A Gruesome Beheading Complicates the Grim Sleeper Trial
ILLUSTRATION BY JIMMY GIEGRICH
In January, L.A. County Sheriff's deputies scoured the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park, seeking a murderer on the run, who had nearly decapitated Robert Brewer, a young traveling buff from Texas, who was found slain at a nondescript motel on South Vermont Avenue.
After an unnerving week in which police helicopters hovered above L.A.'s hills, twice-convicted child molester Oscar Bridges, 54, was captured in San Francisco.
Bridges, who has confessed to the near-beheading of Brewer, has now told a disturbing tale that links him to the unrelated murder trial of Grim Sleeper serial killer suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr.
Bridges for years worked for one of Franklin's attorneys, Louisa Pensanti, and he has told the district attorney that he was a convicted child molester when Pensanti let him manage her law office.
L.A. Weekly has learned that his allegations have caused a judge to examine Pensanti's role in the Grim Sleeper case.
Court records obtained by the Weekly show that Bridges was hired by Pensanti & Associates after she represented him in 2003 for failing to register as a sex offender. Pensanti then represented Bridges twice in 2007 for hit-and-run, DUI, reckless driving and evading police, and in 2012 for again failing to register as a sex offender. For much of this time he worked for Pensanti, leaving her office in 2011.
In a declaration from deputy DA John Lewin now in the hands of Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy, who is overseeing the Grim Sleeper case, Bridges "implied that he was directing other attorneys in her office in the legal handling of many" of Pensanti's cases. Further, Lewin wrote, Bridges alleged that "Ms. Pensanti was unethically and likely illegally soliciting her cases. Mr. Bridges reiterated that he was performing these functions despite the fact that he was neither educated as nor licensed to perform the duties of an attorney."
During his periodic bouts in jail, Bridges told Lewin, he worked for Pensanti as a "sports agent. ... He was there marketing for her [and] she set him up with different 800 numbers where, you know, people could call," according to Lewin.
Bridges alleges that Pensanti, whose role in the Grim Sleeper trial raised eyebrows because she has no experience defending capital murder cases, "had illegally solicited, somehow sent somebody down there, to in essence get the [Franklin] case." Lewin wrote.
Pensanti tells the Weekly that Bridges' allegations are a "desperate attempt" to curry favor with prosecutors. "He is saying he ran the law office and acted as an attorney. If anyone wants to believe that, then go ahead. It doesn't make sense. The statements he has made are insane. He did not work as an office manager. The man is a sociopathic liar."
Despite Bridges' criminal history, Pensanti says she kept Bridges on because "I thought he would change his life around. ... He has a gift of gab, so I wanted to give him a chance to do that. He would meet with potential clients in order to get legal fees and get contracts signed."
It hasn't worked out.
Bridges has admitted to murdering Brewer and sending a bizarre text message to his mom, apologizing for her son's slaying. According to Lewin's declaration, Bridges told the grieving mother that her free-spirited son was a good man who didn't deserve what he got.
Seymour Amster, a veteran capital murder defense attorney brought in as Pensanti's co-counsel in 2011, says he also knows Oscar Bridges, having met the confessed killer when Amster's law firm shared an office with Pensanti's.
"I only knew him as far as kicking him out of a portion of the office," Amster says. "When I was informed he was a registered sex offender, that was about it for me. I do not associate with registered sex offenders, outside of representing them."
However, he adds, "Louisa does have a huge heart. She really cares for people. I am not going to judge her on that point."
Court records show that, on Feb. 10, a prosecutor at the Inglewood branch of the District Attorney's Office contacted Lewin, a seasoned major-crimes prosecutor, to relay Bridges' request to speak to a DA about his history with Pensanti.
His allegations could hamper the alleged Grim Sleeper trial — if Lonnie Franklin were to fire Pensanti. Such a decision would reset the clock in a case whose endless pretrial hearings likely have pushed the trial's start to 2015 or beyond.
But for now, the alleged Grim Sleeper has decided to keep Pensanti. Judge Kennedy informed Franklin of Bridges' allegations and asked him to "consider whether Miss Pensanti is a lawyer that you want to continue to represent you." Two weeks later, Franklin decided to keep Pensanti.
Franklin is accused of murdering 10 women in South L.A. between 1984 and 2007. Police believe he killed as many as 30 women, based on harrowing snapshots found in the modest South L.A. home that Franklin shared with his wife.
Prosecutors want the death penalty.
Bridges' allegations against Pensanti were presented to Judge Kennedy in a declaration by Lewin, and in now-unsealed, in-camera proceedings on Feb. 20.
Lewin, who works in the DA's major-crimes division with Beth Silverman, who is prosecuting Lonnie Franklin, said in court documents that he alerted Kennedy in order to "leave it to the court to decide what's the appropriate next move."
He said he and his bosses did not inform Grim Sleeper case prosecutor Silverman of Bridges' allegations, to avoid any appearance of a conflict within the DA's office.
But Pensanti says that Lewin, who is friends with co-worker Silverman, should not have handled Bridges' declaration attacking her. "It is totally improper," Pensanti says. "Why would the same unit that the prosecuting attorney is in be handling this matter? And why would that unit go ex parte [without Pensanti present] to the judge? It is totally improper."
During the private proceedings, the Weekly has learned, Kennedy questioned how Pensanti obtained her high-profile gig defending the alleged Grim Sleeper.
"You know, there were always suspicions as to how Miss Pensanti ended up with the representation of Lonnie Franklin, but — nobody had ever said anything concrete," Kennedy told Lewin, according to court documents. "But it was always, 'Well, how in the heck did she get this case?' And I had heard other lawyers complaining that she had contacted their clients in custody."
Kennedy continued, "I think the court was aware of the opinion that she was not competent to handle this case, and that's how [co-counsel Seymour] Amster got in. But I don't know exactly what deal was made that she would stay on the case. But she doesn't do a lot. I mean, she rarely even opens her mouth except to state her name."
Pensanti surprised everyone in 2010 by announcing she would defend Franklin pro bono. In 2011, she asked to bring on the court-appointed Amster, who is court-qualified to handle death-penalty cases.
Of Kennedy's comments about her alleged client-shopping and lack of experience, Pensanti tells the Weekly, "I was surprised she said that." She says Franklin's wife, Sylvia, hired her, but "I don't want to get into this area, and not because I don't want to talk about it — but I can't."
Pensanti is no stranger to controversy. Last summer, one of her law firm's attorneys, Polina Polonsky, claimed to Star Magazine that she'd had an affair with Lamar Odom while he was married to Khloe Kardashian. And in May 2013, the California Bar Association placed Pensanti on a year's probation, finding she'd failed to "perform legal services with competence, failed to promptly return unearned fees and appeared for a party without authority."
At issue was her failure to file an opening brief for a client's appeal, causing its dismissal. Another attorney tried twice to get Pensanti to return $10,000 in unearned fees from the case before she made the refund.
Zeke Perlo, directing attorney for the L.A. County Bar Association indigent criminal defense appointment program, says, "As long as Franklin wants her, [a judge] can't do anything about it. You don't want the defendant to say, 'They took away my lawyer.' ... And Bridges isn't the most objective of witnesses."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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