“Watching him and Jim Wallace together—they bicker like an old married couple,” Deputy D.A. Jennifer Turk says. “There can be 20 people in the room, but it’s to the exclusion of everybody else.”
They were not the likeliest of friends. Wallace had earned a master’s in architecture from UCLA and worked for a Santa Monica firm, deciding only at 27 to follow his father into the Torrance Police Department. Once a committed atheist, he became a Christian at 35 and pursued a theology degree. When Lewin told the Santa Claus jury that the phrases “lying in wait” and “malice aforethought” came from English Common Law, Wallace gifted him with a Bible to prove they originated in the Old Testament.
“I still have it somewhere,” Lewin, who is Jewish, says vaguely. “I’m very frustrating to Jim because I just don’t care.”
Lewin had landed in Torrance in 1996 after spending two years moving swiftly between other Los Angeles D.A. outposts. Based in a windowless courthouse office, he began handling robberies and run-of-the-mill drug cases before graduating to murder. In 1997, he remembered hearing about a case that had been rejected for prosecution due to lack of evidence. Once he was granted permission, Lewin began investigating on his own time the unsolved murder of Madolyn Smink, a 51-year-old Redondo Beach woman who had been found on a December day in 1995 strangled in the trunk of her Toyota Camry. Her husband, Jeff, who worked at the TRW aerospace corporation (yes, another engineer), claimed she had gone Christmas shopping and hadn’t returned.
“He really relishes those cases where nobody else would touch them,” says Judge Birnstein.
It turned out that Jeff Smink had been married before and that his first wife, snooping in his briefcase, had discovered plans for her own murder. “Down to, ‘When you call the police, you want to have certain inflections in your voice, you want to have tears,’ ” Lewin says. “Typical meticulous engineer. He’s going to write out everything.” In exchange for her silence, Smink paid her off. They divorced, and he married Madolyn. Then that marriage became troubled. “He is about to make his last payment to wife number one—it’s a month away—when wife number two disappeared,” says Lewin, who focused on the case for a year.
Punctilious as Smink was, he neglected something: Madolyn’s feet. She wasn’t wearing shoes, and her socks were clean when she was found, contradicting his shopping tale. “He murdered her in the house and forgot to put her shoes on,” says Lewin, who requested a wiretap for Smink’s phone. It was approved, but Major Crimes—thinking Lewin too green—took over the investigation. Set to testify before a grand jury nearly four years after Madolyn’s murder, Smink killed himself with a bullet to the head.
Lewin remains galled. “I loved that case. No one had wanted it. No one wants to put in the time on this case, and then you do everything to make it a case that goes someplace, and it got taken.” But he was hooked on complex circumstantial cases, whether or not they’re cold.
“No single piece of evidence really seems all that powerful,” Wallace says about the cases he and Lewin favor. “It’s the collective case of all the 30 pieces being most reasonably explained by the same causal factor of your suspect.”
Lewin will be taking the same approach with the Durst case, not that he would talk to me about it. Several compelling circumstantial details link the millionaire to Susan Berman’s execution-style killing. There’s the $25,000 he gave to Berman in 2000, a gift that looks suspiciously like hush money. Before Berman was last seen alive, on December 22, she told a friend that Durst was to visit her in L.A. The letter that alerted police to a “cadaver” at Berman’s address was sent by someone who misspelled “Beverley Hills” on the envelope, just as Durst did on the envelope to a letter he had written to Berman. It was postmarked Marina del Rey and sent December 23, the date Durst took a 10 p.m. flight out of San Francisco.
