'Green Widow' Convicted in Deaths of Husband, Hit Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Ellen Samuels, dubbed the "Green Widow" because she spent the $500,000 estate she inherited from her slain husband at a dizzying pace, was convicted Friday of two counts of first-degree murder for arranging the husband's December, 1988, shooting death--and his executioner's strangulation death 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 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 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.

"She was a very cunning predator."

The seven men and five women on the jury will return to court July 11 to determine whether Samuels, 45, should receive the death penalty or spend the rest of her 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.

"She's shocked," Nameth said of Samuels' reaction to the verdict. "Now, it's time to get down to the business of saving her life."

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

Jurors deadlocked on two other counts--attempted murder and solicitation--and on a special circumstance that the hit man was slain for financial gain. Superior Court Judge Michael R. Hoff declared mistrials on those counts.

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

As a divorcee, Samuels would have received a settlement worth 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 didn't 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.

The former Mary Ellen Gurnick, known by the nickname "Betty Boop" as she grew up just a few doors away from her future husband in Santa Ana, smiled and winked at spectators as the trial began, but appeared haggard as testimony drew to a close two months later.

Many of the key prosecution witnesses once were among Samuels' closest confidants. 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.

"The sad part of this case is there were so many victims" besides the two men slain, Maurizi said. "Just about anybody whose life she touched became a victim."

Robert Samuels, who worked on the films "Lethal Weapon" and "Heaven Can Wait," was ambushed in his Northridge home 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, 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 to death on June 27, 1989, and his body was dumped in remote Lockwood Canyon, in Ventura County. According to testimony, the killers drove Samuels' black Toyota Celica convertible.

The letters on the car's vanity plate were NAST VXN, for "nasty vixen."

The confessed killers, Paul Edwin Gaul and Darrell Ray Edwards, testified for the prosecution under plea bargains. Under the arrangement, 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.

Nameth suggested that Samuels was framed by an overzealous detective and "fair-weather friends" who accused her to spare themselves from prosecution for their own roles in the murders.

Those witnesses painted an unflattering portrait of Samuels 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.

"I like bald guys," she told one detective, rubbing his hairless head, according to testimony. Later, however, she was not so friendly toward police. Several witnesses testified that she taught a pet parrot to make profane remarks about detective Daley.

Her trial played like a movie of the week, tracing a story line of puppy love among childhood neighbors that soured into deceit and betrayal.

According to testimony, Mary Ellen and Robert Samuels grew up a block apart, and he had always been sweet on her. They met again in late 1979, following her failed first marriage, and wed in 1980. She left him six years later, leaving a "Dear John" note on the kitchen table, complaining that the marriage had gone "stale."

"No matter what happens or what you think of me now or later, I will still always care for you, we just can't live together," she wrote.

Samuels and her daughter testified that Robert Samuels abused them, but their stories were uncorroborated by evidence, and she did not include abuse among her list of complaints in the letter.

Until two months before his death, Robert Samuels hoped they might reconcile, confiding to a friend that he was reading the self-help book "How to Save Your Marriage," according to testimony.

But by then, testimony showed, Samuels and her daughter already were searching for someone to kill him. Several of Nicole's high school friends testified that she had asked if they knew where she could find a gun to kill her father.

Within months of her husband's death, Samuels took up with a new boyfriend, a concert promoter named Dean Groover who photographed her in a Cancun hotel room, wearing only $20,000 in cash and a smile. The photograph became a memorable piece of prosecution evidence.

Samuels denied she'd lived in the fast lane after her husband died. She testified that she "paid bills" with the insurance money, denying that her lifestyle changed. Later she conceded, "Naturally, I got to do more things."

Nicole Samuels-Moroianu also testified on her mother's behalf, even though prosecutors consider her an unindicted co-conspirator. She said Robert Samuels raped her, beginning when she was 12.

During one court recess while Samuels-Moroianu was on the stand, the defendant smiled and mouthed the words, "I love you," to her daughter.

"I love you more," Samuels-Moroianu responded.

Maurizi said prosecutors are still considering whether to file charges against the daughter.

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