An Indiana man accused of driving more than 2,000 miles to Grover Beach to murder his mother for her estate took the stand in his own defense this week, saying he took the secretive trip to California to buy marijuana and an engagement ring for his fiance.
Levente Lazlo Lazar testified Wednesday and Thursday to explain to jurors why he lied to investigators and his girlfriend about the trip, which coincided with the stabbing death of his mother, Athena Ilona Valentiny, in October 2018.
In a case with substantial physical and electronic evidence against him, the Bloomington, Indiana, resident said that he made a series of online searches containing his name and “suspect” and “murder” in the day following Valentiny’s death because he had an “uneasiness” that his mother might be in trouble, based on their phone conversations, as well as the fact that English isn’t his first language, he testified.
Because he wasn’t initially truthful to a District Attorney’s Office investigator about his whereabouts at the time of his mother’s death, Lazar said his lies snowballed to the point where he became the prime suspect in her alleged murder.
“I got caught up in my lies,” Lazar said.
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 of wanting to liquidate her estate to pay for his upcoming wedding to a trophy girlfriend as well as to pay off tax liens and student debt.
Lazar is accused of driving his Jeep to his mother’s Grover Beach condo on Oct. 24, 2018, and plunging a sharp object into her neck up to 10 times, severing her jugular vein, and taking items from her home before turning around to drive back to Indiana the next day.
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.
During testimony, Lazar said his mother had mailed the will to him, as he was assisting her in her financial planning, though no physical evidence was found of the will ever being mailed.
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.
The trial began with testimony Oct. 2.
Son on the stand
After the prosecution rested this week, Lazar took the stand in his own defense Wednesday afternoon.
Other than a District Attorney’s investigator, Lazar was the only witness called by the defense.
He spoke confidently but was at times visibly agitated, shaking his head at Deputy District Attorney Kelly Manderino’s repeated objections when he attempted to continue speaking after answering her direct questions.
Under direct examination by defense attorney Jay Peterson on Wednesday, Lazar testified that he made the trip to California to purchase an engagement ring for his girlfriend, with whom he lived in Bloomington and was preparing to propose. An additional reason for the trip was to buy about 15 grams of marijuana from a dispensary in Los Angeles.
He testified that when he reached his mother’s condo, she wasn’t there. Instead of waiting for her, he immediately turned the car around and began the trip home without ever getting out of the car, he said.
Before leaving Indiana, Lazar stocked up on energy drinks and snacks and bought a temporary, or “burner,” phone that he used throughout the trip, he said, because his smartphone was logged into a video game that would tip off his girlfriend to his location.
He told the girlfriend that he was attending a stock-trading conference in Chicago with his father, who had actually died when he was a small child, the prosecution says.
He admitted to jurors that he was not truthful to investigators about the trip because he was afraid of being charged with drug trafficking for bringing marijuana across state lines.
Surveillance footage from Oct. 24, 2018, showed an individual matching Lazar’s description walking away from Valentiny’s condo complex.
Lazar testified that person was not him, as evidenced by the way the person walked, and though it appears the Converse sneakers the filmed individual was wearing match a pair he owns, Converse sneakers are very common, he said.
The person in the video was seen carrying a backpack and was trailed by what appears to be Valentiny’s dog, which was off a leash.
Prosecutors have alleged that the dog felt safe to walk with the person because it was familiar with Lazar. Lazar, however, testified that the dog was friendly with “most people” and would follow a person if he spent even a little time with them.
That dog has never been found.
Asked by Manderino why he made the incriminating online searches from a McDonald’s restaurant in Arizona during his return trip the next day — before his mother’s body was discovered in a pool of blood in her bedroom during a welfare check — Lazar responded: “I’m not really sure, to be honest.”
He said during his testimony that a past boyfriend of his mother’s was “very, very abusive,” and “there was some uneasiness” in their phone conversations in the months leading up to her death that made him feel some concern for her safety.
