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Parallel Murder Cases--but One Is Just Grimly Routine : Courts: A woman is dead, a spouse is charged. But elite investigators, famed lawyers and the media are missing.

July 02, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN and JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the obscurity of the Santa Monica Courthouse, far from the main attraction in Downtown Los Angeles, a man is being prosecuted for his wife's murder in a case that is as routine as the O.J. Simpson story is sensational.

Records indicate that he stalked her, that he struck her in front of their two children, that her calls for help did not stop his threats. A day after their divorce, he allegedly stabbed her to death, repeatedly thrusting a kitchen knife into her chest. Then he fled.

"On the surface of it . . . your mind is drawn to the O.J. Simpson case," Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Robert T. Altman said. So drawn, in fact, that Altman on Friday postponed the trial until after the hubbub surrounding the former NFL star subsides, even though lawyers had begun selecting a jury. "It's not a great time to be on trial for killing your wife," the judge said.

But for all the haunting similarities to America's most celebrated criminal drama, the case of James and Maria Foster has received the same prosaic treatment that characterizes most allegations of spousal murder--at least when the suspect and victim enjoy neither wealth nor fame.

Instead of being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department's elite robbery-homicide division, the case was assigned to two Pacific Division detectives, whose notes eventually passed through the hands of nearly a dozen other investigators.

Instead of being tried by two veteran attorneys with a string of high-profile convictions, the evidence is being presented by a lone deputy district attorney making her debut as lead prosecutor in a murder trial. Instead of being represented by a prestigious lawyer who charges hundreds of dollars an hour, the accused has a public defender who also has never taken a murder case to trial.

And instead of front-page headlines and round-the-clock TV coverage, the story has been all but ignored, earning just four paragraphs buried on Page A 36 of The Times after the body was found. Even LAPD detectives could not interest "America's Most Wanted" in profiling the case while the suspect was on the lam.

"They like the stuff that's going to get them ratings," said Detective Bill Cox, the most recent homicide investigator to handle the case. "This was just a run-of-the-mill murder. The people weren't known. There was no book to be sold."

Maria Ann Foster's life was cut short in 1985, the year that Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson were married.

By then, the 29-year-old Western Airlines clerk had spent nearly eight years in a troubled relationship and had filed a petition for divorce, citing a history of physical and emotional abuse.

In court papers, she accused her husband, an IBM administrator, of stalking her at work. He also had hit her in the face in front of their two girls, then 4 and 7 years old, and "repeatedly made threats to harm or kill me," she said.

She requested a restraining order, prohibiting her husband from coming within 100 yards of her Torrance home, her office or her children's school. But she had little faith that it would protect her.

"I can get a restraining order and he'll come over and kill me anyway," she told her mother, Virginia Fitzgerald.

Just as Simpson once allegedly smashed his wife's car with a baseball bat in 1985, court records show that James Foster was accused of following his wife's car in September of that year and pounding it with his fist.

That November, another document shows, Foster came to his wife's front door and allegedly struck her and her mother. Torrance detectives took a report and a city prosecutor charged him with two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery.

But it was too late. Within two weeks, Maria Foster was dead, stabbed inside her car in a parking garage near her office at Los Angeles International Airport. Her husband, authorities contend, ambushed her as she headed to work that morning--a contention supported by a witness's account of the brutal attack.

"She was yelling, 'Help me! Help me!' " a co-worker, Marilyn Clark, testified at a no-frills, one-day preliminary hearing. "She just kind of fell out onto the ground."

After Clark honked her horn, Foster's attacker stood up, a bloody knife in his hand. Then he ran.

Unlike O.J. Simpson, who was seen by motorists on the Santa Ana Freeway after he failed to surrender to police, James Foster slipped out of town in anonymity. He ended up in Mississippi, according to authorities, who believe he worked there under an alias as an electrician.

After the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were discovered in Brentwood, officials wasted no time in bringing in a team of detectives from robbery-homicide, a highly experienced crew that is often assigned to prominent cases, such as the Night Stalker and Hillside Strangler investigations.

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