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Killer of Silent Theater Owner Gets Life Term

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The 21-year-old trigger man in the murder for hire of Lawrence Austin, the owner and operator of a popular silent movie theater, will spend the rest of his days in prison, a judge ruled Tuesday.

In sentencing Christian Rodriguez to life without the possibility of parole, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith told the young man he is lucky to have avoided the death penalty.

Earlier, a jury found Rodriguez guilty of murdering Austin, 74, who ran the Silent Movie Showcase in the Fairfax district. The theater, now closed, was one of the world’s few facilities dedicated solely to silent films.

Rodriguez faced the death penalty because the 1997 murder involved special circumstances of lying in wait and for financial gain. The South Gate man was also convicted of the attempted murder of Mary Giles, a concession worker who was 19 at the time, attempted robbery and commercial burglary.

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James Van Sickle, a theater projectionist who had a personal relationship with Austin, offered Rodriguez $25,000 to kill Austin. Van Sickle, who was also convicted of murder, had promised Rodriguez an additional $5,000 to kill Giles to make the Jan. 17 crime look like a robbery.

That night, as about 60 theatergoers were watching a short film, Rodriguez shot Austin three times, including in the face, at close range with a .357 magnum, as Giles watched. He then shot Giles in the chest. She survived her wounds to testify against Rodriguez.

“And what did Mr. Rodriguez do it for?” Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Ramseyer asked at Tuesday’s sentencing. “He did it for money.”

Rodriguez’s father broke into sobs as the judge reminded Christian Rodriguez of how he had lain in wait and planned the murder. The killer’s mother wiped tears from her eyes. They declined to address the court, as did their son.

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“They’re ashamed for what he did,” Ezekiel Perlo, Rodriguez’s attorney, told the judge. “They’re victims of his, just as much as Austin’s family is.”

Smith, who rejected the defense attorney’s request for a retrial, said it was unfortunate that Rodriguez came from an impoverished background, as stated in his probation report. But the judge noted that the court does not believe the myth that poverty drove Rodriguez to his actions. The judge added 37 years to Rodriguez’s life sentence for the attempted murder of Giles, two counts of attempted robbery and other charges.

During the death penalty phase of the trial, Cecilia Rodriguez, Christian’s mother, testified that her son has no high school diploma and had a difficult time finding a job. Through her efforts, he got a job at a company where he met Van Sickle, she said.

Perlo, who said his client is repentant, had tried to paint Van Sickle as the mastermind behind the murder. Rodriguez was never paid for the contract murder.

Van Sickle, 36, was listed as the sole beneficiary of Austin’s estate, valued at more than $1 million, authorities said. He was convicted of the same charges as Rodriguez.

A hung jury spared Van Sickle’s life in February, and the district attorney announced last month he would not retry the death penalty phase. Van Sickle is expected to be sentenced next month to life without the possibility of parole.


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