Murder Charges Filed as Suspect's Sister Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 32-year-old lawyer was charged with murder Tuesday, one day after her sister died of a gunshot wound she suffered during an alleged murder-for-profit plot against the lawyer's husband.

Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo, a 34-year-old mother of three boys, died at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center on Monday, nearly two weeks after the alleged plot went awry at her sister's Sylmar home.

The surviving sister, Nicole Garza, was charged with murder in Van Nuys Municipal Court on Tuesday even though she did not fire the fatal shots.

She pleaded not guilty to murder as well as to counts of attempted murder and conspiracy in the alleged scheme to kill her husband, veteran city prosecutor Jose Garza.

Garza remains unconvinced of his wife's guilt and visits her in jail frequently, often waiting for hours to see her, her attorney said.

Nicole Garza, who remains in custody in lieu of $1 million bail, learned of her sister's death from her lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Marie Girolamo, while she was in court Tuesday.

"She is very, very upset and very distraught," Girolamo said. "They were close. The thought of being charged with the murder of her sister is devastating to her."

Garza will seek permission from jail officials to attend her sister's funeral, Girolamo added.

LaFontaine-Trujillo's ex-husband, Miguel Trujillo, said Tuesday their three boys, aged 10, 8 and 5, are taking their mother's death "very hard, very hard."

Police and prosecutors have alleged the sisters hatched an elaborate plot to kill Deputy City Atty. Jose Garza, 50.

Authorities say Nicole Garza gave her sister explicit instructions, a gun from her husband's collection and a garage key, then sent Jose Garza to the garage, allegedly for ice cream. But the family's three dogs began barking, and Jose Garza grabbed a .45-caliber handgun from his collection.

Once in the garage, police say he was met by LaFontaine-Trujillo, wearing a dark, hooded sweatshirt, black wig and goggle-type glasses. They say she fired three shots, missing Garza, who shot back.

Garza was not injured in the Sept. 25 incident and he does not face charges in his sister-in-law's death because he was acting in self-defense, authorities said.

Under California law, Nicole Garza can be charged with murder because her accomplice--her sister--was killed during the commission of a crime. The underlying legal theory is known as "vicarious liability," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dale E. Cutler.

The murder charge could prove problematic before a jury because the intended victim actually fired the fatal shot and, at least for now, seems to remain supportive of the wife accused of plotting his demise, according to one expert.

"The biggest challenge for the prosecution will be convincing the jury that a sister should be convicted of the murder of her sister, even though someone else pulled the trigger," said Loyola Law School Dean Laurie L. Levenson.

Jose Garza remains a crucial potential witness--for both the prosecution and defense--and during the past week, both sides have battled for his loyalty, which at this point seems still to lie with his wife.

Late last week, police showed Jose Garza their evidence, but on Tuesday, defense attorney Girolamo said she, too, has met with him, and said he remains unconvinced of his wife's guilt.

"He is very supportive of her and I would not say Jose is in denial," Girolamo said. "In his mind they have not produced the evidence that points to her."

Girolamo said Jose Garza visits his wife as often as he can in jail, often waiting in line for up to five hours to see her.

"These are two people in love," she said. "They love each other very much."

Law professor Levenson said such circumstances can carry tremendous emotional weight with jurors.

"This case is tough because of the family nature of it," she said. "It's emotional. Should the person sitting in the bedroom be charged with murder?"

Neither of the sisters have spoken to authorities. Nicole Garza, who was initially interviewed by police merely as a witness, refused to talk to police once she was arrested two days later, on Sept. 27.

But police and prosecutors found notes they believe were written by Nicole Garza in LaFontaine-Trujillo's car that outline the scheme, even suggesting that the younger sister would take the brunt of the questioning. According to her alleged notes, Nicole Garza believed she would "pass muster" and that the "investigation will die."

Prosecutor Cutler said the investigation continues, including the gathering and analysis of handwriting samples, as well as evidence gleaned from searches of several computers.

Girolamo said, however, that so far, police and prosecutors are unable to link Nicole Garza to the notes, which were found damp and torn on the passenger side of LaFontaine-Trujillo's car, but carry no salutations or signatures.

Nicole Garza, who was admitted to the California bar in 1990, represented her sister in her 1989 divorce from Miguel Trujillo. She also apparently represented Jose Garza in his divorce in 1992 from a previous wife, court records show.

LaFontaine-Trujillo, a waitress, lived in a Sherman Oaks apartment she shared with her mother.

Coroner's officials said an autopsy will be conducted.

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