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Witness at Murder Trial Describes Finding Torso

Testimony begins in the case of a Syrian immigrant accused of killing a nephew who sheltered the defendant's daughter.

August 28, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

A worker at a Sun Valley recycling plant described finding a human torso more than four years ago, as testimony began Wednesday in the case of a Syrian immigrant accused of murdering and dismembering a nephew he thought had encouraged his daughter's independence.

Juan Manuel Rodriguez Garcia, an employee at Crown Disposal, said he saw the body part on a conveyor belt on Jan. 2, 1999, as he separated cardboard and aluminum from trash.

"When I saw the body ... I thought it was a mannequin. I picked it up and was about to throw it to a co-worker, thinking it was a mannequin, but it felt very heavy," Garcia said.

Within minutes, the conveyor belt was shut down and police arrived.

The torso and a leg were later found to belong to Hilal Taweel, 35, a UCLA graduate who, police said, had allowed a female cousin to stay at his Burbank apartment when she fled the home of her strict parents.

Fadel Tawil, 65, is accused of killing his nephew after learning that Taweel had allowed his daughter, Vilma Tawil, then 19, to stay at his apartment. He was arrested 2 1/2 years after the body parts were found.

Dressed in a charcoal-gray suit, Tawil listened to testimony with the help of an Arabic interpreter.

Police have described Tawil as a man unable to reconcile the life that he led in Syria with American culture after he immigrated in the late 1980s.

Tawil believed that the more Americanized Taweel fostered his daughter's independent ways and grew violently bitter, authorities said.

Months before Taweel's body was found, Tawil had struck his nephew with his fists after finding his daughter at the apartment, Vilma Tawil told police.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Karla Kerlin told jurors that on New Year's Day, 1999, Taweel had lunch with his uncle in an attempted reconciliation.

Earlier that day, the older man had pounded on the door of his nephew's apartment as Taweel and the defendant's daughter cowered in fear, Vilma Tawil told police. Authorities said they think that Taweel saw his uncle later that afternoon. He never returned.

Kerlin told jurors that flecks of blood matching Taweel's DNA were found on one wall and on a rug at Tawil's home. She said that near one wall, a piece of carpet had been cut out and patched back together.

On Wednesday, jurors also heard from a manager at the recycling plant, who described sifting through more than 150 tons of trash to find more body parts.

And they heard coroner investigator Gilda Tolbert describe the process of identifying Taweel from the torso and left leg.

Tolbert said the foot, which had an overlapping toe, was matched by an anthropologist to the imprint inside shoes belonging to Taweel.

The head and other limbs were never found.

UCLA Medical Center provided X-rays, taken during a medical visit, of the victim's chest and abdomen, and a radiologist was able to match them to Taweel's torso, Tolbert said.

Tawil's attorney, Betty Alice Bridgers, delayed her opening statement until later in the trial. Testimony resumes today.

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