killing her father. She also denied that she had been involved in a plot to steal Samuels' car, so his slaying would look like a carjacking. And she denied telling friends that she had altered the death scene to make it appear a break-in and struggle had occurred.
Moroianu will return to the witness stand Monday.