Two Northern California men conspired with others and acted like "vultures" in plotting to kill a Palm Springs retiree and steal his possessions and money, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.
Daniel Carlos Garcia, 29, and Kaushal Niroula, 31, are each charged with 10 felony counts, including murder and conspiracy, for the Dec. 5, 2008, stabbing death of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert. Two other men were convicted of murder and other charges last year and two more pleaded guilty in connection with the case in 2010.
Garcia and Niroula are each representing themselves in the trial. They were expected to give opening statements Tuesday, although Niroula may reserve his until the prosecution rests its case.
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria told jurors the murder plot was like a Hollywood script.
"But it wasn't from a (plot) from Martin Scorsese. ... You will hear that these two men acted as vultures. As Clifford Lambert's body lay in a shallow grave, they picked him clean," DiMaria said.
"They drained (Lambert's) bank account, used his credit cards, they took his house, used his cars, they took everything down to his shoes ... they erased him," she said.
The prosecutor 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. Lambert was alone, lonely and sometimes acted like he had more money than he did, DiMaria said.
"He was perfect prey for these predators," she said.
Garcia's visit didn't go well and he left earlier than planned, allegedly charging Lambert's credit card when he upgraded his plane ticket to first class, the prosecutor said. Lambert became angry and said he wanted nothing more to do with Garcia.
After Garcia left, Lambert's computer -- which had personal and financial information on it -- didn't work and he had to have an expert fix it, DiMaria said.
"It is a reasonable inference that Mr. Garcia hacked Mr. Lambert's computer," the prosecutor said.
DiMaria said Garcia and Niroula had a close relationship and enjoyed the finer things in life even though neither was known to have a job. Text messages from Garcia's phone showed he had contact information for David Replogle, a San Francisco attorney who had represented him at one point, and Miguel Bustamante, a student and bartender in the Bay Area. Bustamante's roommate, Craig McCarthy, was dragged into the conspiracy, DiMaria said.
More than 30,000 text messages from Garcia's phone suggested that the plot, which was called "Operation Craigslist," went back to at least November 2008. 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 New York family, the Mays, who owned department stores, and told Lambert that a member of the family had left him money or valuable artwork in a will, the prosecutor said.
"(Lambert) started telling all his friends that week, `I'm going to be rich again,"' DiMaria said.
On Dec. 5, Niroula was at Lambert's home, and at some point let McCarthy and Bustamante into the house. McCarthy grabbed Lambert and held him at knifepoint in the kitchen, and Bustamante attacked him, DiMaria said.
"He plunges the knife into his (Lambert's) back, the back of the neck, he grabs another knife and goes to town ... Mr. Lambert lays gurgling in his own blood," DiMaria said.
Niroula brought bedding into the kitchen so they could wrap up the body, DiMaria said, while Bustamante and McCarthy cleaned the blood. They put Lambert's body into the trunk of his own Mercedes, and Bustamante and McCarthy buried Lambert in the desert the next day, she said.
Lambert's remains were never found, DiMaria said.
Bustamante and McCarthy took Lambert's Mercedes -- and his dog -- to the
Bay area the morning after Lambert was killed, and Garcia started using Lambert's debit card to withdraw money the same day, the prosecutor said.
On Dec. 10, Niroula opened a Wells Fargo account with Replogle's information and listed "Lambert Studios" as his employer, she said. The next day, Replogle, posing as Lambert, gave attorney Russell 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 prosecutor.
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 said.
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 and Replogle also met with a real estate agent and escrow officer in Fresno about selling a house in Palm Springs, DiMaria said.
Replogle and 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. McCarthy pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in August 2010 and is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 19.
Manning pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.