“There was something that just came to me,” Lazar said of his searches for “Ilona Valentiny Grover Beach,” “Grover Beach murder October 25,” “Levente Lazar murder,” and “Levente Lazar suspect Grover Beach.”
He added that because English is not his first language (he was born in Hungary), he sometimes uses “alternative words.”
“It’s just a word that pops up,” Lazar said of the word “suspect.”
Those searches followed others Lazar made in September about “murder” and “living trusts.” Lazar said his mother told him she was worried she was going to be murdered and that the abusive ex-boyfriend was going to make a claim on her estate.
Asked about his alleged money troubles, Lazar said he was about to receive a six-figure payout from an annuity from yet another of his mother’s ex-boyfriends and was not in need of money.
Asked by Manderino whether he had any reason to kill his mother, Lazar replied: “Absolutely not.”
“What makes you think, Mr. Lazar, that after having a year to think (about an alibi) ... what makes you think a jury would believe a word you say?” Manderino asked.
“I made a grave mistake to lie to law enforcement, and now I need to come clean about everything,” he replied.
Lazar had ‘intention to kill’
In her closing arguments Thursday afternoon, Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner painted a portrait of a young man who, despite being provided everything he needed from his mother — whom Bittner called an “immigrant success story” — sunk his money in the stock market and was soon to be drowning in debt.
Lazar felt inferior to his soon-to-be-bride, a third-year medical student, Bittner said, and told her elaborate stories of being a stock trader, and working for Disney and the federal government. But none of that was true.
“He’s only really worked six months in his life,” Bittner told the jury. “Money’s given to him; that’s what he’s used to and that’s what he seeks.”
Explaining that first-degree murder requires the prosecution to prove the murder was willful, deliberative and pre-mediative, Bittner noted the online searches Lazar made about a month before Valentiny’s death about inheritances and trusts, as well as his communications with a real estate broker over his mother’s $400,000 condo in Woodland Hills.
“Intention to kill could not be more clear,” Bittner said.
Listing off a dozens of statements Lazar made to DA’s Office Investigator Casey Neall during the investigation that turned out to be untrue, Bittner called Lazar’s earlier testimony another “fraud” he was attempting to perpetrate.
“I wouldn’t even call it explaining away. He sat there and lied to you; that’s what he does,” she told the jury. “He thinks he can get away with it.”
No blood found on Lazar’s clothes
Defense attorney Peterson in his final remarks to the jury said that the prosecution’s case largely rested on a lot of circumstantial evidence that left reasonable doubt as to Lazar’s guilt.
Echoing his client’s statement that he made “a grave mistake” in not being truthful with law enforcement about the trip, Peterson said he did so foolishly due to the marijuana sale and his fear of going to jail for drug trafficking.
Peterson said Lazar was consistent in his statements to Neall that he did not murder his mother, even when confronted with evidence he made the California trip.
“Look at the transcript. He said over and over again, ‘I didn’t do it,’ ‘I didn’t do it,’ ‘I didn’t do it,’” Peterson told jurors.
He pointed out that under cross-examination, Deputy District Attorney Manderino did not confront Lazar on the stand with evidence of each of his alleged lies and inconsistencies, and “didn’t allow (him) the opportunity to respond” when she did ask a question.
“That’s hardly allowing someone to explain themselves,” he said.
Focusing on a street surveillance video allegedly showing Lazar walking from Valentiny’s condo the night of Oct. 24, Peterson questioned how a person could identify his client due to the graphic quality and because the individual in the clip appears taller than Lazar.
With a crime scene photograph of Valentiny’s body lying in a pool of blood projected behind him, Peterson questioned why authorities didn’t find blood on Lazar’s clothes and backpack if he stabbed her in the throat as many as 10 times.
“The individual who stabbed Ms. Valentiny must have been covered in blood,” he said. “The individual who did that was up close and personal.”
After being admitted to the jury room, the jury sent two requests to Guerrero; they asked for and received an exhibit list with descriptions of each exhibit, as well as transcripts of the roughly six-hour interview Lazar completed with investigators, according to court records.
The jury will resume deliberations Monday.