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Man Behind Murder-for-Hire Plot Gets Life Sentence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man who orchestrated the murder for hire of a silent movie theater owner will spend the rest of his life in prison, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith sentenced James Van Sickle, 36, to life without the possibility of parole. His sentence matches that of the 21-year-old he hired to carry out the killing.

Van Sickle was found guilty of first-degree murder in the Jan. 17, 1997, slaying of Lawrence Austin, 74, who ran the Showcase Silent Movie Theater in the Fairfax district.

Authorities said the two men shared a turbulent seven-year business and personal relationship and that Van Sickle wanted Austin dead so he could inherit his $1-million estate.

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Because Van Sickle was convicted with special circumstances of lying in wait and for financial gain, he faced the death penalty. A jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of death.

Paul E. Potter, Van Sickle’s attorney, said he was very pleased that his client’s life was spared.

Last month, Smith handed down a sentence of life without the possibility of parole to convicted murderer Christian Rodriguez, who was hired to kill Austin for $25,000.

For an additional $5,000, Van Sickle also directed Rodriguez to shoot theater concession worker Mary Giles, then 19, to make the crime look like a robbery. Giles was shot in the chest, but survived and testified against both men.

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In addition to the murder charge, Van Sickle and Rodriguez were convicted in the attempted murder of Giles, as well as attempted robbery and commercial burglary. The judge added 11 years and four months to Van Sickle’s life sentence for the charges.


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