Orange Coast Magazine - William McLaughlin

3 Hours, 44 Minutes

Someone killed Newport Beach multimillionaire William McLaughlin on a December night in 1994. Prosecutors hope to show that a series of events between 5:25 and 9:09 will prove who, how, and why in a trial now set for September. But they’ll have to make the minutes add up.

By Matthew Heller / Illustrator by Jeffrey Smith

Prologue
A few minutes after 9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15, 1994, medical products multimillionaire William McLaughlin is shot to death in the kitchen of his waterfront Newport Beach home, six bullets to the chest. Police quickly identify his live-in girlfriend, Nanette Johnston, and her new boyfriend, former NFL linebacker Eric Naposki, as suspects. A search warrant affidavit, unsealed in February 1995, presents money as a possible motive. Johnston stood to inherit $150,000 from 55-year-old McLaughlin’s will and was the beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy.

But 15 years pass before prosecutors charge the pair with murder last spring, making the case one of Orange County’s most enduring and intriguing mysteries. 

Johnston, now known as Nanette Packard McNeal, was a housewife in Ladera Ranch when she was arrested May 20, 2009. Naposki was taken into custody nine days later at his home in Greenwich, Conn. Both pleaded not guilty to the charges and their trial is set for Sept. 13 in Orange County Superior Court.

As it has from the beginning, the case hinges on the final 3 hours and 44 minutes of McLaughlin’s life.

“There is a very set timeline on this case in order to prove that Ms. [Johnston] and Mr. Naposki could have done this crime. You would agree with that, correct?” Johnston’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Michael Hill, asks retired Newport Beach Police Detective Thomas Voth at a preliminary hearing last November.

“Yes,” Voth replies.

Based on events that occurred at specific times, did the accused couple have time to do what prosecutors say they did? Add it up and draw your own conclusions.

 

5:25
Bill McLaughlin lands his single-engine Piper Malibu plane at John Wayne Airport.
He has just flown in from Las Vegas, where he owns several properties and now spends much of his time. From the airport, the wiry, square-jawed former Marine and pharmaceutical salesman who began his own medical device firm in 1974 drives the short distance to his home in Balboa Coves, a gated community bordered by West Coast Highway on the north and the Newport Boulevard overpass to Balboa Peninsula on the east.

The homes in the community are arranged in five horseshoes around Newport Bay inlets, with each property backing onto the water. McLaughlin’s house is in the cluster closest to the overpass. A peach stucco wall keeps the community secluded from the busy highway.

Things have been looking up for McLaughlin lately. In a lengthy legal battle with a former business partner, an arbitration panel awarded him $9 million in royalties on a device used by medical labs to separate plasma from blood. Divorced from his wife, Susan, in 1991, he has a new woman in his life, a petite, striking divorcée named Nanette Ann Johnston. At 29, she is 26 years younger than he. They had met three years earlier, after she ran a singles ad under the heading “Wealthy Men Only” that said: “I know how to take care of my man if he knows how to take care of me.”

Johnston shares the Balboa Coves home with McLaughlin and the youngest of his three children, 26-year-old Kevin, who suffered mild brain damage when hit by a drunk driver while skateboarding in 1991, three years before. “He basically took care of Kevin,” a former McLaughlin employee told Orange Coast in 1996. “It was like they became best friends.”

Johnston’s own young son and daughter live there as well when not staying with their father, Ross Johnston. It’s an idyllic spot, with pleasure boats in the marina visible through the kitchen’s sliding-glass door. McLaughlin bought the home for $125,000 in 1975; by 1994, it’s worth has more than quadrupled.

But Johnston is not there when McLaughlin arrives home from the airport. She has left a note saying she has gone to watch her son play soccer in Walnut, a San Gabriel Valley community about 30 miles away. It’s a championship game, scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

At the game, Johnston is joined by her former husband, as well as Eric Naposki, who works as a security guard at The Thunderbird nightclub on the other side of the Newport Boulevard overpass from Balboa Coves, less than 500 feet from McLaughlin’s home. His NFL career ended in 1989—he played in only five games for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he has kept in shape, regularly working out at a now-defunct Irvine gym. That’s where he’d meet Johnston.

The start of the soccer game is delayed until 7 p.m. It’s hard to say what McLaughlin is doing back in Newport Beach. Still fit, perhaps he takes a jog with his golden retriever. Or soaks in his hot tub. He knows Johnston’s ex-husband is with her at the game, and he may be expecting her to bring her kids home with her. He knows nothing about Naposki. As Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, the lead prosecutor, would later say: “She’s cheating on him in public.”

