The son-in-law of Los Angeles Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum has been charged in Buffalo, N.Y., with plotting to pay a man up to $100,000 to kill Sheinbaum, his wife, a business associate, and the defendant's estranged wife.
David L. Telstar, 35, in a brief court appearance Tuesday morning, pleaded not guilty to four counts of violating the federal Murder-for-Hire Act. He was ordered held on $1 million bail.
"This is a murder-for-hire case that was hatched in a jail cell," U. S. Atty. Dennis C. Vacco said in a telephone interview from Buffalo. "Notwithstanding the identity of the intended victims, which makes this a very significant case, we have jailed inmates that were plotting in a very serious and meaningful sense the death of four innocent people."
But Telstar's attorney, Joel Daniels of Buffalo, countered that the federal government based its case on the word of a man awaiting trial on rape charges, who now is hoping to escape prison by "making up this story" about the alleged murder contracts.
"This is nothing more than an informant who's trying to cut a deal for himself," Daniels said. "He's just a typical, run-of-the-mill jailhouse informant."
Sheinbaum, who became president of the Police Commission during the furor over last year's beating of Rodney G. King, appeared somber and shaken while presiding over Tuesday's commission meeting. Admitting that he was "startled" by the allegations, he declined to discuss the case against his son-in-law in detail.
"I have learned to control myself over the years and not respond until I know what it is all about," he said, adding, "I sure hope to" speak in depth with Buffalo investigators about the matter.
Sheinbaum said he last saw Telstar a year ago. He refused to speculate on whether he believed his son-in-law was capable of carrying out such murder contracts.
According to authorities, the federal case against Telstar, identified as a real estate investor, began when his marriage began to unravel. His wife, Desiree, is Betty Warner Sheinbaum's daughter from an earlier marriage.
Vacco, the U. S. attorney, said Telstar was charged last year in Santa Barbara with grand larceny, fraud and embezzlement, accused of taking $1.6 million from a family trust.
"Apparently, Desiree has control of a trust and David got his hands on it," Vacco said. "He pilfered $1.6 million. He ended up actually taking that much."
Vacco said that Telstar, free on bail of about $20 million in the Santa Barbara case, fled the country. He reportedly traveled to England, France and Singapore. On Nov. 27, he was stopped by U. S. Customs officials as he entered Buffalo from Canada across the Peace Bridge.
"He gave his true name when he entered this country," Vacco said. "They plugged it into the computer and . . . found the arrest warrant for him as a result of the charges in California."
Telstar was placed in the Erie County Holding Center, where he was awaiting his return to Santa Barbara. In jail, Vacco said, Telstar struck up a relationship with several inmates.
"He became a companion to various and sundry inmates, (with) one of whom he arranged or discussed his murder-for-hire proposal," Vacco said.
He said Telstar had $15,000 in cash wired to the inmate's attorney, who then posted the amount to allow his client to be released on bail on pending rape charges.
"The scheme was that this inmate, once bailed and once out, was paid $10,000 that was going to be seed money for the initial murder," Vacco said. He said Desiree and Walter Valentine, a businessman associated with the trust fund, were the intended first targets.
"But the Santa Barbara Police Department received an anonymous tip that the lives of these four individuals were in jeopardy," Vacco said.
Buffalo authorities were contacted, the bailed inmate was found, and the murder-for-hire charges were filed Monday against Telstar. He was arraigned on the charges on Tuesday. If convicted, Telstar faces a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison and a fine of $1 million.
Although Daniels, Telstar's lawyer, sharply challenged the credibility of the released inmate, Vacco would only say, "I am comfortable with the case that the FBI has developed."
Vacco would not discuss the inmate's role, as either an informant or a potential suspect.
Daniels also said that the Santa Barbara charges against Telstar would not hold up because the family trust was joint property from his marriage with Desiree.
"This was an ongoing, litigated divorce," Daniels said. "The claim is that he took this money, which she claims was hers. But they were married . . . and it was community property and he was entitled to his share.
"No crime was committed because he took what was rightfully his," the attorney said. "This is nothing more than a fight between a husband and a wife."
Sheinbaum has long been active in civic affairs and is a close ally and financial supporter of Mayor Tom Bradley, who appointed him to the Police Commission. Betty Warner Sheinbaum is the daughter of movie mogul Harry Warner.
Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this story.