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Trial Opens in Slaying of 17-Year-Old at Auto Shop

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one denies that Edward Nishida Drake, roused from slumber by a noise outside his Simi Valley auto repair business 15 months ago, grabbed his revolver, opened his shop door and fired a single shot that killed a 17-year-old boy.

But during opening statements in Drake’s murder trial Wednesday, lawyers offered very different interpretations of the facts surrounding the Oct. 10, 1997, killing of Leonard Anthony Coppola, a motorcycle aficionado trying to retrieve a trailer from behind Drake’s shop that windy night.

Alternately unfurling a tape measure before jurors and pointing to crime scene photos, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bob Calvert argued that street lamps and the beams from the headlights of Coppola’s truck shed ample light for Drake to know from a distance of 7 feet that the young man posed no threat.

The prosecutor also pointed out that Drake, a Mercedes and BMW mechanic for 30 years, was under the influence of alcohol when he fired the shot that killed Coppola.

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The young man was killed as he and a friend made final preparations for a weekend trip of motorcycle riding, which required them to retrieve a trailer from a padlocked automotive lot shared by Drake and the man who gave them permission to borrow one. Drake has said previously that he thought Coppola was a burglar trying to break into the lot.

“The defendant did kill Leonard Coppola on . . . a Friday evening--at approximately 9:15 p.m.--that fact will not be in dispute,” said Calvert, looking directly at jurors. “This is not a case of whodunit. . . . The victim had no weapons. The victim liked to ride motorcycles and dirt bikes.”

Having worked at a motorcycle repair shop two doors down from Drake’s business for months, the victim was also a friend of the 52-year-old defendant.

Hours before the shooting, Drake had given the young man hamburger meat and steaks for his trip. He now faces a second-degree murder charge and the possibility of serving 25 years to life behind bars in a trial that could last until early next week.

On the night of the shooting, Drake did not see his friend, defense attorney Stephen M. Hogg contended in opening statements. He saw a threat.

Hogg said Coppola first crouched, and then stood up with his hands clutched together in front of him, when Drake shouted “Freeze.” Drake later likened that pose to “a standard combat stance.”

“It was such a stance that, it was as if he had turned a corner while walking in the woods and, at face level, there was a rattlesnake,” Hogg said. After firing the shot, Drake fell backward, unsure whether he was the victim or the aggressor, his lawyer said.

“He’s trembling, his heart is racing, he thinks he’s been shot,” Hogg said. Not until Drake unloaded his .44-caliber revolver did he realize who fired at whom. Hogg said he plans to call his client to testify in his defense.

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The prosecution then presented four witnesses: A California Highway Patrol officer who responded to the shooting, the motorcycle repair shop owner who once employed Coppola, the county’s assistant medical examiner and the Simi Valley Police Department’s chief crime scene investigator.

Throughout Wednesday’s proceedings, Coppola’s mother, stepfather and aunt sat together stoically, occasionally sniffling or sobbing silently. At times, Coppola’s mother rested her head on her husband’s shoulder.

The family left the courtroom when Assistant Medical Examiner Janice G. Frank discussed the bullet that tore into a spot above Coppola’s lip and lodged near his spine.

Neither the family nor the jury was present when Frank discussed toxicology tests that revealed Coppola had traces of marijuana in his system at the time of the shooting. Superior Court Judge Ken W. Riley excused the jury while he ruled on the testimony.

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The medical examiner said she did not know how recently the marijuana had been smoked and could not accurately testify about whether it impaired the young man’s reasoning. As a result, Riley ruled the findings inadmissible.

Frank testified that the bullet that ended Coppola’s life appeared to have struck something before hitting the victim. On cross-examination, she testified that the angle of the shot indicated Coppola could have been stooping or crouching when he was shot.

Motorcycle shop owner Ken Hensley testified that the three businesses of the Simi Valley industrial compound he and Drake shared had experienced some thefts before the shooting. He also said that it was not uncommon for people to open the gate to the shared storage lot behind the shops after dark.

The day closed with crime scene investigator Rebecca McConnell, who is scheduled to resume her testimony today. The prosecution is also expected to show jurors a videotaped reenactment of the shooting today.

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