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Man Held in Sting Tied to Bryant Case

The El Segundo suspect allegedly offered, for $3 million, to kill the woman who is accusing the Laker star of rape.

September 19, 2003|Andrew Blankstein and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

An El Segundo man who offered to kill Kobe Bryant's accuser for $3 million was arrested early Thursday in a sting operation after he accepted a satchel of movie prop money from undercover officers, authorities said.

Patrick Gruber, a 31-year-old Swiss national who boasted of ties to the Russian Mafia, allegedly wrote to the Lakers' basketball star and offered to "solve" Bryant's "current problem" for a price, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

Alerted to the offer by Bryant's security staff, local and federal authorities arranged a series of meetings with Gruber that ended in his arrest early Thursday in the parking lot of a Ralphs supermarket on Sepulveda Boulevard in El Segundo. Moments after Gruber opened a satchel filled with the phony bills, three dozen sheriff's deputies and FBI agents arrested him.

"He was very surprised," said Lt. Jim Taylor, a sheriff's spokesman. "He thought he was getting a million dollars, and instead he was going to jail."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Kobe Bryant case -- An article in Friday's California section about a man who allegedly offered to kill Kobe Bryant's accuser for $3 million incorrectly identified the suspect as Patrick Gruber. His name is Patrick Graber.

Gruber, who is tall and muscular, has lived in El Segundo for two years and works as a trainer at a local gym. He was booked on suspicion of solicitation of murder and ordered held on $1-million bond. His arraignment is scheduled for Monday.

Authorities said a search of Gruber's home turned up an unspecified number of firearms.

Basketball star Bryant, 25, a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, is accused of raping a 19-year-old woman at an Edwards, Colo., resort on June 30. Bryant said the sex was consensual. He is free on $25,000 bond. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Oct. 9.

The murder-for-hire case began on Sept. 8, when security staff working for Bryant were reviewing fan mail and came across a letter from a man who called himself "Yuri." The writer offered to make Bryant's current legal troubles "go away" for $3 million -- $1 million in advance, and $2 million when "the problem went away."

Bryant, through his attorneys, contacted the Sheriff's Department and told them of the threat, according to Bryant's lawyer. At the request of the Sheriff's Department, Bryant's security employees met with "Yuri" and tape-recorded the conversation as sheriff's deputies listened. Two more meetings were arranged, this time with undercover sheriff's deputies and FBI agents.

During those meetings, held in El Segundo, undercover officers said they learned that Gruber "had more than just a passing knowledge about the alleged rape victim and her family," Taylor said.

Gruber told undercover investigators that he would "take care" of the witness but offered few details. He told officers in a heavy accent that he could "make her not come to court, make her disappear, or make her have a drug overdose."

"He intended to do it right away," Taylor said. "He said he could have it done within a week."

Gruber told agents that he would give them photographs or other physical evidence to prove that he had killed the woman.

The final meeting between Gruber and the agents occurred just after 8 a.m. Thursday, in the supermarket parking lot at Sepulveda Boulevard and Mariposa Avenue. As dozens of deputies and FBI agents waited, undercover officers arrived in a rental car and told Gruber that they had the first installment of the $3 million. When Gruber unlocked the trunk and opened the satchel, officers arrested him.

Authorities said Gruber has been in the United States for two years on a travel visa, which expired six months ago. Investigators said they are trying to determine whether anyone else was involved in the plot. Law enforcement authorities also are investigating his alleged links to Russian organized crime.

Authorities said they alerted the alleged rape victim's family, defense attorneys and prosecutors as soon as they learned of the offer.

Bryant did not comment on the murder-for-hire case.

His defense lawyer, Pamela Mackey, issued a written statement Thursday that said: "In the two months since this case became public, there have been multiple threats against Mr. Bryant, his lawyers and his accuser. There have been outrageously false stories claiming that Mr. Bryant has offered money to the accuser. We condemn these threats and these false stories. They are the unfortunate byproducts of the media circus which has overtaken this case. This atmosphere threatens not just Mr. Bryant, his lawyers and the accuser, but the fundamental right to a fair trial before an impartial jury."

Times staff writer Steve Henson contributed to this report.

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