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Murder Charge Dropped Against One Man in '92 Slaying

May 18, 1999|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County prosecutors Monday dropped a murder charge against a former San Fernando Valley skinhead after he implicated another man in the 1992 killing of college student Katrina Montgomery.

Lawrence Robert Nicassio, 22, pleaded guilty instead Monday to an accessory-after-the-fact charge, which carries a maximum three-year prison term.

In entering the plea, Nicassio, whose last-known residence was North Hollywood, admitted to trying to protect Justin Merriman, 30, who is also charged in the 7-year-old slaying.

Merriman, a skinhead from Ventura, was indicted on murder charges six months ago. He is accused of raping, stabbing and bludgeoning Montgomery, a 20-year-old Santa Monica College freshman and former Ventura High School student. He has pleaded not guilty.

Initially, authorities suspected both Nicassio and Merriman were responsible for Montgomery's death. She disappeared Nov. 28, 1992, after stopping by a friend's party in Oxnard. Her bloodstained truck was found by police in the Angeles National Forest the next day, but she was never seen again.

Since Nicassio's arrest in 1997 in connection with her disappearance, prosecutors became less certain of his role. After he came forward with detailed information about the crime last spring, they offered him a deal.

"He came to us," Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh said Monday. "We, of course, were very suspicious."

But Bamieh said Nicassio's account of what happened the night Montgomery disappeared, as well as events that followed, were corroborated during their investigation, and prosecutors realized they had the wrong man.

"He proved us incorrect," Bamieh said, standing outside the courtroom. "He was not responsible for her murder. There were things he said that he couldn't have known unless they were the truth."

Montgomery's disappearance stumped authorities for years. In mid-1997, investigators for the Ventura County district attorney's office picked up the case and began pursuing cold leads.

Many witnesses at the 1992 party, almost all of whom were affiliated with white supremacist gangs, were reluctant to cooperate, according to police. But over time, authorities zeroed in on three suspects: Merriman, Nicassio and Ryan Bush, another gang member.

In late 1992, Merriman was a parolee and senior member of the Ventura-based gang known as the Skinhead Dogs. Nicassio was 16 at the time and a member of another skinhead gang, the Sylmar Peckerwood Family, as was Bush.

All three were at the Oxnard party with Montgomery, according to witnesses who testified before the grand jury last winter.

According to grand jury transcripts, the events unfolded this way: After the party broke up, Nicassio and Bush spent the night at Merriman's house and were awake when Montgomery dropped by just before dawn to see Merriman. Witnesses said they had known each other for some time.

During the night, Merriman allegedly raped Montgomery and forced her to perform various sex acts. As she dressed to leave, Merriman allegedly stabbed her in the neck, beat her in the head with a crescent wrench, then slit her throat.

Nicassio told the grand jury he witnessed the slaying. He said he pretended to be asleep when Montgomery was raped, and was too scared to intervene when he heard Merriman killing her.

Nicassio said Merriman forced him and Bush to help him remove Montgomery's body from the Ventura condominium he shared with his mother. Nicassio told authorities they dumped her remains at Sunset Farms, a bush-lined park near Sylmar that has since been developed.

Nicassio's attorney, Darren Kavinoky, said his client wanted to make amends for what happened to Montgomery and that he put his own life at risk by doing so.

"The culture he is exposed to in jail does not promote honesty, it does not promote candor," Kavinoky said, adding that his client is no longer associated with skinheads. "I think he is at risk because of his actions in this case."

Neither Bamieh nor Kavinoky would comment on whether Nicassio will testify against Merriman, who has pleaded not guilty to 25 charges in connection with Montgomery's slaying and other crimes. His trial date is set for January 2000.

The accessory charge against Nicassio stems not from the events immediately after the killing but from a statement he made to a female witness in November 1997, asking her not to testify against Merriman.

Prosecutors heard the conversation through a listening device at the time. They could not charge Nicassio for his actions in 1992 because the statute of limitations on an accessory-after-the-fact-charge expires after three years.

Nicassio remains jailed without bail. He faces up to three years in prison, but could be released at a sentencing hearing next month if the judge imposes the minimum 16-month term. He has been in jail for the past 18 months.

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