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Woman Is Convicted of Plotting 2 Murders : Crime: Mary Ellen Samuels, dubbed ‘green widow’ for her lavish spending habits, could receive death penalty for arranging slayings of her husband and his killer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Ellen Samuels, dubbed the “green widow” because she spent the $500,000 she inherited from her slain husband at a dizzying pace, was convicted Friday of two counts of first-degree murder for arranging his death and that of his executioner seven months later.

Samuels, who had denied from the witness stand that she was involved in either killing, leaned heavily against defense attorney Phil Nameth but showed no other visible reaction as the jury returned the verdicts, reached after 18 days of deliberations.

But the investigating officer, who spent the final years of his career building the case against Samuels, broke down and cried. Sitting just a few feet away from the defendant, her former sister-in-law Susan Conroy also wept.

“You know what people say about black widows? Well, she’s a green widow. It’s the same thing as a black widow, which eats its mate when he’s no longer useful to her,” retired Los Angeles Police Detective George Daley said.

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“She was a very cunning predator,” he added.

The jury is to return to court July 11 to determine whether Samuels, 45, should receive the death penalty or receive a sentence of life in prison for the murders of Robert Samuels, 45, a Hollywood camera operator’s assistant, and James R. Bernstein, 27, a reputed drug dealer.

Besides the murder convictions--which included the special circumstances of multiple killings and murder for financial gain--the jury convicted Samuels of two counts of conspiracy and two counts of solicitation of murder.

During the lengthy trial, which unfolded like a pulp novel, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi alleged that Samuels plotted to have her estranged husband killed when she realized “he was worth more to her dead than alive.”

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As a divorcee, Samuels would have received a settlement of about $30,000. But as a widow, she inherited $500,000. She spent nearly all the money during the 13 months she was under investigation--on a Porsche, a Cancun condo, a country club birthday bash, rented limousines, fake fur coats, trips to Las Vegas, and custom-made outfits from a store called Trashy Lingerie.

Yet she did not pay for her husband’s headstone, defaulted on her mortgage, and failed to pay debts rung up by the family’s Sherman Oaks sandwich shop, according to testimony.

Many of the prosecution witnesses once were among Samuels’ closest confidantes. They described Samuels’ search for a hit man and several botched attempts on her husband’s life. Some of the former friends testified under grants of immunity from prosecution for their roles in the murder schemes.

Her attorney suggested that Samuels was framed by an overzealous police detective and “fair-weather friends” who accused her to spare themselves from prosecution for their roles in the murders.

Robert Samuels, who worked on the films “Lethal Weapon” and “Heaven Can Wait,” was ambushed in his Northridge home on Dec. 8, 1988, by an intruder who hit him over the head, then shot him with a 16-gauge shotgun, firing through a pillow. Samuels and her daughter, Nicole, then 18, who were living in Reseda at the time, told police they discovered the body when they dropped off a pet schnauzer for the weekend.

Bernstein, who carried a business card identifying himself as a “specialist,” was strangled on June 27, 1989, and his body was dumped in Lockwood Canyon in Ventura County. According to testimony, the killers drove Samuels’ black Toyota Celica convertible. The letters on the car’s vanity tags were NAST VXN for “nasty vixen,” authorities said.

The confessed killers, Paul Edwin Gaul and Darrell Ray Edwards, testified for the prosecution under plea bargains. Both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received sentences of 15 years to life in prison. Gaul testified that he drank 30 to 40 beers the day they killed Bernstein.

The witnesses painted an unflattering portrait of Samuels, describing her as a crass woman who hired male strippers for her daughter’s 18th birthday and flirted with police the night she discovered her husband’s body.

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“I like bald guys,” she told one detective, rubbing his hairless head, according to testimony. Later, she was not so friendly toward police. Several witnesses testified that she taught a pet parrot to say profane things about the now retired detective, Daley.


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