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Former TV chef pleads not guilty to trying to have wife killed

Authorities investigating a former TV chef who allegedly tried to have his wife killed are looking into reports that the couple had fertility problems and that the man planned to take his own life after his wife was slain, sources close to the investigation said.

Juan-Carlos Cruz, the cookbook author and onetime Food Network personality, was charged Monday with attempted murder and solicitation to commit murder. Prosecutors say he solicited homeless men in Santa Monica to kill his wife.

Prosecutors did not reveal a possible motive for the alleged murder-for-hire scheme. But the sources, who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said that the couple had been struggling with fertility issues for some time and that investigators have heard reports that Cruz wanted to kill his wife, Los Angeles attorney Jennifer Campbell, before taking his own life.

Though the scenario remains under investigation, some law enforcement officials are skeptical that Cruz, a 48-year-old Westwood resident, actually planned to kill himself.

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Unshaven and dressed in a red T-shirt and jeans, Cruz made his first court appearance before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Keith Schwartz on Monday and pleaded not guilty. If convicted on all counts, he could face a life term in state prison.

“This is not as sinister as it appears under any definition of the word sinister,” said Shawn Chapman Holley, Cruz’s attorney

Cruz was arrested by undercover Santa Monica police detectives at a Cheviot Hills dog park Thursday after a weeklong investigation.

Detectives allege that Cruz approached at least two homeless men and asked if they would kill his wife in exchange for money.

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Authorities say Cruz offered to provide a weapon and a cellphone to at least one of the men. Sources say he later contacted the other homeless man and said he wanted him to strangle his wife.

Authorities said they first learned of the plot May 7 when one of the homeless men, who was detained by Santa Monica police for loitering, told them about Cruz’s proposition, sources said.

Attorney Steve Meister, who is not affiliated with the case, said the defense could try to show that Cruz wanted to carry out the plan as “an act of compassion to rid his wife of emotional suffering.”

In that circumstance, “a jury could sympathize with him and refuse to convict, or a trial judge could be convinced to grant Cruz probation if there was a guilty verdict,” Meister said. “Therefore, prosecutors might be favorably inclined to strike a deal.”

Cruz was described by neighbors and co-workers as a devout churchgoer, community volunteer and doting husband. Cruz was a dog owner who volunteered at Love on 4 Paws, a therapy program that provides animals to sick children.

A former sous-chef, he created “Cruising in the Kitchen,” a TV show that aired on a local public-access station. That led to a featured appearance on the premiere season of Discovery Health network’s “Body Challenge,” on which he shed 43 pounds. He lost 17 more pounds after the show ended, according to his biography.

He was best known for the Food Network show “Calorie Commando,” in which guests challenged him to prepare their favorite meals with fewer calories while retaining the taste. Cruz produced 39 episodes before the show was canceled in 2006.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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richard.winton@latimes.com

sam.quinones@latimes.com


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