Calling the crime "one of the most lunatic ventures I have seen in a long, long time," a judge gave probation Tuesday to two Texans who planned to abduct a Camarillo tax attorney and hold him for ransom.
Superior Court Judge Allan L. Steele placed Norman Rudy Demshar, 47, and Rose Marie Lovings, 35, each on five years probation for trying to abduct the lawyer whom they believed knew the location of millions of dollars missing in a federal fraud case.
Steele called the case bizarre, saying that the defendants traveled to Ventura County on an unfounded belief that attorney Russell Smith III knew the whereabouts of as much as $10 million from an unrelated fraud case.
In a quirk in state law, Steele had two options Tuesday: sentencing them to life in prison or placing them on probation.
The judge chose probation, saying the crime was serious, but not so severe that it warranted a life prison term. Steele said after reading police reports, he expected the defendants to be hardened criminals. He said he was shocked to find them to be churchgoing parents with no criminal histories.
"When I read these reports I thought we were going to get some pretty tough people in here who we were going to have to have shackled," Steele said.
In June, Steele handed out the same sentence of probation to a third defendant in the case, Phillip Duane Dowell, 33.
Demshar was the mastermind of the abduction plot, and was given a suspended life sentence to be served only in the event he violates probation.
All three defendants pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit robbery for the purpose of ransom.
Prosecutors said they drove a rented van from Texas to Ventura County in May, 1993, and planned to abduct Smith, who has since moved out of the county.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Kim G. Gibbons, who argued that probation was too lenient for the defendants, said outside of court that he understood the judge's actions. "It's just a weird thing where a person can be sentenced only to life in prison or receive probation," Gibbons said.
Defense attorney Joseph Lax declined to comment.
The case began in April, 1993, when an informant told a retired police officer in Texas about the plot against Smith, who was on probation after serving a short federal prison term in connection with a $70-million fraud case.
Demshar and Smith were personal friends and members of the Mormon church, authorities said.
Three weeks after authorities learned of the abduction plot, the defendants were arrested in Oxnard after staking out Smith's home. Police found several handguns, gauze, tape, earplugs, rubber gloves, handcuffs and a homemade billy club in their possession.
The case languished in the court system for more than a year before Dowell entered his plea last spring and was sentenced to probation in June. Shortly after Dowell's plea, Demshar, of Woodlands, Tex., and Lovings, of Houston, also entered their pleas.
Smith, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, told authorities that Demshar believes he has millions of dollars from the fraud case hidden in secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, according to court records and Gibbons.
"The whole thing is a mystery to me, just as it was to Judge Steele," Gibbons said. "Why these guys thought they were going to get away with this, I don't know. It's also just pure speculation that this guy (Smith) had money."