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Slaying of Car Dealer Called an Accident : Courts: The woman charged in Tony Bridges' death admitted shooting him, a friend testifies.

March 20, 1992|GARY GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Santa Paula woman charged with murdering Tony Bridges admitted to a friend that she shot the automobile dealer but insisted it was an accident, the friend testified Thursday.

"She said she reached into Tony's pocket and pulled the gun out and it just went off," Kalena Miner said.

Her testimony came at the preliminary hearing for Veronica O. Lira in Ventura County Municipal Court. Lira, 26, is accused of robbing and killing Bridges on Dec. 18 and leaving his body in an El Rio field. Prosecutors have said they may seek the death penalty.

Judge Steven Hintz will decide today whether to allow testimony about Lira's statements to sheriff's investigators after her arrest--statements that one source characterized as a confession. The judge must then decide whether enough evidence has been presented to order Lira to stand trial.

Although Miner said Lira described the shooting as an accident, Deputy Dist. Atty. James D. Ellison presented several other witnesses to support his theory that Lira shot Bridges twice through the heart while robbing him of cash and jewelry. Lira then pawned some of the items and gave the gun to her brother to hide, Ellison said.

Thursday's testimony was directed at Lira, but much of it painted a sad portrait of Bridges. Witnesses described him as a heavy cocaine user who was unable to kick his $200-a-day habit--an addiction that caused him to resort to escort services and to neglect the Santa Paula Chevrolet dealership that bears his name.

Bridges' girlfriend, Victoria Campbell, said she met the car dealer at an Ojai rehabilitation center in December, 1990. After a month's stay, she said Bridges left the center and resumed smoking rock cocaine every day.

"He smoked it almost the whole time he was awake," Campbell said. "He had a hard time staying awake without it." She and Bridges frequently stayed home all day and up all night, smoking cocaine amid naps.

Beginning in the latter half of 1991, she said, Bridges often called escort services to send exotic dancers to his Santa Paula home. Sometimes the dancers--both male and female--would spend the night and engage in sexual activities, she testified.

Bridges met Lira in early December, Campbell said, after Lira called to warn the car dealer that one of his dancers was planning to report his drug use to authorities.

Lira, who had her own escort service, visited Bridges and Campbell soon after the call, Campbell said. The three watched videos but Lira abstained from smoking cocaine, Campbell said. The next morning, Bridges and Lira had sex, Campbell testified.

Not long afterward, Campbell said, Bridges noticed that his gold Rolex watch was missing. Ellison presented evidence that Lira had pawned the watch Dec. 14 at a San Fernando Valley pawnshop.

On Dec. 17, the day before he died, Bridges returned from a three-day trip to his family home in Missouri, Campbell said. She picked him up at Los Angeles International Airport and they smoked cocaine all the way to Santa Paula, she said.

Bridges also showed her a gold Seiko watch that he had obtained in Missouri, Campbell said. When she last saw him on Dec. 18, Campbell said, Bridges also was wearing a gold chain and two diamond rings, she said.

A police witness later testified that Lira pawned a diamond ring and a gold chain after Bridges' death. A male friend of Lira's was found wearing the other ring and the gold Seiko watch, according to another investigator.

Campbell, who said she has given up drugs, was followed on the witness stand by Reginald Payton, an Oxnard man who admitted supplying Bridges with cocaine several times a week for about a year before his death. Payton, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, said he last saw Bridges about 9:45 p.m. on Dec. 18, when they met near the Esplanade Mall in Oxnard.

Bridges bought nine rocks of cocaine for $150, Payton said. No money changed hands, Payton said, because he allowed Bridges to run a tab for his drug purchases. Bridges also mentioned that he was going to try to get back his Rolex that night but did not elaborate, Payton said.

In the passenger seat of Bridges' white Chevrolet convertible, Payton said, was a woman who resembled Lira, but he could not make a positive identification.

Less than an hour after Payton saw Bridges and the woman drive off, Lira showed up alone at an El Rio house, according to the next witness, Scottie J. Warren. "She looked upset, not her normal self," said Warren, who described himself as a friend of Lira's. "She wanted to come in, sit down and catch her breath."

Lira then took him into a bathroom and pulled two guns out of the trench coat she was wearing, Warren said. "I told her to put the guns back, I don't want to see them," Warren said. Later, she showed him a gold watch, $250 to $300 in cash and a plastic bag containing several rocks of cocaine, he said.

"She did not say where she got them and I didn't ask," Warren said. "I just wanted her to get these things out" of the house.

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