A San Fernando Valley man was sentenced Tuesday to 11 years in prison for the slaying of a 20th Century Fox distribution executive who was having an on-again, off-again affair with the defendant's estranged wife.
The nine-woman, three-man jury took less than an hour July 3 to convict John Lenzie Creech, 45, of voluntary manslaughter in the May 2012 beating death of Gavin Smith, a 57-year-old married father of three, in a West Hills business park near the defendant's home. Smith's remains were found in a shallow grave in the Angeles National Forest in the Antelope Valley about 2 1/2 years after he disappeared.
Family members of the victim spoke at Tuesday's sentencing before Creech received the maximum sentence. Smith's wife, Lisa, and two of the couple's three sons urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence on Creech.
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The widow told the judge that Creech beat her husband to death and then had to "take him and hide him."
"He wouldn't man up to what he did," she said in an emotion-packed victim impact statement. "Eleven years isn't enough, but I understand that's the maximum you can give him."
The couple's eldest son, Evan, said what has happened has "turned my life upside down."
"I suffer from PTSD now because of this man in this courtroom," he said, telling the judge that Creech deserves the longest prison term available for "savagely ripping my dad out of my life."
Another of the couple's sons, Dylan, told the judge that his father was the "kindest man I ever knew." He said his dad's memory "lives on with me and the rest of my family."
As for his father's killer, Dylan Smith said he wants him to "rot in prison."
One of Creech's longtime friends, Dakota Mitchell, said he believed what happened was "an aberration, not who I knew him as."
The jury acquitted Creech of the original charge of first-degree murder, and also of second-degree murder, settling on the lesser count. Creech insisted the killing was an act of self-defense, but the jury appeared to believe he acted in the heat of passion.
The judge at Tuesday's sentencing commented on Creech's actions after the fatal confrontation. He called his failure to seek medical help was "extremely egregious."
"I believe any other person in this courtroom would have called 911, would have sought medical help," said Judge Stephen Marcus.
Grace said the jury appeared to have accepted a "heat of passion" argument, in which the defendant was said to have been provoked to violence by the knowledge of his estranged wife's affair with Smith.
"There was an affair and he found out about it," Grace said of Creech, adding that the "infidelity" aspect of the case probably helped explain the jury's decision.
In his closing argument, Grace told the jury 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.
"You don't accidentally beat someone to death," the prosecutor said in his rebuttal argument.
Defense attorney Irene Nunez told the panel that Creech had 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, but argued he was not guilty of first-degree murder.
Creech's lawyer acknowledged her client is a "convicted drug seller" but said 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.
"This was a tragic fight between two grown men, two flawed men, two imperfect men," Nunez said. "There was no intention to kill. This was a spontaneous fight."
Acquitting her client would be the "only just verdict," she told the jury.
The prosecutor countered that Creech -- who was taking growth hormones at the time and was an ex-con free on bail -- could "kill with his bare hands" and "deliberately, viciously, intently delivered murderous blows to Gavin Smith repeatedly, which resulted in Gavin Smith's death."
Grace said Creech and Cade 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 Smith's two sons in 2010 that he would kill Smith if he continued to see Cade.
Creech told the jury that he took "full accountability" for failing to call 911 after what he described as mutual combat or to seek help for 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.
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."
Those attempts to cover up the killing included burning his and Cade's clothes from that night in the family fireplace and hiding Smith's body in various locations for nearly a week before dragging it up a hill to the remote area where he buried it, according to trial testimony.
Creech could have faced a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if he had been convicted of first-degree murder and if jurors had found true the special circumstance allegation of murder while lying in wait.
"The jury clearly decided that he will have to pay a penalty for killing Gavin Smith," Grace said.
During the trial, Grace said Smith and Cade initially met at a rehabilitation facility for prescription drug abuse. He said Smith became addicted after years of medication for a back injury suffered when he worked as a movie stuntman earlier in life.
Their affair -- which began in 2008 -- broke off the following year after Smith was confronted by his own wife. But Smith and Cade began exchanging e-mail 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 Smith's two sons, "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.