The evening that brothers Kevin and Ricky Nettles were abducted outside their Los Angeles mechanic's shop, one of their employees said they were visited by an armed man who looked like a police detective.
The employee, 67, described in court last week how on that November day in 1999 he saw onetime Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders defensive end Anthony Wayne Smith stop Ricky Nettles in the street and usher him into the back of a car, where another man sat behind the wheel.
"He told me he was taking [Ricky] down for questioning," the employee said. Smith wore a suit and tie, "just like a detective," he recounted — and even had a badge attached to his belt. He never saw his boss alive again.
As the preliminary hearing on charges of murder, kidnapping and special circumstances against Smith unfolded in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Lancaster, prosecutors supplied new details on what they allege was Smith's descent from successful NFL star to repeat killer. A judge ruled that Smith must face trial; prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
The new allegations put Smith at the center of elaborate crimes in which victims were branded with hot tools by assailants dressed as law enforcement agents. The charges go far beyond ones aired at a trial earlier this year, when prosecutors failed to win a conviction on charges that Smith killed a Lancaster mechanic.
Long before that killing, prosecutors now contend, Smith was involved in the torture murders of three men, including Nettles, who was burned with an iron-shaped object on his abdomen and shot.
When police searched Smith's San Bernardino storage unit last year after reopening the Nettles case, they found ammunition, law enforcement garb — including clothing bearing the words "Bail Recovery Agent" — and four books about committing crimes, testified Los Angeles Police Det. Martin Mojarro.
Smith, a top draft pick who played with the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders between 1991 and 1998, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. His attorney, Michael S. Evans, has cast doubt on witnesses' recollections and argued that prosecutors lack physical evidence.
Evans has also questioned the timing of prosecutors' filing of the new charges, suggesting that it was connected to their setback in the Lancaster case.
Smith, who is married to a San Bernardino County prosecutor, had been out of the limelight for years when authorities announced his alleged connection to the slaying of Maurilio Ponce, 31, the mechanic whose body was found on a Lancaster roadside three years ago. Smith's two alleged accomplices were both convicted, but a jury deadlocked on the charges against him.
Shortly after, prosecutors announced that they would retry the Ponce case, and — in a surprise move — they also announced that they would charge him in the Nettles' case and in the 2001 slaying of Dennis Henderson, 33. All were cold cases reopened by LAPD investigators, who say they are still seeking other suspects.
At last week's hearing before Superior Court Judge Lisa M. Chung, prosecutors put on several witnesses who described how the Nettles brothers, operators of a garage and beeper store, were abducted and later found dead, their heads bound with duct tape. Kevin Nettles had been shot six times by a 9-millimeter gun and had a U-shaped burn on his cheek, a deputy medical examiner said.
One of the witnesses had been allowed back in the country to testify on a special authorization from federal immigration authorities, a vivid example of the role illegal immigrants may play in criminal cases. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has recently invoked such incidents to justify his controversial policies on immigrants.
Ismael de Jesus Yanez Flores, who spoke through a Spanish interpreter, said he was driving a pickup in South L.A. shortly after the Nettles were kidnapped. He pulled next to a car and saw a figure with his head on the floor in the back, he said. He also saw guns, and flagged down an officer. His report went nowhere, and Yanez was later deported.
But in court last week, 13 years later, Yanez identified Smith as the man he saw in the front passenger seat. Shown photos of one of the battered bodies, he broke down on the stand.
Another witness, Terry Ware, told how he and Henderson were in Mar Vista in June 2001 when a masked man approached and struck Henderson with a gun and snatched a gold chain from his neck. Another assailant ordered Ware on the ground. He said he was driven around, bound and blindfolded. The kidnappers took $10 and left him in an Inglewood alley. "This is not for you," he recalled one saying.
Henderson was later found dead in the back of a rental car. He had been stabbed at least 34 times, including once in the eye. A retired LAPD investigator testified that Henderson's brother had been Smith's neighbor. He said the brother had previously reported seeing law-enforcement paraphernalia, guns and hand grenades that Smith kept in storage.
Evans, Smith's defense attorney, countered that witnesses' identifications of Smith were made too long after the fact to be credible. He particularly sought to discredit Ware's testimony, showing that it differed from Ware's earlier statements, and questioning why Ware had not called authorities at the time. Ware grew visibly irritated, and at one point the judge admonished him for swearing.
Friends and relatives of the victims who sat through the proceedings said they had waited for years for answers about why their loved ones were slain. Nettles' family members said they had no inkling the crimes might involve Smith until detectives notified them in July.
Smith, they said, was a stranger to the brothers. "They had never seen him before in their lives," said Frank Nettles, 53, their older brother. Nettles said his brothers were "regular guys," who ran a mechanic's shop and a carwash.
Ricky Nettles' fiancée, Shonta Anderson, attended with two of Nettles' grown children, Dashan, 27, and Brandi, 24. Anderson, 46, said Nettles was a "hardworking businessman and happy person" who "had no problem or conflict with anyone."
"It's been rough, especially because the kids are involved," she said of the years since her fiancee's death. "Relief came in knowing the case is still being worked on."
Dashan Nettles said he most regretted that "my dad won't get to see what I've achieved." Nettles said he graduated from college with a degree in healthcare administration and served five years in the Navy. A smile spread across his face as he spoke of how proud his father would have been.
Henderson's sister, Sheila, who sat in the audience during the testimony, described her brother as "silly, funny, happy-go-lucky … always cracking jokes."
His son, Dennis Jr., who was about 10 at the time of his father's slaying, was too upset to attend the proceedings, she said.