Hopeful of spending no more than a dozen years in prison, lawyer Nicole Garza wept softly as she pleaded no contest Thursday to reduced charges involving a bizarre scheme to murder her husband that backfired, leaving her sister dead.
In exchange for her early pleas to voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder, prosecutors agreed not to pursue first-degree murder and conspiracy charges against Garza, the 32-year-old mother of three small children. Had she been convicted of the more serious charges, Garza could have faced multiple life prison terms.
Under the plea bargain, Garza will serve a minimum of 12 years in state prison before she becomes eligible for parole. A San Fernando Superior Court judge will review the plea bargain on Jan. 23, and sentencing will follow.
Such a quick end to a complicated murder case is rare. "It's almost unheard of," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dale E. Cutler, who added that police had built "a very strong case."
Because Garza accepted a plea bargain even before her preliminary hearing, her true motives for wanting her husband dead may never be known.
"I still don't understand why an educated, intelligent, professional woman would choose to do such a stupid act," the prosecutor said.
But he theorized that Nicole Garza wanted out of her marriage and drafted her sister, Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo, to kill her husband, veteran city prosecutor Jose Garza, 50, for financial reasons.
"Obviously, a number of things made her not like him," Cutler said. "Those are reasons you divorce your husband. They're not reasons to off him. The only possible reason. . .is that she would have walked out of that divorce owing money."
The plot to kill Jose Garza went awry Sept. 25 when his wife sent him to the garage of their Sylmar home to fetch low-fat ice cream. Hearing dogs barking, he brought a gun from his collection and exchanged shots with his sister-in-law, disguised in a black hooded sweatshirt, dark shooting glasses and black evening gloves. She died nearly two weeks later.
"Let's face it, if the sister had done what she was supposed to do--gotten away--it probably would have been written off as a home invasion robbery in which Jose Garza was killed," Cutler said.
Jose Garza did not return telephone calls Thursday. Prosecutors said he is seeking privacy to protect his children.
Nicole Garza's two aunts, who attended the court hearing but made no eye contact with their niece, said the events are shocking and devastating to the families, including the seven children left behind. LaFontaine-Trujillo left four boys, all under the age of 10, who live with their fathers.
"Nothing prepares you for this," said Jillian Segal as she left the courthouse. "She's my niece and I love her. That doesn't just go away."
"It's a horrible nightmare, horrible," said the other aunt, who declined to be identified except by her first name, April.
Both aunts refused to discuss the plea bargain publicly, but said they were en route to tell Nicole Garza's mother, who has been hospitalized for the past six months.
Nicole Garza's public defender, Marie Girolamo, left court without talking to reporters.
Wearing a brown tweed suit, Nicole Garza was pale, tearful and spoke in a barely audible voice as she cried softly in front of Commissioner Gerald T. Richardson. She seemed particularly upset when pleading to the manslaughter charge involving her sister.
"She was snow white," said Segal, her aunt. "You can tell she's been crying and crying."
Nicole Garza probably will be disbarred; she graduated from law school in 1990, and shortly afterward married Jose Garza whom she represented in a divorce.
New details emerged Thursday about the red-haired sisters' schemes. Sources close to the case said that Nicole Garza aroused suspicion by her behavior during police questioning the night of the shooting. She answered repeated questions about her sister, but never expressed surprise at the line of questioning.
In addition, sources said Garza had written--and a handwriting expert has confirmed--instructions to her sister about the shooting, advising her to take target practice and providing a detailed blueprint for murder.
On Sept. 25, the fourth birthday of the Garzas' eldest daughter, sources said Nicole Garza visited her sister at the Sherman Oaks apartment that she shared with their mother. LaFontaine-Trujillo then told an aunt that she was going to bed.
Instead, police say, LaFontaine-Trujillo drove to the Garzas' home before 11 p.m. and waited in the garage. Inside, Jose and Nicole had just made love while their children, ages 18 months to 4 years, slept.
"While they were having sex, she knew her sister was waiting in the garage," said the source. "Is that cold?"
When Jose Garza walked into the garage toting a .45-caliber pistol, LaFontaine-Trujillo, 34, fired first but missed. He returned the shots, striking his sister-in-law in the abdomen. When police searched the garage, they found another bullet lodged in the bedroom wall of the Garzas' baby son. The bullet was stopped by a copper pipe.
Detectives also found wet, shredded notes inside LaFontaine-Trujillo's truck, parked nearby, and crime lab investigators pieced together the scraps, finding their most compelling clues.
Two days after the shooting, Nicole Garza was arrested at her home. By the time she was arraigned two weeks later, her sister had died and the charges against Nicole Garza were upgraded to murder.
Spelling out the benefits of killing Jose Garza, the note found in the Explorer said: "1 1/2 minutes of terror and a 360-degree turnaround in your life. . .what a tremendous domino effect your action will have to better the lives of so many people."
The sisters, both graduates of Monroe High School in North Hills, have been described as close but of different dispositions. LaFontaine-Trujillo, a waitress who juggled two jobs, was creative and artistic but battled bulimia and drugs. Nicole Garza was smart and ambitious and seemed happily married.
Nicole Garza's reasons for enlisting her sister to kill her husband now may never be known. But prosecutor Cutler said her choice of LaFontaine-Trujillo was "the safest."
"Most of us would not--I know I wouldn't--know how to go out and find a hit man," he said.