The killings — hundreds of miles and several years apart — seemed unrelated.
An entrepreneur found shot to death in his Las Vegas home. A prominent attorney killed by a bullet to the head in his Rolling Hills Estates driveway. A father slain in front of his young children in the courtyard of their Whittier apartment complex.
But now authorities say there is a connection: a Whittier businessman.
According to investigators in California and Nevada, 64-year-old Richard Wall is “a suspect” in all three slayings — which they say appear to be professional hits related to business and legal disputes. Officials said they do not believe Wall carried out the shootings himself.
Wall has not been charged with a crime, and detectives declined to detail the evidence they have collected, saying they are continuing to investigate.
Detectives with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said they have spoken to friends, relatives and former employees of Wall’s manufacturing business, who say he is in Montenegro. The Eastern European country has no extradition treaty with the United States.
Wall’s attorney, Rickey Ivie, said his client had no involvement in the deaths and that the allegations “make no sense.”
“He happened to have litigation with the people,” he said. “That’s all. To me, that’s wholly inadequate.”
When asked about Wall’s whereabouts, Ivie declined to comment.
“It seems to me that Mr. Wall deserves more than a trial in the court of public opinion,” Ivie said. “He’s not a fugitive. He hasn’t been charged with anything.”
Investigators said they have known for years that the killings were connected, but declined to say how. They said they focused on Wall as a suspect only recently. Two of his employees were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy in May and jailed for five days before they were released due to a lack of evidence, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Det. Bob Kenney.
On May 20, 2008, a relative found the body of David James “DJ” Vargas inside his home a little more than a mile from the Las Vegas Strip. He may have been dead for one or two days, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Det. Clifford Mogg said.
Vargas, 53, was self-employed. According to Mogg, he had been trying to start an escort and limo service — and owed Wall at least $100,000. The two men had a falling out over the debt, Mogg said, adding that there were similarities between Vargas’ death and the two that followed. The detective declined to elaborate.
Wall’s lawyer said he believed Vargas had “conflicts with a number of persons, not just involving financial debts.”
“He owed a lot of people money,” Ivie said.
The shooting shocked Tidus’ quiet Palos Verdes Peninsula neighborhood and Los Angeles’ legal community.
The attorney — a partner at Baute & Tidus — was known as an aggressive litigator who won large-dollar judgments for his clients.
“He was the rainmaker for that firm,” Los Angeles County sheriff’s Det. Joe Espino said of Tidus, who also served on the board of governors for the State Bar of California.
Among Tidus’ clients was a man who had won an $11-million judgment against a friend and business associate of Wall’s, a former tax attorney named Christopher Gruys.
During a pretrial deposition in 2005, Gruys had pulled out a camera and took a photograph of Tidus, then made what the attorney interpreted as a threat, according to a declaration Tidus filed in court seeking a restraining order.
“I felt and continue to feel threatened by Mr. Gruys’ statements and conduct,” Tidus said in the declaration.
When Tidus’ client tried to collect on the judgment, he filed another suit against Gruys and Wall. The client alleged that Gruys was transferring money to Wall’s business to avoid paying what he owed, according to an appellate court decision in the case, which also mentioned that Gruys was the best man at Wall’s wedding.
Sheriff’s detectives previously described Gruys as a “person of interest,” but not a suspect, in Tidus’ death. Authorities in May released a sketch of an additional, unidentified “person of interest” whom they want to question.
Gruys’ attorney, Thomas M. Brown, said his client has done nothing wrong and hasn’t heard from Wall or spoken to him recently.
“They maybe talk a couple times a year,” Brown said.
Additional interviews and physical evidence led investigators to conclude Wall was involved in the lawyer’s killing, Espino said, though he declined to elaborate.
“Wall’s wall is starting to crumble,” Espino said.
When Juan Gabriel Ramirez-Mendez was fatally shot outside his apartment on Feb. 26, 2011, it looked like a professional hit, Whittier police Det. Chad Hoeppner said. Ramirez-Mendez, 35, had been shot at close range in front of his 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
The killing was carried out by two men, Hoeppner said. One was described as about 6 feet tall, between 170 and 180 pounds, and wearing blue jeans and a black coat with a hood. Police have not released a description of the other.
Ramirez-Mendez had worked for Wall’s business, Welded Fixtures, creating displays for retailers from September 2007 to December 2008. In 2009, he filed a class-action lawsuit against the firm on behalf of employees, alleging workers were not compensated for overtime and made to take short meal breaks or none at all, according to court records.
The lawsuit was settled in December 2010, three months before Ramirez-Mendez was killed, according to the case records. Ramirez-Mendez never received payment in the suit, Hoeppner said.
Last month, an “in escrow” sign stood outside Wall’s gated home perched atop a hill in Whittier. The online listing for the 3,500-square-foot residence boasted imported Italian windows and outdoor patio complete with a pizza oven, a waterfall and a Jacuzzi overlooking panoramic views from Orange County to downtown Los Angeles.
Residents in the area said Wall kept to himself; one thought he might have been on vacation.
For more crime news, follow @nicolesantacruz on Twitter.