 

8:24
Johnston or someone using her cell phone makes a call from the parking lot at the soccer game.

No one knows exactly when the youth soccer game ended. Games usually are 40 minutes, but this one ran into triple overtime. It’s unlikely the game finished before 8:10. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Johnston and Naposki left before the final whistle.

Criminal investigators say there are three elements to the commission of a crime: opportunity, means, and motive. In the McLaughlin case, timing is crucial to opportunity. The later Johnston and Naposki leave Walnut, the narrower the window of opportunity.

In an interview with Newport Beach police, Johnston says she left at 8. Her ex-husband puts it between 8 and 8:20. Defense attorneys, however, claim that Johnston made a cell phone call at 8:24 to someone who is so far unidentified, from the parking lot in Walnut, with Naposki sitting beside her. Naposki’s attorney, Gary Pohlson of Laguna Hills, says records of the phone call no longer exist. “It was 14 years ago,” he says. “But we intend to present evidence of that [call].”

After the game, Johnston’s former husband takes the children for the night. She later tells police they were too tired after the game to go home with her to Newport Beach. From Walnut, she drives Naposki to his Tustin apartment. His shift at the now-closed Thunderbird starts at 9. He would initially tell police he changed clothes at his apartment and drove to work in his car. His attorney now claims he did not change clothes. After dropping off Naposki, Johnston says, she went Christmas shopping at South Coast Plaza.

If Johnston and Naposki did not leave the soccer game until after 8:24, defense lawyers argue, that would not give him nearly enough time to go to his apartment, drive to Newport Beach, and commit the murder. Police later time the drive from Walnut to Newport Beach, leaving the soccer field at 8:15 and arriving at Naposki’s apartment at 8:41. They make it to The Thunderbird at 8:55. The drive is almost entirely on freeways—the 57 to the 5, and then the 55. Naposki’s apartment building is a block off the 55 Freeway. Investigators say Naposki parked his car at The Thunderbird before committing the murder. If Johnston was correct that she left the soccer game at 8, the lead prosecutor says, “there is more than enough time.”

Defense attorneys say police did not account for holiday traffic congestion. In addition, they fault detectives for failing to interview the game’s referee—who might have established when the game ended—and for not obtaining surveillance videotape from South Coast Plaza, which might have established what time Johnston arrived.

Did police do enough in 1994 and 1995 to investigate the soccer game alibi, defense attorney Hill asks District Attorney Investigator Laurence Montgomery at the preliminary hearing. Montgomery pauses before fashioning a carefully worded response: “I think more could have been done. However, enough information is available to make a reasonable understanding of whether or not that’s a valid alibi or not.”

 

8:52
Naposki makes a phone call from a Denny’s restaurant.

A few days after the killing, police learn about the affair between Johnston and Naposki. At McLaughlin’s funeral, Johnston’s son tells McLaughlin’s nephew: “Mom’s boyfriend plays football.”

Johnston was playing a high-stakes game of her own. In March 1995, three months after McLaughlin was killed, Johnston pleaded guilty to embezzlement, part of which involved her forging a $250,000 check in McLaughlin’s name dated the day before his death. As part of the plea bargain, she served a year in jail and agreed to repay the amount stolen by turning over the proceeds of the insurance policy to his family.

At the preliminary hearing, prosecutor Murphy suggests that Johnston knew McLaughlin soon would find out she was stealing from him. “I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that their relationship is not going to be healthy,” Murphy says.

As for Naposki, police say he was “enamored” with Johnston. He told officers “he had planned to purchase an engagement ring and propose to Johnston on New Year’s Eve 1994,” and, according to preliminary hearing testimony, the pair went house-hunting for a $1 million home in an Irvine development a few months before the Dec. 15 killing. A real estate agent told police the couple said they planned to move there in spring 1995.

Evidence of means and motive, though, won’t count for much if the prosecution’s timeline doesn’t work. That’s why Naposki’s supposed phone call at 8:52 could be definitive evidence it doesn’t. “We believe we have a complete alibi,” defense attorney Pohlson says. “The DA believes we don’t.”

