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Nevada Court Ruling Says Developer Was Suspect in ‘78 Drug Dealing

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Controversy over a proposed $300-million construction project along West Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip has taken a new turn after its developer was identified in a court decision as a possible suspect in drug dealing that led to a 1978 Nevada murder.

Mark Siffin, developer of the Sunset Millennium project, was identified by the Nevada Supreme Court in a January opinion as appearing in police reports more than 20 years ago as an alleged “major cocaine trafficker.”

Those police reports, the Nevada court decision said, alleged that Siffin was involved with a Reno drug dealer who was stabbed to death that year.

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Siffin--head of the Maefield Development Corp., a Bloomington, Ind., firm spearheading what would be the largest commercial development ever in West Hollywood--denies involvement in the slaying or in drug dealing, his attorney said. The attorney called the Nevada court opinion’s discussion of Siffin “utterly absurd.”

Siffin was never arrested or charged with either the stabbing death of Richard Minor Jr. or with the drug trafficking described in the 17-page opinion issued Jan. 27.

In that decision, the Nevada court overturned the conviction of John Francis Mazzan, who spent 20 years on death row for the slaying, and ordered another trial.

Jurists said Mazzan’s original 1979 defense case had been harmed because prosecutors did not tell his lawyers about local and federal law enforcement authorities’ suspicions about Siffin or about investigators’ attempts to locate Siffin and another possible suspect.

In West Hollywood, opponents of the Sunset Millennium project said they will closely monitor Mazzan’s retrial to determine whether it will affect their own legal fight to block construction. Some are now wondering if they will have more ammunition to use against the project.

The 662,820-square-foot project would include a luxury hotel, two office buildings and upscale shops and restaurants along the southern edge of Sunset Boulevard west of La Cienega Boulevard. A Las Vegas-style “Jumbotron” electronic advertising sign and a walkway over La Cienega would be part of the project.

Construction of the 1 1/2-block-long project was approved late last year by West Hollywood officials over the objections of some residents and city leaders in adjoining Los Angeles, who complained that it would worsen traffic and ruin hillside views.

Siffin declined to discuss the Nevada decision. Through his attorney, he denied any involvement in Minor’s death or the drug-dealing described in the Nevada Supreme Court opinion.

“All of these allegations are false. . . . These are just wild allegations never tested by anybody,” said Siffin’s lawyer, David Schindler of Los Angeles.

Schindler said Siffin was not a party to the Nevada Supreme Court proceedings and did not have an opportunity to defend himself. He said Nevada prosecutors have told him they do not consider Siffin a suspect in the slaying, something prosecutors in Reno confirmed.

Schindler said he has proof that Siffin was in Indiana building a house at the time Minor was killed.

He said Siffin will respond if called to testify at Mazzan’s retrial but, “frankly, he has no desire to be part of a trial he knows nothing about.”

Two months ago, Mazzan was released from prison on $100,000 bail, pending a retrial scheduled for Jan. 8.

The Nevada court’s opinion contains investigators’ assertions that in 1978 Siffin may have been “the brains and money” behind a drug-dealing operation connected to the murder that Mazzan was convicted of committing.

“The evidence casts a rather sinister light on Siffin and was therefore favorable to Mazzan’s defense and should have been disclosed,” the jurists wrote in their decision.

“The record shows that Mazzan’s counsel never received full disclosure of material evidence favorable to the defense. This violated Mazzan’s due process rights. . . . We therefore reverse the judgment of conviction. . . .”

The court criticized prosecutors for not informing the defense that there could be other suspects, such as alleged drug dealers who hadn’t been paid for about $6,000 in drugs supplied to Minor.

The case has attracted widespread attention in Nevada.

The victim was the son of a Reno justice of the peace. The slain man’s girlfriend was allegedly a prostitute at the Mustang Ranch brothel and was herself later found slain.

One of the prosecutors was Mills Lane, now a syndicated TV show judge and boxing referee, best known for disqualifying Mike Tyson when Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Lane has denied withholding evidence 21 years ago.

In West Hollywood, foes of the Millennium project said they were stunned when their lawyer noticed a story in May in the Los Angeles Daily Journal legal newspaper about the Nevada case that mentioned Siffin’s name.

The opponents are preparing an appeals court fight to block the project on environmental grounds.

Last month a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the city complied with state environmental laws in approving construction late last year.

Project foe G.G. Verone, a former actress who was in the television detective series “77 Sunset Strip,” said she was flabbergasted by the Nevada court’s discussion of Siffin.

West Hollywood officials declined to comment on the Nevada case. But Mayor Jeffrey Prang voiced confidence that financial backers are committed to the project, which is expected to generate an estimated $5 million to $7 million yearly in city tax revenues.

“We’ve done due diligence in checking out his professional background,” Prang said of Siffin. “From a position of credibility of the developer’s ability to develop the project, it seems solid.”

The Nevada opinion notes that investigators “uncovered information that Minor had been dealing drugs” with Siffin and a Bloomington friend and “there was evidence” that Siffin and the friend “might have been in Reno at the time of Minor’s murder” on Dec. 21, 1978.

According to the decision, investigators alleged that “Mark Siffin apparently went underground” after that time and that Monroe County sheriff’s deputies in Indiana, the Indiana University police and agents from a federal drug task force could not find him.

Schindler, Siffin’s attorney, said Siffin was in fact easy to find in Indiana at that time.

The Nevada Supreme Court jurists in January stressed that the evidence “does not establish that Siffin was the murderer, but it was certainly favorable to Mazzan’s case.” The opinion went on to state: “We conclude that it would have 1) contributed to reasonable doubt as to Mazzan’s guilt; 2) provided a basis to challenge the thoroughness of the police investigation; and 3) provided a lead which the defense could have pursued to possibly gain further favorable evidence.”


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