There she was, the recently widowed Mary Ellen Samuels, lying on her back in a hotel bed in Cancun, wearing only a smile and about $20,000--cold cash.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Polaroid snapshot now officially known as People's Exhibit 2 promises to be a star prosecution witness for Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi, who is alleging that Samuels killed her husband--and then the hit man she hired to do the job--for financial gain.
Dean Groover, the man who took the picture in 1989, identified it in court Wednesday. Asked what it depicts, he responded: "U.S. currency. Mary Ellen. A hotel bed, I believe in Cancun."
Samuels, who turned 45 on Wednesday, goes on trial later this month in Van Nuys Superior Court on charges of murder, soliciting murder, attempted murder and conspiracy.
The former manager of a Sherman Oaks sandwich shop is accused of hiring James Bernstein, a 27-year-old cocaine dealer, in late 1988 to kill her estranged husband, a motion-picture cameraman who was working on the film "Lethal Weapon 2." The prosecution alleges that Robert Samuels, 40, was slain so his estranged wife could collect about $500,000 in insurance. Then, Mary Ellen Samuels allegedly hired another hit man to kill Bernstein in June, 1989.
Maurizi is alleging that the photograph captures Samuels' "state of mind" as she savored the fruits of murder.
Defense attorney Philip Nameth argued that the photograph proved nothing and would only prejudice the jury against his client.
On Wednesday, Judge Michael Hoff sided with the prosecution and ruled that the snapshot is "highly probative" and can be shown to the jury. The judge ruled, however, that the jury won't hear testimony about the personal license plate on Mary Ellen Samuels' black Toyota convertible: "NAST VXN."
"The reason they want to use it is, it portrays Ms. Samuels as a nasty person and a nasty vixen," Nameth protested, arguing that what a person puts on a license plate has little to do with murder. Hoff agreed with the defense after consulting his dictionary. "Nasty," he noted, means "very dirty or filthy, offensive, morally offensive, indecent, mean, malicious, ill-humored," while "vixen" is defined as "a female fox" or an "ill-tempered, shrewish woman."
The judge deferred ruling on whether Samuels' daughter, Nicole Samuels Moroianu, who Maurizi described as "an unindicted co-conspirator," can testify for the defense while avoiding cross-examination by invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The defense expects Moroianu, 23, to testify that Robert Samuels molested her as a child and raped her when she was 12, Nameth said. The defense attorney has said that Bernstein acted on his own when he killed Robert Samuels after Nicole told him about the alleged abuse.
Susan Conroy shook her head angrily at the allegation that her slain brother had molested his adopted daughter. "It's the ultimate betrayal. He isn't here to defend himself. Bob was a hard-working guy and he loved them very much. He never would have done anything to them." Called to the stand Wednesday, Moroianu answered two questions, then asserted her right against self-incrimination.
As she stepped down from the stand, the prosecution slapped Moroianu with a subpoena ordering her to appear March 21.
Hoff's rulings came after a day of testimony that provided a sneak preview of what promises to be an offbeat and dramatic trial.
There even was a brief appearance by one of the men who admitted killing Bernstein at Mary Ellen Samuels' behest.
Paul Edwin Thomas Gaul, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in April, 1991, testified under a plea bargain that spared his life and exposes him to a minimum 15 years in prison.
Aside from his testimony that he killed Bernstein for Mary Ellen Samuels "in the hills of Ventura County," Gaul recalled that he used her black Toyota with the "vixen" tags.