INDIO, Calif. - A Northern California man accused in the financially
motivated murder of a Palm Springs retiree is expected to rest his case
Kaushal Niroula, 31, who is representing himself, is charged with 10
felony counts, including murder and conspiracy, in the Dec. 5, 2008, stabbing
death of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert.
Co-defendant Daniel Carlos Garcia, 30, is representing himself against
the same charges and finished presenting his case last week.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge David B. Downing told jurors Wednesday
that Niroula would call his last witness Thursday morning, and the
prosecution would likely give closing statements on Friday.
The judge said he'd be gone Monday and Tuesday, so closing statements
would resume on Wednesday and the jury could get the case Aug. 30 or 31. The trial started on June 25.
Two other men, David Replogle and Miguel Bustamante, were convicted in
January 2011 of first-degree murder and eight other felony counts stemming from Lambert's death, and both were sentenced to life in prison without the
possibility of parole.
Another defendant, art dealer Russell Manning, pleaded guilty to fraud-
related charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Bustamante's roommate, Craig McCarthy, pleaded guilty to voluntary
manslaughter in August 2010 and is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria said Garcia met Lambert online the
spring before he died, and Lambert -- a gay man who preferred younger men --
paid for Garcia to travel from Northern California to see him. Garcia's visit
didn't go well and he left earlier than planned, charging Lambert's credit card
when he upgraded his plane ticket to first class, the prosecutor said in her
Text messages from Garcia's phone showed he had contact information for
Replogle, who had represented him at one point and became a friend, and
Bustamante, a student and bartender in the Bay Area. Bustamante's roommate was also dragged into the conspiracy, DiMaria said.
She said Garcia sent Lambert's address and phone number to Niroula, and
on Dec. 1, Replogle and Niroula flew to Burbank and drove to Palm Springs. The
next day, Niroula posed as an attorney representing a wealthy New York family
that had left Lambert money or valuable artwork in a will, the prosecutor said.
On Dec. 5, Niroula was at Lambert's home, and at some point let McCarthy
and Bustamante into the house, the prosecutor said. McCarthy grabbed Lambert and held him at knifepoint in the kitchen, and Bustamante stabbed Lambert to death, DiMaria told jurors. She said Niroula brought bedding into the kitchen so they could wrap up the body, while Bustamante and McCarthy cleaned the blood.
They put Lambert's body into the trunk of his own Mercedes-Benz, and
Bustamante and McCarthy buried Lambert in the desert the next day, according to the prosecutor. They drove the car up to the Bay Area, and Garcia started using Lambert's debit card to withdraw money the same day, she alleged.
On Dec. 10, Niroula allegedly opened a Wells Fargo account with
Replogle's information. The next day, Replogle, posing as Lambert, gave art
dealer Manning power of attorney over Lambert's accounts, and Manning --
accompanied by Niroula -- wired $185,000 from Lambert's Palm Springs bank
account to the newly opened Wells Fargo account, according to the prosecution.
On Dec. 12, Replogle -- again posing as Lambert and accompanied by
Niroula -- met with a notary and forged four power of attorney documents,
including a durable power of attorney that gave Manning power of attorney over Lambert's entire estate, DiMaria alleged. The same day, Niroula transferred
$30,000 into Bustamante's account and Manning wrote a check to Replogle for
more than $15,000, closing out Lambert's account, she said.
Niroula said in his opening statement that there was no evidence linking him to the killing and insisted the prosecution's case was based on excuses and "fabricated" text messages.
He said Department of Justice personnel never found any forensic
evidence after sweeping Lambert's home "floor to ceiling," and the house was
later "gutted" and sold. There also was no evidence found in Lambert's
Mercedes -- the car was put into a police impound lot in the Bay Area and later
sold, Niroula said.
He called the proceedings "trial by text," alleging that more than
30,000 text messages from Garcia's phone were "fabricated and planted."
Garcia told jurors that, contrary to the prosecution's claims, "nothing
in my life was motivated by greed."
He said he was with his family in Northern California when Lambert disappeared, "not in Palm Springs participating in a conspiracy." He said he and David Replogle, a lawyer who was convicted of murder in the case last year, started a business venture to sell rare, multimillion-dollar paintings.
"Why would anyone commit such a heinous crime for such a relatively
small amount?" he said.
He said there was no evidence text messages on a phone investigators
associated with him were sent or received, and claimed the phone was improperly handled by law enforcement.
Garcia said an expert witness would show the jury that text messages can
be modified, along with "numerous tools on (my) laptop and evidence going
back months showing modifications." Last week, the expert, Christopher Pavan,
demonstrated to the jury how to alter text messages.
Several people had access to his passwords and email accounts, Garcia said.
"That also means other people were able to gain access and change
things and manipulate them," he said.