Murder charges were dismissed Wednesday in the case of a 43-year-old drifter suspected of stabbing and bludgeoning his elderly parents in their Canoga Park home and rigging their house in a failed attempt to blow it up.
After a three-hour preliminary hearing, Van Nuys Superior Court Judge James M. Coleman ruled that the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence to hold the suspect, Robert L. Spitz, for trial on two counts of murder.
An investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office immediately rearrested Spitz before he could be released from Sheriff's Department custody.
Prosecutors must decide by Monday whether to refile the charges. If they do refile, Spitz will have a right to another preliminary hearing within 10 days.
However, if no new evidence is presented and a judge dismisses the charges a second time, prosecutors cannot file the case again and Spitz must be set free.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ed Consiglio said his office chose to rearrest Spitz immediately, rather than allow time for further police investigation, because Spitz has a history of mental problems and the rest of the family is "terrified" of him.
Bodies Found in Home
According to testimony at the preliminary hearing, sheriff's deputies discovered the bodies of Marvin Spitz, 69, and his wife, Myrtle, 68, on Feb. 27 in their home in the 24600 block of Kittridge Street.
Deputies had been summoned to the home by the couple's other son, Harry, who became concerned after failing to reach his parents for a few days. The doors and windows of the house were locked, and Harry Spitz did not have a key, so deputies broke into the residence through a garage door, investigators testified.
Gas outlets throughout the house were turned on, and the bodies had been surrounded by magazines and newspapers in an apparent arson attempt, Detective Jerome Beck told a reporter outside the courtroom. The gasoline caps of the two cars in the garage had been removed, and a trail of melted candle wax stretched between the vehicles, in what looked like an attempt to set them afire, Beck said.
"If someone had walked in that house with a cigarette, it would have blown up the entire block," Beck said. "It's just lucky that none of the initial investigators on the scene smoked."
Believed Dead 2 Days
Investigators said they believe that the Spitzes were killed two days before their bodies were discovered, based on statements from a neighbor who said he heard a woman screaming and a man yelling on Feb. 25. The neighbor said the sounds came from the vicinity of the Spitz home.
Another neighbor testified that she saw the defendant outside the home on Feb. 26 and saw a car he had been driving parked at the curb on Feb. 24, 25 and 26. He disappeared before the bodies were discovered and was tracked by police to Portland, Ore., where he was arrested Aug. 8 on a warrant, investigators said.
A photograph of the couple and the suspect was found face down on the floor of the home, and the victims' blood stains were found in the guest bedroom and bathroom that Robert Spitz reportedly used when he stayed with his parents, investigators testified.
A Renoir poster on the couple's living room wall was found partly covered with the page of a magazine. Family members testified that Robert Spitz frequently pasted magazine pages over other framed pictures.
No Evidence of Burglary
There was no sign of forced entry nor evidence that anything had been stolen from the home, investigators testified.
Judge Coleman, in announcing his ruling, said that, although the prosecution presented sufficient evidence to show that Spitz may have been near the home about the time of the killings, nothing tied him to the acts.
Deputy Public Defender Barry A. Taylor said the evidence in the case was "as weak as I've ever seen. There was nothing there. It was all innuendo and conjecture, but no hard evidence."
Mike Carroll, head deputy of the DA's office in Van Nuys, disagreed.
'It's Like a Smoking Gun'
"If I know a guy's in a house for two days with two dead bodies, I figure he did it," Carroll said. "It's like a smoking gun."
Carroll said prosecutors were studying a section of the law that might allow them to hold Spitz for a psychiatric evaluation without having to refile charges.
Carroll said the suspect's family claims he has attempted suicide on several occasions and was hospitalized in a Bulgarian mental institution. Taylor would not comment on those allegations.
Under California law, prosecutors can send Spitz to county mental health officials in the hope of having him judged a danger to society and confined to a mental facility, Carroll said. That would give prosecutors more time to investigate, he said.