A Woodland Hills lawyer was sentenced Thursday to 15 years to life in prison for a murder scheme targeting her prosecutor husband that the judge compared to "a Kafka story with its darkness, with its twists and with its turns."
Appearing ashen, Nicole Garza said nothing after San Fernando Superior Court Judge Judith Meisels Ashmann sentenced her for the attempted murder of her husband, veteran Los Angeles city prosecutor Jose Garza.
She must first serve at least six years for a voluntary manslaughter conviction in connection with the death of her sister, Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo, 34, who died while trying to kill Jose Garza in the botched plot.
Police and prosecutors say the 32-year-old attorney masterminded the plan in which her disguised sister, lurking in the garage of the family's Sylmar home, would shoot Jose Garza. But the plan backfired, and Jose, believing his sister-in-law was an intruder, shot and killed her instead.
Jose Garza declined to be interviewed, but a probation officer's report released Thursday shed the first public light on his reaction to the tragedy.
Grasping for a reason his wife would want him dead, the 50-year-old Garza speculated that diet pills may have caused a personality change.
"He finds this situation to be incomprehensible," Deputy Probation Officer Patrick Dickenson wrote in the report. "He wondered if a weight loss drug that she may have taken could have caused this bizarre change in her behavior."
Garza told the probation officer that his wife lost 60 pounds during the five months prior to the crime.
Prosecutor Dale E. Cutler and defense attorney Marie Girolamo said they did not know whether Nicole Garza had been taking a weight loss medication. Cutler said he believes Jose Garza was reaching for explanations. Relatives say the Garzas appeared to be a happy family, comparing them to the Brady Bunch television clan.
In the probation report, Jose Garza "describes his wife as a good person and a law-abiding citizen" and states that the scheme surprised him and seemed "completely out of character and an aberration."
But police documents reveal a darker side to Nicole Garza. In handwritten notes retrieved from LaFontaine-Trujillo's truck and pieced together by investigators, Nicole Garza gave her sister detailed instructions for the killing.
"First one to the back which will hopefully knock him down," said the note, which experts matched to Nicole Garza's handwriting. "Two in the back if he doesn't go down w/ first."
Facing what would certainly have been a difficult trial, Nicole Garza pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder two weeks ago, hoping to spare her three children further publicity and to earn an early release.
Under terms of the plea bargain, she will not become eligible for parole for more than a dozen years.
After the sentencing Thursday, Nicole Garza's two aunts said they were numb and saddened by the turn of events.
"We agree with the judge: We will all continue to suffer for the rest of our lives," Jillian Segal said. "I can't make sense of it. It's something that I never thought in my entire life I'd be thinking of or talking about: murder. It's crazy."
In an interview at a Santa Monica hospital where she is being treated for a stomach ailment, Nicole Garza's mother, Cynthia Berken, reacted with sorrow.
"I just hope this is some kind of mistake," said Berken, a second-grade teacher from Sherman Oaks. "An awful nightmare."
She last saw Nicole two weeks ago, during a televised court appearance. "She looked so vulnerable and like she was hurting so badly," Berken said.
Thursday's hearing marked the final chapter in a case that began Sept. 25, when Nicole Garza sent her husband to the garage to fetch low-fat ice cream from a freezer after the couple had made love.
Armed because he'd heard the family dogs barking, Jose Garza shot and mortally wounded a hooded figure who had fired two shots at him. At first, he believed the person in his garage was a burglar. But the intruder later turned out to be LaFontaine-Trujillo.
She died nearly two weeks later.
As the police investigation progressed, the sisters' scheme quickly came to light.
Police began to suspect that Nicole Garza was involved in the scheme when she never asked why they were asking so many questions about her sister on the night of the shooting. It was only later that police revealed the identity of the intruder.
"I think it's unfortunate that Ms. Garza used her intelligence and whatever influence she had over her sister," said Ashmann, the sentencing judge. "This was a senseless death. You had at your disposal the tools to resolve your personal problems within the confines of the law."
Indeed, Nicole Garza's motives for wanting her husband of five years dead may never fully be known. In other notes left in her sister's truck, she suggested that she was plagued by financial worries and resented her husband efforts to control her and the couple's three children, ages 18 months to 4 years.
Police and prosecutors have said the theory of financial gain is supported by Nicole Garza's written words: "Sitting . . . with stuffed shirts wanting to scream. Let me out of this bad life I've set up. Fresh start. Out of debt. I need to stop pretending I'm smarter than I really am."
The notes also revealed that a previous plot had failed when Jose didn't come home for lunch. So the sisters conspired to kill him the following day--on the 4th birthday of Nicole Garza's daughter.
"Let's get on with our lives--the ones we finally deserve after all the crap we've been through," the note said. "Get through just 24 hours now, OK?"
Nicole Garza refused to be interviewed by the probation officer, but he wrote: "The defendant's role in these offenses, which resulted in the attempted murder of her husband and the death of her sister, suggests a very manipulative, cunning and unremorseful individual who will do anything, including the murder of the father of her children, to get what she wants."
Her mother, who refused to speculate about the facts of the case, said she sensed that something had happened to her eldest daughter on the day of the shooting, though she didn't know what had occurred. The next day, a hospital maintenance worker unplugged Berken's TV, saying that the wiring was faulty. She now understands that her doctor wanted the set disconnected so that Berken would not hear the tragic news.
That night, the doctor came in, followed by Jillian Segal, Berken's sister. "I said, 'It's Lynette, isn't it?' " she said.
Berken said she had spoken to her younger daughter, Nicole, the day before her arrest.
"I was asking so many questions. How did she get in there? . . . Why would this happen?"
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A Blueprint for Murder
Los Angeles police assembled a blueprint for murder from a puzzle of paper scraps found in Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo's Ford Explorer. The notes include instructions on how to carry out the fatal ambush of Jose Garza. The handwriting matches that of Garza's wife, attorney Nicole Garza. Some excerpts:
"Take off your rings. Wear your hair up. . . . Wear a wig--no makeup. Bring your gloves."
"Bullets go in facing toward the front of the gun."
"Use your right thumb and pull back the hammer all the way until it stays back. Press the trigger (will be quite hard to squeeze.)
"Have the hammer back before he enters the garage so he can't hear it. First one to the back, which will hopefully knock him down--as soon as the shot is gone, just as in practice, pull back the hammer again and shoot again--count to yourself to keep your focus--DO NOT SCREAM--two in the back if he doesn't go down w/ first--then walk around to stand over him (go the long way . . . around the pool table so his hands can't grab at your feet if he's still sufficiently alive)--then several shots to the back of the head. (You won't have to look at him, he'll be face down)--no words--no screams."
"The second the last shot has been shot, shove the gun into the fanny pack and zip it--run out the back door, over the two walls and NEVER LOOK BACK."
"I will see your love and devotion when I happen upon him later."