VAN NUYS — But for the barking dogs, police said, Nicole Garza might have masterminded the perfect crime: the murder of her husband.
When the 32-year-old lawyer asked her husband, Jose, to fetch some ice cream from the garage last Wednesday night, she thought she was sending him to his death, police said.
Waiting there was Nicole's sister, Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo, armed with a gun and disguise provided by Nicole, prosecutors and police alleged Tuesday.
She had let herself in with a key Nicole gave her, following instructions in a note Nicole composed on her computer, which included the prediction that the two were about to become financially secure.
But when the Garzas' three dogs barked, Jose Garza grabbed a .45-caliber pistol from his collection as a precaution. When he entered the garage, LaFontaine-Trujillo--who had probably never before fired a weapon--shot three times but missed. Garza fired back, shooting her in the abdomen.
Garza, a veteran city prosecutor and the second in command at the city attorney's San Fernando office, survived unscathed--but distraught. He did not know, until much later during a police interview, that the intruder he shot was his sister-in-law.
That extraordinary sequence of events emerged Tuesday in interviews with police and prosecutors expanding on the murder and conspiracy charges filed Tuesday against Nicole Garza and LaFontaine-Trujillo. If convicted, both red-haired sisters could face life prison sentences.
Nicole Garza appeared briefly in San Fernando Municipal Court on Tuesday but her case was postponed for a week while officials investigate whether she qualifies for free legal counsel.
"They're both attorneys, but our preliminary investigation indicates they have no money on hand to hire an attorney," said Deputy Public Defender William D. Weiss of the couple.
LaFontaine-Trujillo, 34, remained in critical condition at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, where she is being guarded by police. Jose Garza, 50, again declined comment Tuesday, but police and others say he still cannot believe his wife arranged the attempt on his life. Police said he remains a loyal, supportive husband.
"We have heard that Mr. Jose Garza apparently is not willing to believe that his wife could be involved in such a thing," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dale E. Cutler. "Obviously, Mr. Garza would have to be emotionally in shock now and in a little bit of denial. . . . Obviously, he has not seen all the evidence we are gathering."
In court, speaking in a soft voice, Nicole Garza briefly answered questions from Judge Gerald T. Richardson, who set bail at $1 million.
Nicole Garza practices family law at a Woodland Hills firm; she graduated from Glendale University College of Law in 1990, and was admitted to the bar later that year.
According to court records, she apparently represented Jose Garza in his 1992 divorce from a previous wife. In the settlement, he received a house and his gun collection, including the equipment needed to make ammunition; his ex-wife received one of two Harley-Davidson motorcycles and stuffed-animal and rock collections.
Nicole and Jose Garza were married soon after his divorce. They have three children who were home the night of the shooting.
Police and prosecutors said the only signal they have found of potential trouble between the couple is a 1994 divorce filing. The documents could not be located by court personnel, however, and it appears no action was taken.
Nonetheless, Los Angeles homicide detectives said they believe Nicole wanted out of the marriage.
"This was for financial gain," said LAPD homicide Det. Frank Bishop, who said investigators are looking for Jose Garza's insurance policies. "Our investigation hasn't revealed a large amount of money anywhere. If there is a large insurance policy, we aren't aware of it yet."
Written communication between the sisters, however, led authorities to believe that money was the motive.
But Bishop said the sisters' plan went awry when the dogs started barking after they heard--and probably saw--LaFontaine-Trujillo enter the garage around 10:50 p.m. last Wednesday.
"I don't think they anticipated that happening," Bishop said.
Garza told police he grabbed his gun, went to the garage and was confronted by an intruder who emerged from the shadows and fired three shots. Police said LaFontaine-Trujillo was wearing goggle-type sunglasses and a dark sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight over a black wig.
After the shootout, Jose Garza ran inside the house to protect his wife and children and to dial 911.
Nicole Garza "played along the whole time," Bishop said. "She had to have known that was her sister but she never let on."
Said another source close to the investigation: "She [Nicole] was a sharp girl, but she made a mistake involving her sister--who did not know how to shoot."