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Jury calls for death penalty for businessman who arranged wife's murder

Gold trader James Fayed plotted the 2008 murder of his wife, Pamela, in a Century City garage.

June 01, 2011|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Authorities presented jurors with three hours of jail recordings in which James Fayed admitted paying one of his workers to kill his wife and later plotted to kill his accomplices.
Authorities presented jurors with three hours of jail recordings in which… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The wealthy gold trader sat in a Los Angeles jail — a prime suspect in the recent killing of his wife — and opened up to his cellmate.

James Fayed recounted paying one of his employees to organize his wife's slaying. He angrily explained how he had arranged several opportunities for the killers to strike but said they blundered by carrying out the fatal stabbing in a well-lighted Century City parking garage and using a family vehicle as their getaway car.

Worried about being caught, Fayed plotted with the cellmate to kill his accomplices to "clean up the…mess."

"I don't want to go to the death chamber," Fayed told his cellmate, who was secretly recording the conversation for authorities.

On Tuesday, a Los Angeles jury that heard the recording ignored the convicted murderer's wish, deciding he should be executed for his role in the 2008 killing of his estranged wife, Pamela.

Fayed, 48, showed little emotion when the verdict was read but later described his journey from millionaire to condemned inmate as "a downfall of mythic proportions," one of his attorneys, Steve Meister, told reporters.

Meister said that long delays in bringing California's death row inmates to execution would probably mean that his client — who is overweight, in poor health and suffering from depression — would never be put to death.

Prosecutors said Fayed paid a worker on his Moorpark ranch $25,000 to carry out the killing with two gang members. Fayed, they argued, was embroiled in a bitter and potentially expensive divorce and feared that his wife would cooperate with a federal investigation into their international gold trading business.

Pamela Fayed, 44, was attacked by a hooded assailant on the third floor of an office tower parking garage. Surveillance footage showed that the killer fled with two other men in a red Suzuki SUV that had been rented by the Fayeds' business.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Jackson said prosecutors were satisfied with the outcome of the trial and believed that Fayed had earned the death penalty.

Jury foreman Jason Pritchett said the nearly three-hour recording of Fayed in jail played a key role in Tuesday's verdict. He said jurors rejected defense arguments that Fayed was adopting an aggressive "macho attitude" that his cellmate projected onto him.

"We didn't feel that he had any remorse," Pritchett said. "He only seemed interested in saving his own skin....He was still trying to kill three more people to cover up the evidence of the initial murder."

Within days of the killing, federal authorities arrested Fayed on an indictment accusing him of making unlicensed money transactions. Though the charge was eventually dismissed, Fayed was incarcerated for several weeks at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A.

There, he met Shawn Smith, a suspected drug dealer and felon who had recently pleaded guilty to illegally carrying a handgun.

While awaiting his sentence, Smith, then 47, told authorities that Fayed had made incriminating statements to him. Smith was fitted with a wire. One Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective told him he was a great actor, according to a transcript of the audio recording played in court.

"If it was in a different life, man, you could've probably got an Oscar," the detective said before Smith returned to Fayed's cell.

On the recording, Fayed criticized his dead wife, accusing her of taking drugs and trying to poison him. Jackson, the prosecutor, said there was no evidence to support Fayed's accusations.

Smith egged Fayed on to criticize the way his accomplices had carried out the killing.

"There were four different other occasions where I had it so it was perfectly clean," Fayed said.

He said he had checked other locations to make sure there were no cameras. One of his suggested occasions involved a July 4 party in Malibu.

"It was a rural area. I even had the times, dates, everything, location," Fayed said. "All he had to do was sit there, wait for her to get in the car, and jack it."

Fayed said he demanded his money back, telling his accomplice, "Forget it. It's too late. You guys had your chance." It was soon afterward, he said, that his wife was killed — a day before a scheduled hearing in their divorce case.

Smith told Fayed that he had a friend who was a Mafia hit man. He suggested Fayed hire the hit man, who was supposedly suffering from leukemia and had only months to live, to kill the other accomplices. Fayed appeared torn about the idea, wondering whether authorities would have enough evidence if his ranch worker cooperated with prosecutors.

"What would you do?" he asked Smith.

"Hit him," Smith replied.

"Clean up the…mess," Fayed said. "Yeah, clean it up…so it can't ride you 10 years from now or 15 years from now."

Smith gave him several opportunities to back out, but Fayed decided to press ahead with the new murder plan. They discussed writing a note with a map to show the hit man where to find one of the accomplices. Authorities never recovered a note.

Several times, the inmates paused as jail guards approached. Fayed called one of the female guards a "pig" and other names on the profanity-laden recording.

"Can't they see we're trying to kill people?" Smith said.

"We're planning a…multiple homicide…," Fayed said. "Leave us alone."

At one point, Smith expressed concern that he would be the only one alive who knew about Fayed's plans.

"I don't want to be on the next hit list," Smith said.

"No, you're helping me out of a…jam," Fayed told him. "I'm not gonna do something like that."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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