INDIO — Information from the cell mate of a man convicted in the financially motivated killing of a Palm Springs retiree was instrumental in investigating the case, according to a Palm Springs police detective who testified Friday in the trial of two other defendants charged with the murder.
Palm Springs police Detective Frank Browning took the stand in the trial of Daniel Carlos Garcia, 30, and Kaushal Niroula, 31, who are each charged with 10 felony counts, including murder and conspiracy, for their alleged involvement in the killing of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert.
Though Lambert’s body was never found, authorities believe he was stabbed to death on Dec. 5, 2008.
Two other men were convicted of murder and other charges last year in connection with the case, while two additional defendants pleaded guilty to lesser charges in 2010.
Browning testified that in January 2009, he was given details about what happened to Lambert by Arthur Jimenez, the cellmate of co-defendant Miguel Bustamante, who was convicted in January 2011 of first-degree murder and eight other felony counts.
“Did he provide you with very specific details you were later able to confirm?” asked Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria.
“Yes,” Browning replied.
“Was Mr. Jimenez instrumental to this case?” DiMaria asked.
“Yes,” Browning said.
According to the prosecution, Bustamante provided Jimenez with the names of most of the men involved in the killing and described Lambert’s murder.
Garcia, who is representing himself, asked Browning if Jimenez mentioned him.
“Mr. Jimenez never mentioned my name, did he?” Garcia asked.
“He had it written down on a piece of paper,” the detective said.
“But he didn’t speak my name out loud, did he?” Garcia asked.
“No,” Browning said.
According to the prosecution, Garcia met the victim online the spring before he died, and Lambert — a gay man who preferred younger men — paid for Garcia to travel from Northern California to visit 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, according to DiMaria.
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 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 alleged.
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 up 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 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 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 — who, like Garcia, is representing himself in the trial, 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 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,” alleging that more than 30,000 text messages from Garcia’s phone were “fabricated and planted.”
Replogle was convicted in January 2011 of first-degree murder and eight other felony counts, and he and Bustamante were sentenced to life in prison without parole. Manning pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges and was sentenced to five years in prison. McCarthy pleaded guilty in August 2010 and is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
Cell mate aided murder conviction
Joy Juedes/City News Service
August 3, 2012