On the cloudy morning after Durst’s arrest in New Orleans, he sat down for an interview with Lewin at the dank Orleans Parish Prison. The next day the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office filed charges against him for Berman’s murder. Patrick R. Dixon is a Newport Beach attorney who supervised Lewin for more than nine years when he was with the D.A.’s office. “I’m not talking about any particular case here,” says Dixon, who worked on the Durst file. “But often the suspects think they’re smarter than anybody else. If I were a defense attorney advising a suspect, I’d say, ‘Never talk to John.’ ”
The years go by and the cases pile up, the story lines of each merging in broken relationships and violence. A woman named Joan Brooks had gone missing in 1988 and was never seen again. In 2003, her husband, Cordis, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. In another Lewin case where there was no body, Michael Lubahn Clark was convicted in 2012 of killing his wife, Carol, 31 years earlier. Thomas Freeman was convicted of second-degree murder in the case of his missing girlfriend, a drug-addicted prostitute named Tawnya Parker. Janos Kulcsar, who stabbed to death Archie McFarland—the husband of Kulcsar’s lover—was sentenced to 26 years to life. There was Derrick Snowden, too, the son of a sheriff’s deputy, who killed his neighbor Maya Porras and her housekeeper in revenge for Porras’s testifying against him in a juvenile burglary. Snowden’s cousins had given him an alibi, but Lewin traveled to Las Vegas with sheriff’s homicide detectives and interviewed the cousins, obtaining the information that cast doubt on their claim that Snowden’s 14-year-old sister was the killer.
Stories like Snowden’s are more the exception. Too often it’s easy to determine who the perpetrator is. “I make my living off people who kill their wives and girlfriends,” Lewin says. Then there are the odder convergences, like the two engineers who happened to be named Bradford or the way Richard Keith Cole’s case overlaps with Robert Durst’s. Cole’s began with a 911 call on the afternoon of September 1, 2001. A white Ford Aerostar van had jumped a curb in Arcadia and ended up resting nose first against bushes in the parking lot of a Coco’s restaurant. Collapsed in the driver’s seat and bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds was Charlotte Cole, a dark-haired, 50-year-old Montebello school librarian and mother of two. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene.
When detectives went to inform Richard, her 61-year-old husband, they believed they spotted blood on a doorknob and on a damp towel in a bathroom where he had just showered. But forensic testing revealed no blood, and the case drifted until, in 2007, Lewin asked the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to reinvestigate.
Cole, a fourth-generation Californian with brown hair and a toothy smile, taught English at Mt. San Antonio College. During the second inquiry, another professor there told detectives something that would echo years later in the Durst case: In 2001, he’d overheard Cole declare, from inside a college bathroom stall, “You did it. You did it. They will never know. You fooled them.” The professor remembered thinking, “Holy shit! This guy is confessing to murder.” Arrested in 2011, released and rearrested in 2012, Cole is free on $1 million bail and has pleaded not guilty.
While the Cole case is set for trial in October, Robert Durst’s, like much surrounding him, is more of a conundrum. The New Orleans proceedings await a September 16 hearing on a motion to suppress evidence gathered from Durst’s room at a J.W. Marriott Hotel. Detectives found more than $42,000 in cash, a latex mask, and false identification. After his Jinx interviews, Durst—a twitching, hollow-eyed doppelgänger for Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts—appeared to be fleeing, as he had once before, to Galveston. The motion to suppress contends that “California authorities…were hurriedly planning to arrest Durst before the final episode” of The Jinx, “crafting a dramatic moment of their own.”
“It’s their job to try and spin it,” says Ethan Milius, who maintains the arrest was no rush to judgment, as Lewin’s work on Durst began before the Douglas Bradford trial. Since last year Lewin, his cocounsel Habib Balian, and detectives have consulted three forensic documents examiners, all of whom have determined that Durst’s hand wrote the “cadaver” note. Lawyers for Durst, headed by the 74-year-old Texan Dick DeGuerin, are asking the government to produce that evidence.
The silver-haired attorney, whose team represented Durst in the Galveston killing, is studiously homespun, given to wearing a Stetson and repeating proverbs like “Ain’t been a horse that can’t be rode. Ain’t been a cowboy can’t be throwed.” Renowned for successfully defending high-profile clients others regard as indefensible, he has accused Lewin of using questionable tactics by interrogating Durst without his lawyer present. “From reputation and information, John Lewin is a formidable opponent,” DeGuerin tells me. So, an ideal matchup: two lawyers skilled at disarming as they dismantle their opposition, arguing a case involving a defendant adept at avoiding charges. If he’s proved guilty, the verdict will ride on an attorney for whom this is the case of a lifetime.
Louise Farr wrote “The Identity Thief,” about murderer and con man Randolph Kling, for the June 2012 issue.
This feature appears in the July 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.