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Oxnard woman’s trial to begin in death of ex-Olympic shot putter

It’s been nearly three years since Jane Laut shot and killed her husband, retired Olympic shot putter Dave Laut, in their Oxnard backyard. That point is undisputed.

What jurors must decide is why, just before midnight on Aug. 27, 2009, a woman described as quiet and reserved pumped five bullets into Dave Laut, an Adonis who won the bronze medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Laut’s murder trial is set to begin Tuesday, although attorneys have indicated they may ask for a delay.

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Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Haney was reluctant to comment, saying only that the prosecution has evidence showing that Jane Laut, 55, planned the killing and covered up her role for months. Court documents reviewed by The Times, however, offer insight into the couple’s souring relationship.

Investigators contend Jane Laut was consumed by a cold and growing rage that had built over 29 years of marriage. A decade earlier, the couple had adopted an infant son from China, and Jane felt her husband was sometimes “neglectful, gruff and somewhat verbally abusive” toward him.

Investigators also suggested that the couple were in financial trouble and that Jane Laut may have been motivated by a $100,000 life insurance policy in her husband’s name.

Jane Laut’s defense attorney, Ron Bamieh, offers a starkly different take. He says it’s the story of a former world-class athlete who had gone from “hero to zero” and couldn’t handle the fall. He took his frustration out on his wife, sometimes with violence, Bamieh has said in media interviews.

Contrary to his public image as a humble “gentle giant,” behind closed doors the 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound Laut, 52, was an alcoholic given to violent fits of rage, Bamieh said. After taking abuse for decades, Jane Laut snapped after her husband allegedly took out a .22-caliber Ruger and threatened to kill her, 10-year-old Michael and the two family dogs, Bamieh said.

During the argument, Jane Laut managed to get the gun away and then shot her husband in self-defense as he advanced on her, Bamieh said. “They call domestic violence a crime of silence for a reason,” he said. “People who are abused don’t talk about it.”

Dave Laut took his place in U.S. shot-putting history at the 1984 Olympics with a throw of 68.79 feet at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, enough for a bronze medal. Before that, he won two NCAA titles at UCLA and held the U.S. record at 72 feet 3 inches in 1982, when he was ranked second in the world.

His plan to go for the gold in the 1988 Olympics was shattered in 1986 when he tore tendons in both knees. Despite a year of rehabilitation, he never recovered his prowess. At the time of his death, he was athletic director at Hueneme High School in south Oxnard, the same campus where his father had taught science for decades.

Jane Laut was a local girl from a prominent Oxnard farming family. The Laubachers have grown beets, celery and strawberries on the fertile Oxnard plain for four generations. Other family members are involved in insurance and business, and it’s not unusual to see a Laubacher on one community board or another.

Dave and Jane were high school sweethearts and married while in college. She was also athletic, at one time coaching the girls’ volleyball team at Santa Clara High. But for most of the couple’s marriage, she stayed at home.

Her attention to Michael became a source of irritation to her husband, Bamieh said. Dave Laut was also drinking regularly, he said, adding that he has witnesses who will testify that the former Olympian was an alcoholic. And though there apparently are no witnesses to physical abuse, they said that Dave Laut could be verbally abusive and that his wife was always “walking on eggshells” around him, Bamieh said.

According to court documents, Dave Laut had a blood-alcohol level of 0.05% at the time of his death; 0.08% is considered legally drunk. According to a statement released by Bamieh after his client’s arrest, the two got into an argument and Dave Laut armed himself with the handgun. Somehow he lost his balance and fell; Jane Laut jumped on top of him and the gun went off, striking Dave Laut, Bamieh said in the statement. Then as Dave Laut tried to get back up, “threats still spewing from his mouth,” Bamieh said, Jane Laut shot him four more times.

“Jane had only one option to save her son, and she did what any mother would do to save their child,” he said.

Jane Laut initially told police that a prowler had shot her husband. But within days the couple’s son told investigators his mother had confessed, according to an affidavit from Oxnard homicide Det. Michael Young.

Forensic tests on the jeans and shirt that Jane Laut was wearing — and which she changed out of before police arrived — showed gunshot residue, Young wrote. The bullets taken from her husband’s body matched the .22 Ruger Jane Laut had hidden in a grandfather clock, he said.

An autopsy revealed five gunshot wounds, three at close range to Laut’s head. The other two struck his back right shoulder and his left upper arm.

Young theorized that the two got into an argument and that Jane Laut armed herself, shooting her husband first in the arm. She continued shooting as he fell to a concrete patio in their backyard and then delivered a final shot to the back of Dave Laut’s head, Young wrote.

Bamieh admits that his client initially lied to police. She did so, he said, because she wanted to get her son to a safe place. Five months later, when Jane was arrested, Bamieh issued a statement in which his client admitted killing her husband.

It just wasn’t murder, the attorney said.

Dave Laut’s relatives declined to comment. But Adrian Palazuelos, who was principal at Hueneme High at the time of Laut’s death, called him a quiet, organized man who worked hard and shunned the spotlight.

“He was always ready to help the up-and-coming athletes,” Palazuelos said shortly after the shooting. “And you’d have never known he was the Dave Laut of the L.A. Olympics. He never boasted about it.”

catherine.saillant@.latimes.com


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