An Indiana man drove more than 2,000 miles to murder his mother in Grover Beach in order to steal her will and sell off her assets, investigators from the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office testified Monday in court.
Levente Laszlo Lazar, 26, of Bloomington, Indiana, barely spoke to defense attorney Jay Peterson during his day-long preliminary hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
Instead, Lazar mostly stared straight ahead, even when the county’s forensic pathologist on the stand inadvertently waved graphic crime scene photographs of Lazar’s mother’s bloody body just feet from his face.
Lazar is accused of plunging a sharp object into the neck of Athena Ilona Valentiny up to 10 times, taking items from her Grover Beach condo, and turning around to drive back to Indiana.
Investigators say they discovered Valentiny’s original will or trust at Lazar’s Indiana home, after Lazar told friends and investigators he was the “sole heir” to her estate.
The investigators’ testimony is the first time officials have elaborated on the motive.
Lazar has pleaded not guilty to a single count of first-degree murder, a charge that carries sentencing enhancements for the alleged personal use of a deadly weapon and a special allegation of murder for financial gain.
The District Attorney’s Office is seeking the unusual penalty of life in prison without parole due to Lazar’s alleged financial motive.
Valentiny, 64, worked as a nurse at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
She had been employed at the prison since 2013, but had been with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation since 2011. She previously worked at California State Prison, Corcoran.
Following testimony from two District Attorney’s Office investigators and the county’s forensic pathologist, Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero found that the prosecution established probable cause to proceed his case toward trial.
Bizarre behavior and money woes
Under examination by deputy district attorneys Kelly Mandarino and Lindsey Bittner on Monday, District Attorney’s Office investigator Casey Neall recounted how he traced Lazar’s steps from Valentiny’s condo the night before her body was found using surveillance footage from nearby businesses and private residences.
Though the footage wasn’t shown in court, Neall said a person fitting Lazar’s loose description, carrying a backpack, emerges from Valentiny’s complex holding an unknown object and trailed by an unleashed dog.
Police had previously said they were searching for Valentiny’s dog, which Neall testified a witness said was aggressive to people it didn’t know.
“The dog was not found at the victim’s house and has not been found, ever,” he said.
Neall said the person seen on surveillance footage traversed several streets before a white Jeep matching his vehicle’s description is seen driving toward Highway 101.
The investigator said that a “burner” — or, temporary cell phone — purchased by Lazar interacted with a cell tower in Santa Maria, and again in various locations down Highway 166 through Bakersfield.
In Winslow, Arizona, Lazar allegedly stopped at a McDonald’s at about 11 a.m. Oct. 25 and accessed the restaurant’s wi-fi with his iPad.
According to Neall, a later search of the device showed it accessed the McDonald’s wi-fi to search for phrases like, “Levente Lazar murder” and “Levente Lazar suspect Grover Beach.”
Authorities didn’t discover Valentiny’s body until about noon that day, and there was only one way Lazar could have known about his mother’s death at that point, Neall said.
A subsequent interview with Lazar’s girlfriend in Indiana showed that Lazar had lied to her about driving to the Central Coast, Neall said.
Instead, the woman was told Lazar was driving to Chicago for a stock trading conference with his father, Neall recounted. The woman didn’t know that Lazar’s father died in Hungary when Lazar was five years old.
According to Neall, Lazar told the woman supposed tales from the road, including a yarn about going to a Lego mega store in Chicago and meeting Kiss frontman Gene Simmons.
Neall said Lazar made phone calls to his girlfriend and a family friend from the road with a prepaid burner phone, saying his regular phone was getting repairs done.
When Neall interviewed Lazar, he said, Lazar volunteered that while he didn’t plan to attend his mother’s funeral, he would be in Alameda Superior Court in Oakland to receive a roughly $230,000 settlement from an annuity from the estate of Valentiny’s past boyfriend, who was at one time like a father to Lazar.
According to Neall, Lazar explained that he had previously received about $155,000 from the estate and was going to take a $40,000 penalty to withdraw the funds prior to his 30th birthday.
Aside from finding that Lazar owed about $12,000 to the IRS, an email thread showed that Lazar was in talks with a real estate broker about selling his mother’s $440,000 Woodland Hills condo, Neall said.
There was some disagreement over whether Lazar needed his mother’s will or trust paperwork to take control and sell the condo, Neall said.
That paperwork was found in a file cabinet at Lazar’s Indiana home during a Nov. 5 search, he said.
County forensic pathologist Joye Carter later testified that Valentiny died of sharp force trauma to the neck, with up to 10 neck wounds exposing several organs. Such a severe wound likely caused death “within minutes,” Carter said.
Neither side chose to make oral arguments after resting, according to court records, and Guerrero held Lazar to answer on all charges.
The Indiana man is scheduled to re-enter a plea on May 1. He remains in custody without bail at San Luis Obispo County Jail.