Murder defendant Justin Merriman told his skinhead friends to keep quiet about Katrina Montgomery's disappearance just hours after authorities found her blood-stained truck abandoned on a winding mountain road, a witness testified Thursday.
Former Oxnard resident Apryl Bronley told jurors that Montgomery had planned to spend the night at her house on Nov. 28, 1992, but stormed out after they got into an argument.
It was the last time she saw Montgomery alive.
The next morning, Merriman and his skinhead friends concocted a lie to tell police: that the 20-year-old college student had never been at Bronley's house for a party attended by members of two white-power gangs, she testified.
Although suspicious that Montgomery may have met foul play, Bronley told jurors she said nothing because she feared retaliation.
Merriman is charged with murder, rape, conspiracy and other criminal counts in connection with Montgomery's slaying and alleged attempts to conceal it from police. He faces a possible death sentence if convicted.
Defense lawyers say there is no evidence to prove their client slit Montgomery's throat. They have suggested another skinhead may be the killer.
On Thursday, Bronley and her former husband, skinhead leader Scott Porcho, testified in Ventura County Superior Court about the events surrounding the disappearance of Montgomery, a student at Santa Monica City College who grew up in Ventura.
Montgomery showed up at the Porchos' house with an overnight bag and stayed for a rowdy skinhead party where 10 to 20 people were drinking heavily and taking LSD, Bronley said.
During the party, Merriman and two younger skinheads, Larry Nicassio and Ryan Bush, pinned Montgomery to a bed and may have hit her, Bronley testified.
It was one of two altercations between Montgomery and the men that night, and after the second, Bronley said, she drove Merriman, Bush and Nicassio back to Merriman's home in Ventura.
When she got back to Oxnard, she said, Montgomery was on the phone with Merriman.
"I think he was asking her to come over," she said.
Bronley said she told Montgomery not to go. That ignited a fight between the two women, which ended when Bronley threw a set of car keys at Montgomery and Montgomery stormed out of the house.
The next day, she said, the defendant and Porcho told her what to say to police and instructed other partygoers who had seen Montgomery to give the same account. Bronley said she obeyed because she was afraid of Porcho.
"He had been abusive in the past," Bronley said.
Porcho, who testified Wednesday, was called to the stand after his ex-wife Thursday afternoon and questioned about many of the same events, as well as his gang ties and admitted lies to police.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh repeatedly tried to undermine the credibility of his own witness, at one point accusing him of still trying to protect his former gang "brother."
"I have no reason or purpose to do that," Porcho responded.
On Wednesday, Porcho had testified that he saw Nicassio--who cut a deal with prosecutors--put a steak knife to Montgomery's throat before she disappeared from the party.
While the statement was portrayed as a sudden allegation on Wednesday, when asked about it on the stand Thursday, Porcho said he has told the same story to authorities several times.
"I was pretty sure it was well-known that I'd been saying there was a knife to her throat," he testified.
Defense attorneys tried to back up that assertion, pointing to transcripts that showed the story had been told to authorities previously.
Bamieh would not comment on the apparent discrepancy, except to say, "There's nothing Mr. Porcho said that he hasn't said before, except for very limited areas."
On Thursday, there was clearly friction between the prosecutor and his witness.
"I don't know if I'm causing a problem, or if you're getting frustrated," Porcho said to Bamieh after one tense exchange.
Bamieh brought out instances in which Porcho told members of his gang that he was going to lie to protect Merriman and that they should too.
Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, however, Porcho explained that after cooperating with authorities he feared retaliation from fellow gang members and made those statements to make it appear he was on Merriman's side.
"I was trying to do the right thing," he said. "But I also had to protect myself."