Two men accused in a Pinyon Pines triple killing told lies and left behind clues that prove they committed the murders, a prosecutor said Wednesday, urging jurors to weigh the “totality” of facts rather than “bits and pieces.”
“If you just take individual pieces of evidence, it’s easy to poke holes,” Riverside County Assistant District Attorney John Aki said in his closing rebuttal statement in the trial of Robert Lars Pape and Cristin Conrad Smith. “Don’t search for the truth in a vacuum.”
Aki summarized key points that the defense assailed, going over the defendants’ own statements, forensic findings and the technology that he said pointed to the men’s guilt in the killings of Pape’s former girlfriend, 18-year-old Becky Friedli, her 53-year-old mother, Vicki Friedli, and the latter’s boyfriend, 55-year-old Jon Hayward, on the night of Sept. 17, 2006.
The prosecutor said that, “taken together,” Pape’s and Smith’s statements to sheriff’s detectives immediately after the killings show they were telling “lies.”
“The truth is, Mr. Pape and Mr. Smith were in Pinyon Pines that night,” Aki said. “Maybe the defendants planned to kill them. Maybe they didn’t.”
He referred to a Catholic Pro Life Ministries business card found nearly 200 yards behind the victims’ Alpine Drive home, which the defense challenged as tainted evidence and which allegedly contained Smith’s DNA and fingerprints.
“Mr. Smith’s DNA should not have been in Becky’s world,” Aki said. “That card should not have been up there.”
Smith told a detective less than a week after the murders that he had never been to the house, according to trial testimony.
Aki also refuted the contention of Smith’s attorney, John Dolan, that it would have been impossible for the defendants to have gone to the Freidli home, carry out the killings and return to Cathedral City in the 2 1/2-hour timeline laid out by investigators. According to Aki, signals received from the defendants’ phones, bouncing off of area cell towers, showed they were heading in the direction of Pinyon Pines that night. Both men’s phones were “dark together” at the time of the murders, he said.
The prosecutor rejected the defense’s position that Pape came by undisclosed information regarding Becky Friedli’s remains through someone milling around near the crime scene the following day. Pape told a detective that he was aware a young woman had been ” found in a wheelbarrow.” Yet the only witness close enough to Friedli’s burning body an hour after it was set alight thought it was a “mannequin,” Aki told jurors.
He stood by the statements of convicted felon Jeremy Todd Witt, whom the defense portrayed as a shady character willing to implicate Pape and Smith in the killings to collect a reward.
Witt was excused from testifying in the trial due to an unresolved misdemeanor case in Indio, but his 2016 preliminary hearing testimony was read to jurors. Aki recounted Witt’s encounter with his co-worker, Smith, three weeks after the killings, during which the defendant allegedly told Witt, “We were there. It all went wrong, and we torched the place.”
“Consider the totality of the entire case,” Aki told the jury, which began deliberating Wednesday afternoon. “There are bits and pieces of evidence over here and over there. Look at the evidence in a careful, considerate manner … and I’m confident you’ll reach guilty verdicts.”
Pape, 30, and Smith, 29, could each face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and special circumstance allegations of taking multiple lives.
According to testimony, Pape and Smith told investigators that Becky Friedli had reached out to Pape a day before the murders, seeking a meeting. However, Friedli’s close friend, Javier Garcia, told detectives that he was with the victim when she received two unexpected calls from Pape five days before her death — and it was the defendant who arranged for them to go on a night hike near her family’s residence.
The witness testified that he remembered speaking with Friedli shortly before 7 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2006, and the victim informed him that she had just received a call from Pape saying he was “coming up the hill” with Smith.
Hayward suffered two shotgun blasts to the chest, while Vicki Friedli was fatally wounded with a semiautomatic handgun, according to testimony. An autopsy could not determine how Becky Friedli died because of the extent of thermal damage to her body.
The victims’ two-story residence was destroyed in a gasoline-fed fire.
Dolan told jurors Tuesday that the prosecution had constructed a convenient “narrative” to make his client appear guilty, but the outcome of the trial could not be “narrative beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“The standard here is proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the attorney said.
Dolan spent part of his final argument replaying Smith’s initial interview with sheriff’s investigators. During the conversation, Smith tells the lawmen that he and his best friend, Pape, were nowhere near the Alpine Drive residence.
The then-17-year-old defendant acknowledges that Pape had spoken to Becky Friedli — with whom Pape had been romantically involved eight months earlier — and that she had requested he join her for a hike. But Smith insists they never had any intention of going because Friedli would likely “rub some boyfriend” in Pape’s face.
Dolan said there were more unanswered questions than conclusive evidence tying Smith to the murders. He pointed specifically to detectives’ disinterest in information passed on by a fire captain who went to the victims’ residence and encountered a suspicious red pickup truck racing away from the area.
“The prosecution ignores that because it doesn’t fit into the narrative,” Dolan said.