According to Pohlson, Naposki received a call on his pager as Johnston was driving him home from the soccer game. Later, Pohlson says, as Naposki was driving to Newport Beach, he stopped at a Denny’s and used a pay phone to return the page to someone not yet identified. It’s not clear how long they spoke, but he paid by credit card. (Remember, this was a time before cell phones were ubiquitous.) It’s unclear why Naposki didn’t just return the pager call from his apartment while he was there, or use Johnston’s cell phone while he was in her car. Why go to all the trouble of stopping at Denny’s to use a pay phone? Could it have been an attempt to manufacture an alibi? Naposki’s attorney claims, however, that the 8:52 call proves his client left the Denny’s too late to have killed McLaughlin.

The location of the Denny’s has not been identified in court records. But at the preliminary hearing, when defense attorney Hill suggests to retired Newport Beach Detective Voth that Naposki could not have made the call from the restaurant and still made it to Balboa Coves in time to commit the murder, Voth replies: “If he was making that phone call. ... Somebody else can make a phone call with his card.”

Assuming Naposki did make the phone call, he still might have arrived at the nightclub by 9. The distance from The Thunderbird to the McLaughlin home is precisely 484 feet. Police estimate that a pedestrian would take 2 minutes and 32 seconds to walk that distance. That means Naposki could have been at the scene of the crime by 9:05, the earliest possible time police say McLaughlin was killed.

 

9:11
Kevin McLaughlin calls police, saying his father has been shot.

Kevin McLaughlin is in his bedroom when he hears gunshots. He comes downstairs, sees his father, in bathrobe and slippers, sprawled on the kitchen floor, and dials 911. Six 9 mm bullets have struck McLaughlin in the chest. If fired from a semi-automatic, the gunfire would have lasted a second or two. There are no signs of a struggle.

In an interview a few days after the killing, Naposki tells police he owned two handguns—a .380 and a 9 mm, semi-automatic 92F Beretta. He had given the .380 to his father “for protection,” he says. As for the 9 mm, he lent it to Joe David Jimenez, another security guard at The Thunderbird, “and it got stolen.” His story, however, falls apart when Jimenez tells police he actually borrowed the .380, not the 9 mm. Police recover that gun from Jimenez’s roommate; Naposki later admits lying, saying, “I shouldn’t have put this on Joe David. ... I was scared.” The 9 mm has never been found. Forensic tests show that spent 9 mm shell casings found at the crime scene could have been fired from a Beretta.

Police arrive at Balboa Coves within minutes. Paramedics find no pulse; McLaughlin is dead on the kitchen floor. The officers collect evidence, including the 9 mm shell casings and two keys. One key, found on the front-door mat, fits a pedestrian access gate to Balboa Coves opposite the home; the other, still in the lock, opens the front door.

“They appeared to me to be very new keys, shiny, on temporary rings like you get at a key shop when you get a key made,” retired Newport Beach Detective Voth would testify. The killer, obviously, did not have to force entry into the home and probably took McLaughlin by surprise as he was standing in the kitchen. The manager of a Tustin hardware store tells police Naposki had “a couple of keys” made in November or December 1994.

Police figure at least two minutes—and no more than six—elapse between McLaughlin’s son hearing the gunshots and dialing 911. That means McLaughlin was shot between 9:05 and 9:09.

And where was Naposki? Police have not revealed what time he reported for work at The Thunderbird. But, according to the search warrant affidavit, Naposki told police he arrived at work between 9:30 and 9:45: “Naposki’s time estimates leave him without an alibi or witness during the time the homicide took place.”

Johnston, meanwhile, arrives at the Coves to find police combing the area. She tells officers she has no idea who killed McLaughlin. She says she has been shopping at South Coast Plaza, and a Crate & Barrel receipt shows she bought a vase at the mall about 20 minutes after the shooting. The McLaughlin home is about a 10-minute drive from South Coast Plaza, so it’s conceivable Johnston could have been in Newport Beach at the time of the shooting. Police don’t believe her alibi, but court records do not suggest Johnston was in McLaughlin’s home when he was shot.

Oddly, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times shortly after the shooting, she says Naposki “was with me when it happened”—another wrinkle in the space-time fog that surrounds the killing of William McLaughlin.

