INDIO — An ex-San Francisco art dealer testified Monday that one of two defendants on trial for the financially motivated slaying of a Palm Springs retiree never discussed killing the victim during a meeting four days before his death, in which the witness was asked to handle power of attorney duties on the man’s behalf.
Russell Herbert Manning, who is serving prison time in connection with the death of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert, met with Kaushal Niroula and David Replogle about a business proposal in Palm Springs less than a week before Lambert was reported missing.
Niroula, 31, and Daniel Carlos Garcia, 29, are on trial on 10 felony counts, including murder and conspiracy, in Lambert’s Dec. 5, 2008, death.
Replogle was convicted in January 2011 of first-degree murder and eight other felony counts stemming from Lambert’s death, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Manning pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges in February 2010 and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Manning, who lived in Palm Springs from June through December 2008, said he met Niroula via a gay website in 2002, and later met Garcia and Replogle through him.
He said Niroula called him in late November 2008 to tell him that he and Replogle had a “business proposition” they wanted to speak with him about in Palm Springs. They met for lunch at the Riviera hotel, and Replogle asked Manning if he would serve as power of attorney for Lambert, the witness said.
“And you had never met Clifford Lambert?” asked Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria.
“No,” Manning said.
Manning said Replogle said it would be a conflict of interest for him to do so because he was an attorney, and Manning and Lambert were both art dealers. Manning said he was told that Lambert had raped Niroula, giving him the AIDS virus and leading to a court settlement.
“Did they ever show you any settlement or documents that day?” DiMaria asked.
“No,” Manning replied. He said he was told Lambert was in prison in Mexico.
“Looking back at that story that was told to you, now does it seem a little far-fetched?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes, of course,” Manning said.
He said he was told Lambert was very wealthy, and he could get up to $500,000 for handling power of attorney duties. He said he was told he would be expected to perform financial transactions and sign papers on the behalf of Lambert, who was trying to re-enter the country.
“Did they talk about killing Mr. Lambert?” DiMaria asked.
“No,” Manning said.
“Did they talk about kidnapping Mr. Lambert?” the prosecutor asked.
“No,” Manning said.
The men presented the situation as a financial arrangement, he said.
“That’s all it was to me,” Manning said.
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.
‘Trial by text’
Text messages from Garcia’s phone showed he had contact information for 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 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 claimed.
On Dec. 10, Niroula opened a Wells Fargo account with Replogle’s information and listed “Lambert Studios” as his employer. 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 claimed.
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 — who, like Garcia, is representing himself in the trial — said in his opening statement 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 was also 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,” claiming that more than 30,000 text messages from Garcia’s phone were “fabricated and planted … for a very specific reason, and you’re going to hear evidence of that.”
Bustamante was convicted in January 2011 of first-degree murder and eight other felony counts stemming from Lambert’s death, and was 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 in October.
Witness in Lambert slaying: Murder wasn’t part of plan
July 2, 2012
The Desert Sun