Athena Valentiny’s body was found slumped on the floor in her bedroom and covered in “a large amount of blood.”
It was that grisly scene played for jurors from footage taken from Grover Beach police Officer Santino Lopez’s body camera on the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Levente Lazlo Lazar.
Lazar is Valentiny’s son, who San Luis Obispo prosecutors say stabbed his mother to death last year in an elaborate scheme to obtain a significant inheritance.
Substantial physical and electronic evidence shows Levente drove more than 2,400 miles from his home in Bloomington, Indiana, to Valentiny’s Grover Beach condo on Oct. 24, 2018, and made the return trip early the next day.
The original copy of Valentiny’s newly drafted will and testament was also found in Lazar’s Bloomington apartment.
With so much evidence in the case, it is unclear what Lazar’s defense is. His attorney, Jay Petersen, declined to present jurors an opening statement Wednesday, instead reserving the right to deliver an argument after the prosecution rests.
One line of questioning by Petersen during cross examination, however, indicated the defense may attempt to raise doubts about whether Valentiny was killed by one of the many since-released inmates she treated at the California Men’s Colony prison, where she worked as a licensed vocational nurse.
The trial is expected to last about a month.
‘Inherit from someone you kill’
In her opening statement Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Kelly Mandarino told jurors that the case was about “a 64-year-old mother who sacrificed everything for her only child, her son,” who “drove over 2,000 miles to brutally kill her” for money.
Mandarino told of how Valentiny brought Lazar to the U.S. with her from Hungary after Lazar’s father died when he was 5 years old. Calling Valentiny “regimented and determined,” the prosecutor said she saved money to purchase a rental property in Woodland Hills and a condo in Grover Beach.
In 2018, Valentiny prepared her last will and testament, naming Lazar as the sole beneficiary of her estate.
Investigators would later find through searches of his electronics that Lazar was around this time searching the internet for how to “inherit from someone you kill,” Mandarino said. Other searches were for “can murderers inherit?” and “how long before someone named in a will can inherit?” she said.
In preparation for his trip, Mandarino says evidence shows Lazar had his car serviced, stocked up on energy drinks and fast food, and went to Best Buy down the street from his Bloomington apartment to purchase a “burner,” or temporary, cell phone, which he threw away after the Grover Beach trip. Investigators later recovered the phone, Mandarino said.
To cover his tracks, he told his live-in girlfriend that he was going to a stock trading conference in Chicago with his father, who had died long before. It was for this girlfriend, who was about to become a doctor, that Mandarino said Lazar committed the murder.
Mandarino said witnesses will testify that Lazar claimed to be a professional stock trader making over $100,000 a year.
“These were all lies,” she told the jury.
In fact, Lazar was in a considerable amount of student debt, and money he did have from a settlement granted to him years prior was running dry due to bad investments, she said.
Mandarino told the jury that investigators traced Lazar’s burner and personal cell phone along the route to the Central Coast and back through “pings” on nearby cell phone towers along the way.
He also stopped at a McDonald’s restaurant in Winslow, Arizona, the day after the murder, logged on to their public wifi connection with his iPad and searched for “Ilona Valentiny Grover Beach,” “Grover Beach murder October 25,” “Levente Lazar murder,” “Levente Lazar murder Grover Beach,” and “Levente Lazar suspect Grover Beach,” the prosecutor said.
Moreover, street and business surveillance videos in Grover Beach show what appears to be Lazar leave Valentiny’s condo the night of her alleged murder with her dog following behind off-leash.
The dog has never been found, according to testimony delivered at a preliminary hearing in January.
Lazar wasn’t contacted about his mother’s death until five days later. When investigators ultimately searched his Indiana apartment, they discovered his mother’s original copy of her will in his home office.
A proud mother and a gruesome discovery
After Petersen reserved his opening statement, jurors heard testimony from Carol Sanders, who supervised Valentiny at CMC.
Sanders testified that when Valentiny didn’t show up for work on time, which was uncharacteristic, she called her emergency contacts, including the number listed for Lazar, which did not work. Worried, she contacted the CMC watch commander for a welfare check, which was performed by Grover Beach Police Department’s Lopez.
Under cross examination by Petersen, Sanders said that Valentiny often spoke glowingly about her son, including how proud she was he was going to college.
“She talked about him all the time,” Sanders said.
Petersen asked whether CMC performs welfare checks on employees who don’t show up for work because of the risk that inmates who are released from the prison may come after staffers. Sanders said that’s not a major concern because medical staff at the prison are generally treated well by inmates, and they rarely have personal interactions with them.
Jurors lastly hear from a CMC officer and Lopez about entering Valentiny’s home for the welfare search and finding her bedroom ransacked and her body lying on the floor near her bed with what Lopez called “a large amount of blood” on and around her.
Testimony continues Thursday morning.