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Wife Accused in Murder Plot Considers Plea Bargain

Crime: Nicole Garza may plead no contest to charges that she conspired with her sister to kill her husband.

January 08, 1997|ANN W. O'NEILL and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On the eve of a preliminary hearing on charges that she schemed to kill her husband, attorney Nicole Garza is considering a plea bargain that would spare her children the shame of a public trial.

While prosecutors would not comment on their offer to resolve the sensational crime with an early plea, sources on both sides of the case confirmed that Garza, 32, is considering whether to plead no contest to conspiring with her sister to murder her husband, veteran city attorney Jose Garza.

She also is considering a no-contest plea to a lesser manslaughter charge in the death of her sister, Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo, who was disguised and lurking in the garage of the Garzas' Sylmar home when Jose Garza shot her to death during an exchange of gunfire.

Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen L. Cooley and Deputy Public Defender Marie Girolamo said Tuesday that they could not discuss any plea bargaining. But sources confirmed that negotiations have been ongoing for several weeks, and that Garza could change her not-guilty plea when she appears Thursday in San Fernando Municipal Court.

Nicole Garza has a powerful incentive to resolve the case, according to one source who requested anonymity. She wishes to spare her children--as well as her slain sister's children--the pain of a tawdry trial. And, by shortening any potential sentence, she could be reunited with her children, now ages 18 months, 3 and 4, in as few as 15 years.

Jose Garza, 50, did not return telephone calls. In the past, he has refused to discuss the case publicly.

Los Angeles police declined to comment, except to say that detectives had built a solid case showing that Nicole Garza masterminded the plot against her husband.

"We feel we have a strong case," Lt. Joe Garcia said. "We support the D.A.'s office--they're good at making these decisions."

After her sister died Oct. 7, Nicole Garza was charged with murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, all of which carry life sentences. She is being held at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in lieu of $1-million bail.

By entering pleas of no contest, Nicole Garza technically would be avoiding an outright admission of guilt, even though such a plea subjects the defendant to the same penalties as a guilty plea.

While no-contest pleas prior to a preliminary hearing are commonplace in cases involving minor charges, they are rare in homicides.

But this case has been unusual since it began Sept. 25--the fourth birthday of the couple's eldest child. Shortly before 11 p.m., Nicole Garza sent her husband to the garage to fetch some ice cream. Hearing the dogs barking, he brought a gun from his collection, and wound up in a shootout with an intruder.

That intruder turned out to be his sister-in-law, LaFontaine-Trujillo, 34, who was wearing tinted shooting glasses, a wig, black evening gloves and a hooded sweatshirt pulled tight over her head.

Police found LaFontaine-Trujillo's car nearby, and uncovered damp scraps of paper authorities said was a blueprint for the plot to kill Jose Garza.

Police and prosecutors contend that Nicole Garza wrote the note that allegedly exhorted her sister: "You have the mental stamina to do it and forget it."

For her sister, a waitress working two jobs to make ends meet, killing Jose Garza meant "1 1/2 minutes of terror and a 360-degree turnaround in your life."

The red-haired sisters, both graduates of Monroe High School in North Hills, were close. At the time of her death, LaFontaine-Trujillo, described by relatives as creative and artistic, was trying to pull her life together, including battling bulimia that plagued her since her youth. She was living with her mother in a Sherman Oaks apartment and frequently saw her four young sons, all of whom live with their fathers.

Garza, who was working at a Woodland Hills law firm for the past year, married Jose Garza five years ago after she represented him in a divorce. She was described by relatives as bright and motivated.

While Nicole Garza's family members declined to comment Tuesday, police said the Garzas' three children remain victims in this case.

"The children are the innocent victims here," Garcia said. "This is something they have no control over and yet they have to live with the results."

Police described the crime by the sisters as highly unusual.

"It's the only one like it I've run across in my 26 years in the department," Garcia said. "It hits right to the trust of husband and wife."

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