A Santa Paula woman pleaded guilty Friday to December's fatal shooting of auto dealer Tony Bridges, the latest chapter in a bizarre murder case that peeled away the double life of the victim.
Veronica Lira, 26, showed no emotion during an arraignment hearing before Ventura County Superior Court Judge James M. McNally.
Sitting next to two public defenders, Lira--wearing a blue prison gown, her ankles chained--responded softly but matter-of-factly.
"Do you admit you actually killed Anthony Bridges?" McNally asked Lira.
"Yes," she said.
Sitting behind Lira in the first row of the court's spectator section were members of the Bridges family, including one of his former wives, Barbara Mayfield.
Also listening to Lira's guilty plea was her father, Alfredo, and a brother and sister.
Deputy Dist. Atty. James D. Ellison told the court that the county prosecutor had decided not to seek the death penalty because of the unusual circumstances involved in the slaying.
The murder, Ellison later told reporters, "was not for personal financial gain. She wanted to scare him."
Under state law, if Bridges had been slain during the course of a random robbery, the "special circumstances" of the robbery could have triggered a death penalty request from the county prosecutor.
Lira did confess to stealing Bridges' watch and some rings. But Ellison said the thefts were the result of a personal argument, not a typical robbery that would motivate a death penalty request.
Lira's plea of guilty to charges of first-degree murder, robbery and grand theft and special allegations of using a firearm and inflicting great bodily harm translates into a potential sentence of 25 years to life plus an additional 3 2/3 years.
Depending upon how the judge structures her sentence, she could be incarcerated for at least 20 years.
McNally set Lira's sentencing for June 1.
Ellison said after the hearing that the Bridges family was upset with the prosecutor's decision not to seek the death penalty.
In a case such as the Bridges slaying, Ellison said, "there's a very natural response--an eye for an eye. They thought the death penalty would be appropriate."
Bridges, who was 45 when he was slain, was the son of a wealthy Missouri businessman who moved his family to Santa Paula in the 1950s.
Friends and associates have said that Bridges worked hard and played hard.
As a businessman, he turned Tony Bridges Chevrolet in Santa Paula into a successful auto agency. A well-known member of the community, he kept a low profile but still gave freely to local charities.
But Bridges' personal life--he was married and divorced three times and had two daughters and a son--weighed heavily on him, according to those who knew him.
After his third divorce in 1987, associates said he increasingly used cocaine, a habit for which he sought professional help.
His dual life also included seeking out exotic dancers to entertain him in his Spanish Mission-style home in Santa Paula, where he lived alone, sources said.
Lira, according to investigators, helped supply Bridges with drugs and women.
But the relationship soured when Lira accused Bridges of not fully paying her for her services, according to Ellison.
On Dec. 18, according to investigators, Lira fatally shot Bridges with his own derringer while sitting with him in his car. Then, they said, she dumped his body in an El Rio cilantro field.
Sheriff's detective Raul Munoz told a Municipal Court hearing in March that events unfolded this way:
The evening began when Bridges picked up Lira at her sister's house in Oxnard. Then, while at Bridges' Santa Paula home, Lira stole his Rolex watch and two rings.
Later that evening, Bridges and Lira met a drug dealer in Oxnard where Bridges apparently bought cocaine. Then they met two of Lira's friends at a Ventura beach.
Lira ultimately shot Bridges while scuffling for his wallet in his car. But one of Lira's two friends, who she said were in the back seat, fired the second shot, according to her account.
Ellison said Friday that it may never be known if Lira is telling the truth about the two other individuals being in the car at the time of the slaying.
"The only thing I know for certain is she shot him and he's dead," Ellison said. "There's a lot of unanswered questions about it."
Howard Asher, one of Lira's public defenders, said Friday that he believes Lira's story about two others being present at the shooting.
"I really think that's probably what happened," Asher said. "But she will never identify them. She will not allow anyone to take responsibility for what is her doing."
As for changing her plea to guilty, Asher said it was Lira's decision.
"We let her make that decision," Asher said. "Miss Lira is a very strong-willed, determined young lady. She talked to police against our wishes. Her plea was perfectly consistent with that."
Having pleaded guilty, Lira feels that she has shed an emotional burden, Asher said.
"She's very much relieved now that this is almost over," he said.