A Vista man accused of helping set up a drug lab in a Van Nuys duplex pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder charges in connection with the deaths last weekend of three people who were overcome by toxic gases while using the makeshift lab.
Russell Blackwood, 22, was arraigned in Los Angeles Municipal Court on three counts of second-degree murder and one count each of manufacturing methamphetamines and conspiring to manufacture the drug. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Carole Chizever said investigators have evidence that Blackwell was involved in a conspiracy to set up the lab where three people died Sunday after inhaling fumes from a mixture of chemicals used to produce methamphetamine, also known as "speed" or "crank." She declined to say what role Blackwood played in the alleged conspiracy.
File Under State Law
Prosecutors filed the complaint against Blackwood under a state law that permits murder charges if a death occurs because of an inherently dangerous crime. Chizever said the law is the same used to convict Cathy Evelyn Smith of involuntary manslaughter in the death of comedian John Belushi from an overdose of cocaine and heroin.
Chizever declined to comment on the possibility of filing murder charges against the firm that sold the chemicals found in the lab, nor would she identify the supply company.
"That aspect of the case is still under investigation," she said.
Police earlier said they were considering seeking such charges.
Christopher Richard Smith, 27, and Lisa Ann Cross, 20, were discovered dead on the floor of the duplex, in the 6400 block of Densmore Avenue. Smith's brother, David Michael Smith, 20, of Vista, died while Blackwood was driving him to a nearby hospital.
A police detective said that one of the Smith brothers called Blackwood about 1 a.m. Sunday, but the detective declined to say what the conversation was about.
Authorities said the makeshift lab consisted of a series of glass beakers and tubes over a portable burner that "cooked" a combination of ephedrine, red phosphorus and hydriodic acid.
Detective Roy Wunderlich said the poisonous gas was created when the hot mixture was siphoned through a plastic garden hose borrowed from a neighbor and used in the cooking.
Judge Glenette Blackwell set Blackwood's bail at $500,000 and scheduled his preliminary hearing for Oct. 22.