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‘A coward and a monster': Man accused of hiring hit man gets life in prison for 1992 slaying of wife in La Mirada

Morrad Ghonim
Morrad Ghonim at his trial in Norwalk this year.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Even now — almost a quarter century since the killing — Martha Guzman still obsesses over the last seconds of her younger sister’s life. How did she feel before the bullet tore through her eyes as she sat in her car?

Terrified, ambushed, trapped?

“I replay it over and over in my mind,” she said, biting her lip to choke back tears.

In 1992, her sister, Vicki Ghonim, was 17 — the new mother of a 6-month-old boy, who was in his car seat behind her when a gunman shot her in a parking lot at Creek Park in La Mirada. Prosecutors say the shooter had been hired by Vicki’s husband, Morrad, who paid to make it look like a botched robbery.

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At a court hearing Monday, before a judge sentenced Morrad Ghonim to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Guzman walked to the lectern to address her former brother-in-law. 

“Morrad, you’re a coward and a monster,” she told him. “You deliberately put your son in danger … to make your story more believable.”

He didn’t look at her, but swallowed hard.

“We now know the truth and find some peace in that,” Guzman told him. “You’re finally going to be held accountable.”

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Ghonim, 43, had said at the time that the shooting occurred after his wife exchanged words with a group of people he thought were gang members catcalling her. The shooter — or shooters —  he said, had been hiding behind bushes so he never got a look at who had attacked his wife.

The case remained unsolved for years until DNA tests on clothing recovered from the scene found a genetic match to a prison inmate serving time for burglary — Leon Martinez. Initially, Martinez told authorities his dead friend was the gunman, but he eventually confessed to shooting Vicki, saying her husband had hired him as a hit man. At last month’s trial, Martinez testified that Ghonim paid him $20,000.

During Monday’s hearing in Norwalk, Ghonim — who had relocated to Antigua and married his third wife, a beauty queen, before his arrest in this case — stood to address the judge. He spoke emphatically and with his hands, as if he were, himself, an attorney. He demanded a continuance so he could have more time to prove his innocence.

“I didn’t do anything,” Ghonim said. “I loved her.”

Ghonim said he’d never met Martinez and reminded the judge that at the time of the slaying he was a 19-year-old working at Little Caesars Pizza. How, he asked, could he have scrounged together so much money to hire a hit man?

Ghonim also accused a detective who investigated him of manipulating Vicki’s family and pitting them against him.

“The family loved me so much,” Ghonim said, turning to the audience, where Vicki’s mother and father cried quietly.

At one point, Ghonim’s hands started to shake, his voice cracking. Superior Court Judge John A. Torribio asked him to sit and compose himself, before denying his request for a continuance. 

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Ghonim’s attorney, Alan Eisner, asked the judge to consider his client’s lack of a criminal record as a mitigating factor in deciding a sentence. According to a probation report, the only thing Ghonim had on his record before the murder conviction was a misdemeanor grand theft conviction, for which he was sentenced to three years of probation. And yet, the probation officer wrote in the report, the gruesome murder spoke for itself.

“His plan to execute his wife,” he wrote, “shows his heinous and callous behavior and shows he does not value life.”

As the judge read the sentence, Ghonim rested his forehead in his hands and plugged his ears with both of his thumbs. He sighed twice.

Martinez, 43, who was convicted last year of Vicki’s murder, agreed to give evidence against Ghonim in exchange for a sentence of 28 years to life in prison instead of life without the possibility of parole.

During Ghonim’s trial, Martinez testified that Ghonim asked him about killing his wife on the first day the two men met through a mutual friend. Martinez said he agreed to kill her and they settled on a price.

Martinez also testified that he was high on cocaine the evening of the killing but said he remembered walking up to the window, pulling the gun from his pocket and firing at Vicki’s head from a few feet away.

As Vicki pleaded with him not to hurt her baby, Martinez said he shot her again and again, eventually shooting her in the eyes. Martinez testified that Ghonim then handed him an envelope of cash, reaching over his wife’s slumped body.

The defense attacked Martinez’s credibility, noting he had changed some details while on the witness stand. During previous interviews and court appearances, Martinez had said that Ghonim paid him a lot less — once he said $500, another $10,000. When the defense challenged him on the inconsistent statements, Martinez said, “My memory ain’t that good at all.”

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Jurors convicted Ghonim of first-degree murder.

On Monday, Ghonim reminded the judge of some of the inconsistencies, saying Martinez “can’t even keep up with his own lies.”

After the hearing, Eisner said he expects his client to be vindicated during the appeals process.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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UPDATES:

6:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from Monday’s sentencing hearing.

This article was originally published at 12:20 p.m.


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