Was an ex-con drug dealer just defending himself from his wife’s ex-UCLA basketball star lover, or was he an outraged deceived husband who had murder on the mind when he found the cheating pair in his rival’s black Mercedes?
Testimony will continue Friday in the sensational sex triangle killing of a 20th Century Fox executive who had played on UCLA’s basketball championship team in the 1970s under coach John Wooden.
In addition to the case’s sex aspects and background of the victim, the killing has gained attention because the victim’s body wasn’t found for 2 1/2 years. It was finally discovered in a shallow grave in the Antelope Valley.
In opening statements Thursday, prosecutors and the defense not surprisingly presented jurors with very different versions of the events that led to the downtown Los Angeles courtroom trial.
A spurned husband tracked down his wife and a 20th Century Fox distribution executive during a late-night romantic rendezvous and beat the man to death in his Mercedes-Benz in 2012, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday, but the defendant’s attorney called the man’s killing “a case of self- defense.”
In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace told jurors that John Creech had made a threat against the victim, Gavin Smith, nearly two years earlier during a conversation with Smith’s two sons at Creech’s West Hills home.
“That threat that he made to the two sons was … a downpayment to murder,” the prosecutor told the eight-woman, four-man panel. “… This particular defendant had murder on the brain. He wanted to kill Gavin Smith.”
Defense attorney Irene Nunez countered that Creech had used a GPS app on the family’s cellphones to try to find his wife on May 1, 2012, because he was worried about her in light of her previous drug and alcohol usage.
“He’s just trying to find his wife to bring her back home to the children,” Creech’s attorney told jurors, noting that he left home without a weapon, wearing a bright red Ohio State University sweatshirt and driving a mini-van with a “loud engine” as he tried to locate her.
Nunez dismissed the prosecution’s description of a “romantic tryst” between Smith and Creech’s wife, saying they were there to “commit infidelity” and were “cheating on their spouses.” Smith’s wife had kicked him out of their house after learning he had been unfaithful with another woman, Creech’s attorney told jurors.
The defense lawyer said Creech knocked on the hood of Smith’s black Mercedes-Benz to alert his own wife and Smith, then got involved in a verbal dispute with his wife before Smith intervened and the dispute between the two men got physical.
Nunez said her client thought the fight was over but he had to “defend himself” and do a “leg sweep” when Smith came at him wielding a weapon.
“What we have here is a case of self-defense,” she told jurors, noting that Smith was 6-foot-6 and 212 pounds, while Creech was smaller at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds with “a little bit of a beer gut.”
She acknowledged that her client had made “errors in judgment” by trying to conceal the body of the 57-year-old former UCLA basketball player, who was on the 1975 NCAA-winning basketball team under Coach John Wooden and had worked for 20th Century Fox for 18 years. Smith’s remains were discovered after hikers came upon a shallow grave in the Antelope Valley about 2 1/2 years later.
As for the alleged threat involving Smith, the defense attorney said her client had told Smith’s sons, “No one is going to hurt your dad. Just have him not contact my wife any more.”
Creech, a 44-year-old convicted drug dealer, is charged with murder, along with the special circumstance allegation of murder while lying in wait. He could face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted. The District Attorney’s Office had opted earlier not to seek the death penalty against him.
Grace, the prosecutor, told jurors that Creech was angered over his wife’s repeated dalliances with Smith, and said the evidence would show he used the GPS phone app to surprise the two during a “romantic tryst” not far from the Creech home.
He said Creech began beating Smith and continued pounding him even after Smith appeared to be unconscious and Creech’s wife yelled at him to stop.
The prosecutor told jurors Smith was killed inside his car “in an act of almost stunning brutality.” He showed jurors a picture of Smith’s damaged skull and said, “This particular defendant literally exploded Gavin Smith’s face.”
Grace outlined for jurors the on-again, off-again romance between Smith and Creech’s wife, Chandrika Cade, with the two meeting initially at a rehabilitation facility for prescription drug abuse. He said Smith became addicted after years of medication for a back injury suffered when he worked as a movie stuntman earlier in life.
Their affair — which began in 2008 — broke off the following year after Smith was confronted by his own wife. But Smith and Cade began exchanging e-mail messages again in 2010, Grace said. When Smith’s wife found out, she drove with two of her sons to Creech’s house, where Creech told Smith’s two sons, “You saved your father’s life by coming here today,” according to the prosecutor.
Two years later, however, when the romance rekindled again, Creech made good on his threat to kill Smith, Grace said.
Smith was last seen between 9 and 10 p.m. May 1, 2012, leaving a female friend’s home off Kanan Road in eastern Ventura County in his 2000 Mercedes- Benz 420 E. Prosecutors allege he was killed either on May 1, 2012, or early the next day.
He was reported missing after he failed to pick up his teenage son to drive him to school, according to the prosecutor.
His car, which bore the “aftermath of the murderous assault,” was recovered in February 2013 at a storage facility in Simi Valley that had been rented at Creech’s behest, Grace told jurors.
Creech had initially hidden the car — with the body wrapped inside in blankets — in a friend’s garage in Porter Ranch before the vehicle was moved to the storage unit, the deputy district attorney said.
Smith’s wife, Lisa, was called as the prosecution’s first witness.
She testified that she immediately grew concerned about her husband’s whereabouts after learning he had failed to pick up their teenage son. She said she first called her husband’s office and then a friend with whom he had been staying. She told jurors she drove to the local sheriff’s station to report her husband’s disappearance and provided them with photos of him.
Lisa Smith told jurors she also sent a text message to a phone number she thought might belong to Creech’s wife. She said she received a call back from someone she thought was “a man trying to sound like a woman” and who denied knowing her husband.
She testified she and two of her sons had driven to the Creech family home in December 2010 after her husband showed her a stack of e-mails detailing his renewed involvement with Creech’s wife, including one that she considered to be “threatening him.” She said her sons — who are also expected to testify — were “both crying” when they came out of their meeting with Creech.
Creech’s wife is also expected to be called to the stand during the trial.
— Staff and wire reports