Two Los Angeles men pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder in the Feb. 13 execution-style slayings of a Los Feliz couple whose bound bodies were found in the garage of their luxury apartment building.
Darryl Polk, 26, and Tony Leater, 29, were charged with killing Tanee Yemsvat, 38, and his wife, Kemika Saeow, 29, a Thai couple who owned a Hollywood insurance company.
The defendants were arraigned in Superior Court on Wednesday after a dramatic preliminary hearing in which Phina Mendoza, a former mistress of one of the men, testified that Leater described the grisly killings to her. She said she reported the men to police because she was upset at what they had done.
Mendoza, the state's key witness, was placed in protective custody because she had been threatened to discourage her from testifying, police said. She was escorted to and from the court by 12 plainclothes guards.
The defendants were brought to court with their hands and feet chained because sheriff's officials said they received a call warning that the two would attempt to escape.
At one point in the proceedings, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Rosenblatt asked the judge to direct a group of 10 women, seated together in the back of the court with Leater's wife, to identify themselves. In an unusual scene, each woman stood and told Judge Jon Mayeda her name and relationship to the defendants for the trial record. All were cousins or friends of the defendants.
The prosecutor did not specify why she wanted the women identified and the judge did not ask her to justify the request.
Mendoza testified that Leater had called her the evening of Feb. 12 and said that he and Polk were "on a mission," and were following the victims as they left Yemsvat's business--911 Insurance Co.--on Hollywood Boulevard.
She said Leater woke her early the next morning and told her that they had followed the couple to their apartment house and were able to enter the garage because the gate was still open behind the victims' vehicle. Leater told her they had followed the couple into the building and confronted them as they entered their third-floor apartment, she said.
According to Mendoza's testimony, Leater had said that Polk was contacted by another man who asked him to steal Yemsvat's Rolex watch in retaliation for the man's dismissal from the insurance company. Police have no evidence linking the third man with the slayings.
Mendoza testified that Leater said the two men ransacked the couple's apartment and then took them down to the garage, bound them and threw them into the back seat of Yemsvat's Ford Mustang.
She said Leater told her that he drove the car out, stopped on a nearby street and watched as Polk wrapped his denim jacket around a revolver and "emptied his gun into one of the victims."
She said Leater told her that Polk then took Leater's revolver and did the same to the other victim, after which the pair drove back to the victims' garage, parked the car and left.
A resident of the Los Feliz Club Apartments found the couple about 3 a.m. and notified police.
Mendoza reported the incident to police Feb. 24, a week after ending her relationship with Leater. She testified that she went to the police because she had been upset by a television report she saw Feb. 13 on the killings.
She gave police a Gucci watch, a pager and a small Buddha pendant which she said were given to her by Leater the night of the slayings. The property was identified as belonging to the couple by employees of the insurance company.
Detective Aaron Martin of the Los Angeles Police Department's Asian crime investigation unit said police arrested both men the day after Mendoza made her statement.
Leater was arrested at his residence and Polk was stopped and arrested while driving in Los Angeles.
Martin testified that he found 10 pairs of men's shoes and a bag at Leater's home that employees of Yemsvat identified as belonging to the victims. Forensic tests on the shoes have not been completed. No weapons were recovered.