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California and the West

Corrections Officer's Husband Gives Account of Slaying

Crime: Wife was shot while fleeing gunmen, he says. Police now believe death may not be random case of 'road rage.'

January 20, 1998|SCOTT GLOVER and GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ANAHEIM — In a firsthand account of the shooting death of an off-duty California corrections officer, the victim's husband said she made a split-second decision to flee after the family's vehicle was stopped by assailants on a darkened ramp of the Riverside Freeway.

"If we stay in the car, we'll all die," said Elizabeth Begaren, according to her husband, Nuzzi Begaren.

With that, the 40-year-old state corrections officer pushed open the passenger door of her family's blue sport-utility vehicle and made a run for it, Begaren said in a telephone interview Monday.

She had run only a few steps when two of the men caught up with her, Begaren said. In a final plea, his wife pulled out her state corrections badge and identified herself as a law enforcement officer.

"When they saw the badge, they shot her," Begaren said. "She was dying, lying down in the blood, with the badge in her hand."

In his first interview since his wife's roadside slaying at 11:15 p.m. Saturday, Nuzzi Begaren said he believes that Elizabeth Begaren was killed for the $4,800 in cash she carried in her purse.

He said they were carrying the large amount of cash to pay for several big purchases. Begaren wanted to buy an expensive crystal vase; his wife was shopping for clothes to wear on a family trip to Europe, he said.

Police first believed that the slaying was a case of road rage but now say the killing might not have been random. They have questioned Begaren twice and plan to interview him again, said Anaheim Police Lt. Joe Reiss.

Begaren said he is "90% sure" the family was targeted by the assailants during a Saturday evening shopping trip to a Macy's department store in Burbank.

"There was no reason for someone to follow us," he said. "We have no enemies."

Begaren said he told Anaheim police his wife had been robbed, and gave detectives the license number of the attackers' vehicle, a dark blue late 1970s Oldsmobile. There were four men in the car, he said, two African Americans and two white or Latino men.

But Begaren said the Anaheim police detective in charge of the investigation is not interested.

"All he wants to do is interview my little girl," said the unemployed Romanian-born restaurateur.

His 10-year-old daughter Angelica, from a previous marriage, heard the shots that killed her stepmother while he shielded her from harm, Begaren said.

Police said they have widened their inquiry to look for clues in the victim's personal and professional life.

Reiss declined to respond to comments by Begaren. "We plan to continually talk to him about all this," Reiss said. "We'll be interviewing him again."

Begaren said the family left Macy's--which closes at 9 p.m. on Saturdays--because they could not find what they were looking for.

After stopping for Chinese food and gas, Begaren said he called to make hotel reservations in Las Vegas for the night, a spur-of-the-moment suggestion by his wife.

While heading south on Interstate 5, Angelica noticed that a car was following them, Begaren said.

Suspicious, Begaren said he tried to get away from the Oldsmobile but it stayed close behind. Later, he drove off the freeway, but the car followed.

He exited the Riverside Freeway at East Street then tried to get back on, he said, but "they cut me off."

"One of the guys was hanging from the window with gun," he said. "My wife said, 'If we stay in the car, we'll all die.' "

After she ran, his daughter got out and ran too, Begaren said, adding that he chased the child and pulled her away from one of the assailants. He said he was hiding behind the car, covering his daughter, when the gunman opened fire.

Begaren said he had known his wife for eight years. They married six months ago.

At the state prison in Lancaster, flags flew at half-staff for the popular employee.

A corrections officer since 1989, Begaren was assigned the past 18 months to the Investigative Services Unit, which investigates inmate-related crimes, prison spokeswoman Diane Gonzales said.

Gonzales said there was nothing in Begaren's work history to suggest her slaying might be job-related.

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