LOS ANGELES — The California Supreme Court refused Wednesday to review the case of a San Fernando Valley drug dealer convicted of killing a 20th Century Fox distribution executive who was having an on-again, off-again affair with the defendant’s estranged wife.
The state’s highest court denied a defense petition seeking its review of the case of John Lenzie Creech, who was found guilty in July 2017 of voluntary manslaughter for the May 2012 beating death of West Hills resident Gavin Smith, a 57-year-old married father of three who was missing for 2 1/2 years before his remains were found in a shallow grave in the Angeles National Forest in the Antelope Valley.
Jurors acquitted Creech of the more serious charges of first-degree murder and second-degree murder, and he was sentenced in September 2017 to 11 years in state prison.
In a ruling in March that upheld Creech’s conviction, a three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge had erred in barring Creech’s attorney from questioning the victim’s widow, Lisa Smith, about certain character traits of her slain husband, which the defense contended could have assisted the defendant with his claim that he had acted in self-defense.
“Although defendant asserts that the trial court barred evidence of Gavin’s ‘violent’ character, the record does not support this claim,” the three-justice panel found in its 28-page ruling. “At most, Lisa’s statements to the deputies demonstrated that Gavin could be verbally abusive toward Lisa. Lisa never made any statements suggesting that Gavin was physically violent in any way, and in the evidentiary hearing, she made clear that Gavin had never been violent with her … Even assuming Gavin had been verbally abusive toward Lisa, that would not support defendant’s theory that Gavin had a violent character and therefore was the aggressor in the confrontation.”
The appellate court justices found that the trial court “did not err in finding that Lisa’s statements related to a timeframe that was too remote to be relevant to the crime,” noting that she clarified at a hearing outside the jury’s presence that when she spoke to investigators about her husband being cruel or intimidating that she was referring to his actions when he was abusing drugs — more than four years before the crime.
Smith — who was a member of UCLA’s 1975 NCAA-winning basketball team under Coach John Wooden and had worked for 20th Century Fox for 18 years — was killed near a West Hills business park near Creech’s home where the victim was having a late-night tryst with Creech’s then-wife.
Gavin Smith, a 57-year-old married father of three, seen above with his wife, was beaten to death in May 2012, in a West Hills business park. His body was found 2 1/2 years later in a shallow grave in the Angeles National Forest. (File photo)
At Creech’s sentencing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus said he believed the defendant was “the architect of most of what happened in this case.”
The judge called Creech’s conduct “extremely egregious,” noting that he “made no effort or attempt to get medical help” for Smith and that he took steps to cover up what had happened to the victim and “made life miserable for the family of Gavin Smith.”
“They could have known what happened to him on May 2nd instead of being in the dark for two years,” the judge said, adding it was “abundantly clear that the only thing that he (Creech) cared about was himself.”
Deputy Public Defender Irene Nunez had sought a shorter prison term for Creech, who had two prior drug convictions, but the judge imposed the maximum sentence and said there were indications that “there was some planning in this situation.”
“I believe and I will say for the record that I believe that he (Creech) went out there for the two oldest motives — jealousy and pride … I believe he went out there to find her (his wife) in the company of Gavin Smith,” the judge said, noting that Creech used a telephone app to track down his spouse.
The judge said Creech “tried to chase down the car a few weeks earlier” and “was well aware that his wife was seeing somebody else. I don’t think it took a big leap to see that person was Gavin Smith, so I believe that he did go out there for the purpose of confronting and dealing with Gavin Smith in this circumstance.”
Outside court after the sentencing, Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace said the prosecution “certainly felt that the facts of the case warranted a murder conviction and I think that was evidenced by the judge’s comments.”
The prosecutor told jurors that Smith “was executed in cold blood by this defendant, who hit him repeatedly in the face” after using a cell phone with GPS to track down his estranged wife, Chandrika Cade, and sneak up on the two in Smith’s Mercedes-Benz.
Grace said Creech and his wife had an “unconventional marriage” in which the two “both cheated on each other,” and that it was “essentially a countdown to murder” when Creech “first uttered the threat” to two of Smith’s three sons in 2010 that he would kill Smith if he continued to see Cade.
Smith’s affair with Creech’s wife began in 2008 and broke off the following year after Smith was confronted by his own wife. But Smith and Cade began exchanging email messages again in 2010, Grace said. When Smith’s wife found out, she drove with two of her sons to Creech’s house, where Creech told them, “You saved your father’s life by coming here today,” according to the prosecutor.
Two years later, however, when the romance rekindled again, Creech made good on his threat to kill Smith, Grace said.
Creech’s attorney said her client made “errors in judgment” by concealing Smith’s body and car after lawfully defending himself in a fight that he testified was initiated by Smith.
She acknowledged her client was a “convicted drug seller” but told jurors there was “no intention to kill” and that he “had to fight for his life” after the man who had “intruded” into his life and marriage approached him outside the Mercedes with a weapon following a fistfight between the two men inside the sedan.
Creech testified in his own defense, telling jurors that he took “full accountability” for failing to call 911 after what he described as mutual combat, or to seek help for Smith.
The defendant testified that Smith threw the first punch, choked him and tried to gouge out his eye as the two men struggled inside Smith’s car —with the prosecutor later telling jurors that the injuries to Smith and Creech were “not consistent with self-defense” and that Creech’s subsequent actions demonstrated a “stunning consciousness of guilt.”