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Strange Case of Mary Ellen Samuels Unfolds : Courts: As the double-murder trial enters its third week, witnesses give accounts of a dysfunctional family with even weirder friends.

April 12, 1994|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — As David Navarro tells it, he was a young man with big dreams and a puny wallet in November, 1988. So, when he needed someone to bankroll his fledgling house-hunting business, he turned to Mary Ellen Samuels, the mother of one of his friends.

Samuels said money was tight, but she did have a job for him. She asked Navarro to kill her estranged husband, according to Navarro's testimony last week in Van Nuys Superior Court.

"I just blew it off. It was like, yeah, whatever . . . I didn't know how to exactly respond," Navarro told the jury. So he said he would think about it, "to bide time."

The next day, Nov. 11, Navarro was in a car accident and received a ticket. "I took it as a warning," he said, adding that he turned down the murder contract that night, emphatically saying "no, no, no." Samuels, Navarro said, told him he was being "silly."

So went another fairly typical day in court as Mary Ellen Samuels' double-murder trial chugged into a third week. A strange tale is unfolding of a dysfunctional family with even weirder friends, and the best drama is yet to come. If two people were not dead and countless lives ruined, it could even be funny.

The testimony has included talk of killing a man by dropping a 400-pound can opener on him at the family's Sherman Oaks sandwich shop, and of cutting another man into pieces to be shipped around the world. Even the investigating detective wasn't spared from the nastiness. As the murder investigations heated up, a witness said under oath that Mary Ellen Samuels taught her pet bird to say profane things about him.

Much of the unflattering portrayal of Samuels and her daughter, Nicole, has come from prosecution witnesses who once were their closest friends.

"You won't like most of the prosecution witnesses," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi had warned the jury as the trial began. But, she reminded jurors, "There is a great difference between liking a person and believing a person."

Defense attorney Phil Nameth has urged jurors to keep open minds until his client can take the witness stand and explain matters. Nicole Samuels-Moroianu also hopes to testify for her mother, but because prosecutors consider her an un-indicted co-conspirator, her status as a witness is unclear.

Samuels, 45, is accused of murder, soliciting murder, attempted murder and conspiracy in the two deaths. Her estranged husband, Robert Samuels, a 40-year-old motion picture camera operator who worked on the films "Lethal Weapon" and "Heaven Can Wait," was shot to death in his Northridge home Dec. 8. 1988. James Bernstein, 27, a small-time Sherman Oaks cocaine dealer and the hit man Mary Ellen Samuels allegedly hired, was strangled and dumped in remote Lockwood Canyon in Ventura County in June, 1989.

Many of the witnesses--including Navarro, his former fiance, Celina Krall, and another friend, Heidi Dougall--became teary-eyed on the stand when asked why they didn't warn Robert Samuels and Bernstein, or go to the police. They said they were scared and didn't know what to do. They said they thought their names might appear next on the hit list.

But at the time they were discussed, no one seemed to question the alleged schemes.

Navarro's involvement with the Samuels' family problems did not end when he turned down a murder contract. A month later, Navarro testified, Nicole Samuels-Moroianu called him and said, " 'It's done. My Dad, he's dead. I saw him.' I said, 'What are you calling me for? I don't want to know anything.' "

Six months later, in May, 1989, Navarro finally pointed the finger at Mary Ellen Samuels, tipping police in an anonymous call and giving detectives a poem--a code so they would know him when he called again:

"A rose is a rose, but the nose always knows."

By this time, Navarro testified, he had become Bernstein's partner in a Sherman Oaks cocaine-dealing business. Bernstein, meanwhile, was one of Nicole's two fiances.

And so Navarro continued to socialize with Nicole Samuels-Moroianu, even helping Bernstein finance nearly $2,000 worth of jewelry to give her, he testified. When Bernstein, 27, disappeared in June, 1989, Navarro said he got stuck with the payments.

Other odd tidbits have emerged during testimony:

* Two months before he died, Robert Samuels purchased the book, "How to Save Your Marriage," hoping to reconcile with the woman he had a crush on since childhood.

* Nicole Samuels-Moroianu asked friends to help her find a gun to kill her father, on at least two occasions--in May or June, 1988, in the cafeteria of Alemany High School, and later in August during an outing at Zuma Beach.

* Samuels-Moroianu, then 18, wore engagement rings on each hand, switching them to coincide with which of the two fiances she was with at the time.

* During police questioning hours after she found her husband's body, Mary Ellen Samuels wore a low-cut, scoop-necked top and deliberately bent over, displaying ample cleavage while making suggestive remarks.

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