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Slaying Left Family, Friends Devastated, Attorneys Say

Court: Prosecutors launch penalty phase of Justin Merriman's murder trial by telling jurors how Katrina Montgomery's 1992 death affected those close to her.

February 28, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Katrina Montgomery's family waited for her to walk through the door, uncertain whether the 20-year-old college student was dead or alive.

But Montgomery never came home.

Raped and killed by skinhead gang member Justin Merriman, she was buried in a shallow grave and her slaying concealed for years by white supremacists loyal to him.

Two weeks ago, a Ventura County jury convicted Merriman, 28, of first-degree murder and related allegations that make him eligible for the death penalty.

On Tuesday, prosecutors launched the penalty phase of Merriman's trial by presenting evidence on how Montgomery's November 1992 slaying has devastated her friends and family.

The victim's parents, sister, brother and grandmother took the stand one after another and recalled days when Katrina, a vivacious redhead, was still with them. They described how her disappearance left them in limbo for years. And, in voices tinged with pain, they told jurors how recent accounts of her rape and killing have left them with emotional scars they say may never heal.

"There is a giant void in my life and the life of my family," said Montgomery's father, Michael Montgomery of Los Angeles, who works as a civil attorney. "I fear there will never, ever be any healing."

Merriman, a white supremacist with a long criminal record, showed no reaction as Montgomery's relatives testified. He watched nonchalantly as prosecutors showed a short video of her interacting with cousins, aunts and uncles at family functions.

As a result of his Feb. 13 conviction, Merriman faces a sentence of death by lethal injection or life in prison without possibility of parole. Under state and federal law, a victim's relatives cannot testify on what punishment they would prefer.

But a 1991 court decision does allow prosecutors in the penalty phase of a murder case to present evidence of the loss suffered by friends, family and the community.

Katy Montgomery, Katrina's mother, tearfully told jurors that while she has a large, tightknit extended family, her daughter's presence is always missing.

"It is so hard sometimes," she said. "She is frozen right at 20."

Katy and Michael Montgomery described their oldest child as smart and headstrong, a rebellious teenager who became involved with the wrong crowd while growing up in Ventura. But after moving away, they said, Katrina matured and became interested in school. She wanted to become a professional photographer.

Still, her father said, Katrina thought she was invincible and that may have been her undoing.

According to court testimony, Katrina Montgomery stopped by a party in Oxnard while on her way to visit a friend in late November 1992. During the party, she got into two physical altercations with Merriman, a parolee whose sexual advances she had rebuffed in the past.

After the party, about 5 a.m., she drove to the Ventura condominium where Merriman lived with his mother and sister. It was there, witnesses said, that Merriman raped, stabbed, beat and eventually cut Montgomery's throat to prevent her from reporting the sexual assault to police.

Two San Fernando Valley skinheads, Larry Nicassio and Ryan Bush, testified they watched the killing but were too frightened to intervene. They helped Merriman dispose of the body, burying her in a rural area near Sylmar that has since been developed into an industrial park.

The day she disappeared, Katrina Montgomery was expected to attend a belated Thanksgiving celebration at her grandparents' house in Santa Barbara. Grandmother Jean Montgomery told jurors Tuesday the family waited, but Katrina Montgomery never arrived.

Instead, her blue pickup truck was found abandoned that afternoon in Angeles National Forest, and a tow-truck driver found blood in the pickup bed. Police launched a homicide investigation, but it went nowhere because of uncooperative witnesses.

Laurie Montgomery Gortner, 22, recalled the bewildering days immediately after her big sister--the one who had painted her fingernails and picked her up from dance classes--was reported missing.

She was 13 at the time and recalled stashing junk food in her bedroom, thinking her sister would want some when she returned home.

"It was so confusing to be so young and we just didn't know what happened to her for so long," Gortner said. "I think as time went on, all of us knew she wasn't coming home."

Vaughn Montgomery, 23, told jurors his family eventually lost hope of finding his sister alive. "We had to swallow, in whatever foggy, unclear way we could, that she was gone," he said.

The family never held a funeral, hoping initially that Katrina would be found alive, then hoping her remains would be recovered. Now, Katy Montgomery said, the family is planning a memorial service to finally say goodbye.

The family members' emotional testimony came after Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin Drescher gave his opening statement, telling jurors the law outlines 11 factors for them to consider when deciding what punishment Merriman should receive.

Prosecutors are focusing on three areas: circumstances of the slaying, prior felony convictions and other crimes allegedly carried out by Merriman between 1989 and 1998.

Defense attorneys are not contesting most of those unproven crimes, including two alleged assaults while Merriman was a juvenile--possession of an illegal dagger-type knife and two fights that resulted in moderate injuries to the victims.

Defense attorneys did not give an opening statement Tuesday, but are scheduled to give one this morning before launching their case. The prosecution rested its side of the penalty case after calling Montgomery's relatives and a few other witnesses to the stand.

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