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Epilogue

In front of a courtroom packed with spectators, journalists, and producers from three TV networks, prosecutor Murphy insists at last fall’s preliminary hearing that the “overall” facts of the case are “tremendously telling,” citing, among other things, Johnston’s financial dependence on McLaughlin. The only asset she had was “that man,” he says. She had stolen $350,000—the $250,000 she admitted to, plus an additional $100,000—from him within 24 hours of the murder and knew “somebody would notice.” (She kept the $150,000 McLaughlin left her in his will.) The charges against Johnston and Naposki allege murder with a special circumstance—murder for financial gain—which makes both eligible for the death penalty.

But the evidence is purely circumstantial and, at the hearing, the defense emphasizes that two of Murphy’s colleagues in the DA’s office—Debora Lloyd and Laurie Hungerford—previously declined to file charges. “Find the gun, you know, make a better case,” Voth recalls Lloyd saying when she declined to prosecute. The only difference from 1995, defense attorney Pohlson says, “is that Matt Murphy has the case.”

Murphy is one of the most seasoned prosecutors in Orange County, having won convictions in such high-profile cases as the 2004 murders of a couple on a yacht off the Newport Beach coast and the Rodney Alcala serial killings. At the McLaughlin preliminary hearing, he doesn’t flinch as Johnston and Naposki sit in their jailhouse-issue clothing a few feet away from him: “The evidence is overwhelming that these two people conspired and murdered him.”

Proving them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, though, could be one of Murphy’s stiffest challenges. And it’ll all come down to a matter of timing.

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Five Not-So-Easy Pieces

In February 1995, three months after the slaying of William McLaughlin, a man who identified himself only as Robert called in a tip to Newport Beach police. He said he had a meeting with Nanette Johnston and Eric Naposki in November 1994 at which Johnston offered to invest as much as $200,000 in his Irvine software company.

Police who originally investigated the case never found Robert. But in January 2008, Laurence Montgomery, an investigator for the Orange County district attorney’s office, took a fresh look at the case. What he discovered helped persuade the district attorney to file murder charges last year against Johnston and Naposki. But according to preliminary hearing testimony, finding that mysterious caller was a challenge.

1. Montgomery calls Newport Beach Police Detective Joe Cartwright, one of the original investigators on the case, who tells him that Robert met Johnston and Naposki at a gym. Montgomery learns the gym is now closed; no membership records are available.

2. The investigator contacts owners of computer companies listed in Irvine city records. None of the Roberts he finds is the tipster.

3. Montgomery collects Johnston’s phone records from November 1994. He then goes to a repository in Fullerton where reverse phone directories published by Haines & Co. are stored. In the 1994 directory, he finds the subscribers linked to all the Irvine numbers that Johnston called. None is the tipster.

4. The investigator finds one Irvine number that Johnston called in the 1995 directory that was not in the 1994 book. It is listed in the name of R. Cottrill. A background check on R. Cottrill reveals Robert Cottrill was a member of a San Clemente gym, owned a software company, and was married in 1995. (The tipster had referred to his fiancée during the original phone call.)

5. Montgomery contacts Cottrill, who acknowledges he made that 1995 phone call after reading a newspaper article about the case. He remembered that Johnston and Naposki “were very close, they were obviously together, they held hands, they worked out together, they hugged.”

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Prelude to a Death

Court records indicate that William McLaughlin’s income was $1.2 million the year before he and Nanette Johnston began a relationship in 1991. But his life at the time also was complicated by his divorce and an injury to his son. By 1994, according to court records and testimony, the events surrounding him were even more complicated.

1994
January Court records indicate that William McLaughlin’s income was $1.2 million the year before he and Nanette Johnston began a relationship in 1991. But his life at the time also was complicated by his divorce and an injury to his son. By 1994, according to court records and testimony, the events surrounding him were even more complicated.

Fall Johnston and her secret lover, Eric Naposki, shop for a $1 million Irvine home, telling a real estate agent they plan to move in the following spring

November McLaughlin is awarded $9 million following arbitration in a 1990 case involving a former business partner.

November That same month, an Irvine software executive says Johnston and Naposki offer to invest $200,000 in his company.

November or December A Tustin hardware store manager says Naposki has “a couple of keys” made.

Dec. 14 Johnston forges a $250,000 check in McLaughlin’s name and later deposits it in her personal account. She later admits to stealing $350,000.

Dec. 15 McLaughlin is shot to death. Police believe his killer used two keys found at the crime scene to get into the house.

 

UPDATE: Johnston was convicted Jan. 23, 2012. Naposki was convicted earlier. Both will be sentenced May 18, 2012.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Orange Coast magazine.