Testifying in his own defense Monday, an accused killer said the victim -- a 20th Century Fox distribution executive -- threw the first punch, choked him and tried to gouge out his eye as the two men struggled inside a car.
Defendant John Creech discovered his now-ex-wife and victim Gavin Smith in the front seat of Smith's Mercedes-Benz parked in a West Hills business park. Creech said he went looking for his wife May 1, 2012, because she had been drinking before she drove away from their home late that night.
He used a cell phone app to track her down. Creech testified that he knocked on the passenger side window and told his wife, "You need to walk home and sober the ... up," using an expletive. "Soon as I lean inside the car ... (Smith) leans forward with a left and punches me," Creech told the jury panel of eight women and four men. "He's choking me and trying to gouge my eye," Creech went on, describing how the two men fought inside the car. "I'm scared as shit. I haven't been in this kind of situation in a long time ... honestly, I was scared for my life."
His then-wife, Chandrika Cade, was by then outside the car, yelling at the men to stop, he said. Defense attorney Irene Nunez asked Creech if he ever heard Cade say, "You're going to kill him."
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"No," Creech said.
The defendant said he rolled out of the car and Smith ran around to the driver's side and shut the door, spitting blood and checking his wounds. Creech testified he heard Smith say, "This is all I ... need," using an expletive.
Creech is charged with killing Smith, 57, whose remains were discovered about 2 1/2 years later when hikers came upon a shallow grave in the Antelope Valley. Nunez has argued that her client killed Smith in self-defense and then made "errors in judgment" by trying to conceal the body of the former UCLA basketball player, who was on the 1975 NCAA-winning basketball team under Coach John Wooden and had worked for 20th Century Fox for 18 years.
Creech testified that Smith later exited the Mercedes and came after him with a piece of metal. "(Smith) was right up on me," Creech testified. "I thought it was a knife at the time ... I tripped his feet up and I went for the weapon ... he was hitting me with that weapon."
Creech continued punching Smith until he dropped the piece of metal, he told the jury. Smith retreated again to the driver's seat of his Mercedes and Creech walked home. When he returned to the scene, intending to use a spare key to retrieve his wife's car, Creech found Smith with "his eyes and mouth wide open" in the driver's seat of the still-running Mercedes. "There was no response" when Creech opened the door. "I thought he was badly hurt. I thought he might be dead."
Creech said his first thought was to take Smith to a hospital, but said it would be too hard to transfer him into the Audi that Creech had a key for. He thought he'd return home to pick up a family minivan.
He didn't stop at a 24-hour gas station, McDonald's or other all-night stores nearby and didn't call 911 on the way.
"I'm an ex-con out on bail," Creech said. "(The) last thing I'm gonna do is call the police."
Creech's testimony contradicted much of what his ex-wife said on the stand while testifying for the prosecution. Cade said she warned her then-husband that he was going to kill Smith and that Smith was unconscious inside the Mercedes during the first fight.
She sped off in the minivan Creech had first driven to the scene before the alleged second attack. Cade told jurors she drove home, locked all the doors and grabbed a kitchen knife to protect herself, adding that she was "terrified and in shock."
But when her husband returned to the house, his clothes covered in blood, she saw he was calm and let him into their West Hills residence. Creech said the house was unlocked when he returned. Cade said she and Creech burned their clothes in the family fireplace later that night. Cade, who was granted immunity by prosecutors in exchange for her testimony, said she didn't go to the police because she was "terrified" of her then-husband. In May 2012, Cade and Creech were living together -- along with the couple's daughter and two children from Cade's earlier relationship, Cade's terminally ill grandmother, her brother and a family friend -- though they had decided to separate and end their marriage.
She said Creech was dealing drugs to make money and told jurors he had assaulted her multiple times since they married in 2007, including at least twice because of her romantic relationship with Smith. Creech was "always very protective and possessive," Cade said. Cade and Smith met when she was attending a treatment center for alcohol abuse.
Smith was what Cade described as a "co-leader" or "unofficial coach" at The Matrix in Woodland Hills and the two eventually started a romantic relationship while she was still married to Creech. Smith's sons testified earlier during the trial that they begged Creech to spare their father's life 17 months before he was killed.
Gavin Smith's youngest son, Austin, told the jury that he and his older brother, Evan, met with Creech at his West Hills home in December 2010 to discuss their father's affair with Cade.
"I said, 'I'm in eighth grade. I'm too young to lose my dad,'" Austin Smith testified. "I was crying and pleading with him not to do anything to my father." Creech recalled the meeting during his own testimony, but said he was stunned by the accusations.
"I told them to relax," saying "no one's gonna hurt your dad," Creech testified and said one of the boys promised his dad wouldn't see Cade again. In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace said Creech's comments to the boys amounted to a threat that was "a downpayment to murder."
Creech's attorney countered that the May 1, 2012, confrontation between the two men got physical and her client had to "defend himself" and do a "leg sweep" when Smith came at him wielding something that looked like a hammer and ice pick.
"What we have here is a case of self-defense," she said.
Creech, a 44-year-old convicted drug dealer, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted of first-degree murder and if jurors find true the special circumstance allegation of murder while lying in wait.