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WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 13 VENTURA, CALIFORNIA
Once the jury was seated and the defendant was led in and placed at the counsel table beside the defense attorney, the bailiff stepped to the front of the courtroom. “All rise,” Leonard Davis announced. “Division Forty-seven of the Superior Court of Ventura County is now in session, the Honorable Lillian Forrester presiding.”
A tall, slender redhead entered through the back door of the courtroom, ascending the three steps to the bench in a swirl of black robes. Lily’s hair was one of her most distinctive features, and she wore it long, an inch or so past her shoulders. Today, however, she’d swept it into a ponytail at the base of her neck. Wispy tendrils had already escaped onto her forehead and neck. Her skin was pale with a scattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She was a striking woman, with a natural, fresh look and delicate features.
Lily knew the prosecution of criminals was a cat and mouse game. The majority of cases never made their way to trial. If every case required the time and resources of a jury trial, the criminal justice system would collapse. Even in the most gruesome homicides, a plea agreement was the preferable way to put a case to rest. But plea agreements in cases of this magnitude weren’t normally offered right away. The system was similar to a boa constrictor. The longer it squeezed a criminal, the more information would pop out and the more willing a defendant would be to accept what ever sentence was offered. This was particularly true when the alternative was death.
The courtroom was packed and noisy. Lily had forbidden the proceedings to be televised, so members of the media filled most of the seats. Reporters were scribbling on note pads or creeping down the aisles with their cameras in hand to snap photos. The case was sensational, the kind that turned murderers into celebrities. The defendant, Noelle Lynn Reynolds, had been a popular local girl, a former cheerleader and prom queen at Ventura High. The petite blonde with the round face and dove gray eyes didn’t look much older than her high school yearbook photos, although she was only a few months shy of her twenty-third birthday. The last thing she looked like was a cold-blooded murderer, a woman so callous she would kill her own child in order to enjoy a carefree existence.
Gone were the plunging necklines and bare midriff Reynolds had so proudly displayed in the various nightclubs, bars, and beaches she’d frequented in the weeks following her two-year-old son’s disappearance. She was dressed in a dowdy polyester suit, her large breast implants squashed inside the beige fabric of her jacket. Her hair was slicked back from her face and she wore no makeup. The flamboyant party girl had been intentionally disguised for the benefit of the jury.
Lily’s eyes came to rest on Clinton Silverstein, a district attorney she had known and worked with since the beginning of her career. One of the judges was retiring and Clinton was hoping to get his slot. This case could be a deciding factor, and in Lily’s opinion, the prosecutor had already made a poor decision. The State was asking for the death penalty. Lily felt it was highly unlikely that a middle-class Ventura jury would send a young woman like Noelle Reynolds to her death, regardless of the unspeakable crime she’d committed. Lily had called Silverstein into her chambers on several occasions, attempting to get him to reconsider. In a case of this magnitude, prosecutors generally filed numerous counts such as second-degree murder, or even manslaughter, along with other crimes that were considered lesser or included, meaning if the jury decided guilt in one count, they couldn’t find the defendant guilty of the others. The benefit of this type of filing is that it gives the jury an alternative other than acquittal. Pleading special circumstances, which justified the death penalty, was also used to pressure the defendant into accepting a plea agreement.
Silverstein wanted justice, though, and had given little thought to offering Reynolds a deal. An adorable little boy had died terrified and alone at the hands of the one person in the world who should have loved and protected him. The prosecutor argued that an attractive, young, and manipulative woman such as Noelle Reynolds would do well in prison, even if she had killed a child. If she’d been a man, another inmate might have sought revenge, as even criminals looked down on people who victimized children. Women weren’t as violent as male offenders, though, nor were they as willing to throw their future away to make certain a fellow inmate received the ultimate punishment.
Tragically, Noelle Reynolds wouldn’t be the only woman in prison for murdering her child. When women killed, they generally murdered individuals they had once loved—husbands, boyfriends, parents, or children.
In most instances, in exchange for their guilty plea and the money they would save the state by not taking the case to trial, the defendant would be offered life without the possibility of parole, or twenty-five years to life in the state prison. In an indeterminate term, such as twenty-five to life, the defendant would be eligible for parole in approximately twelve years.
After spending months studying autopsy photos of a lifeless toddler whose decomposing body had been stuffed in a garbage bag and tossed into the ocean, Silverstein had turned the case into a personal vendetta. What Noelle Reynolds hadn’t realized was that bodies that ended up in the ocean in Ventura always washed ashore at the sewage plant in Oxnard, adding another disgusting element to an already heinous crime.
Lily let her eyes slowly drift over to the defense attorney. Richard Fowler was a former lover, and she’d given thought to asking Judge Hennessey, the presiding judge, to assign someone else when she learned Fowler was representing Noelle Reynolds. But the case was important and she didn’t believe there was a conflict of interest. The Ventura justice community was tight and everyone knew each other. They not only knew each other, they had sex, married, and divorced each other.
Lily hadn’t seen Fowler in years and was shocked at how much he had aged. Of course, the fact that she was engaged to Christopher Rendell, a brilliant, handsome judge who was several years younger than Fowler, played a prominent role in purging any lingering attraction she might have for the attorney.
Her eyes narrowed, however, as she checked out the young blonde serving as Fowler’s co-counsel, wondering if she was the woman he’d married several years ago. Good lord, she thought, the girl didn’t look older than twenty-five. Talk about robbing the cradle. But regardless of the gray hairs and the lines around his mouth and eyes, Richard Fowler was still a good-looking and desirable man.
Accepting the court file from the hands of her clerk, Susan Martin, Lily’s penetrating gaze swept over the room. “People vs. Noelle Lynn Reynolds, case number A367428912—a violation of Section 187 of the California Penal Code, Murder in the First Degree.” Special circumstances had also been pled, but would be decided in a separate penalty stage of the trial once the defendant was convicted. And she would be convicted. The evidence was overwhelming.
Lily repositioned the skinny black microphone closer to her mouth, and then looked over at the prosecutor. “Mr. Silverstein, are you ready to present your opening statement?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” he answered, pushing himself to his feet. A short, overweight man in his late forties, he ran his hands through his bushy brown hair. “Ladies and gentlemen, the people will prove to you that Noelle Reynolds willfully and intentionally, with malice aforethought, murdered her two-year-old son, Brandon Lewis Reynolds.” He paused, letting the weight of his words sink in. “What kind of mother could do this to her own child? What led up to such a depraved act? Let me paint you a picture of such an individual.
“Noelle Reynolds lived a life of privilege. Her father was a doctor and earned enough money to give his only daughter what ever she desired. At sixteen, he bought her a Porsche and gave her an American Express card with no spending limit. And as we all know, privilege can lead to popularity. Noelle was captain of her cheerleading team, as well as prom queen at Ventura High. Her grades were exemplary, enough so that she gained admittance to UCLA.”
He walked over to the jury rail. “But something went wrong, and it went wrong fast. Noelle failed almost every class. Noelle’s roommate at UCLA will testify during the course of this trial that Noelle paid her to do her work assignments. Having others do her work was a lifelong habit for the defendant. Another witness will testify how she bleached her hair to look more like Noelle, and took the SATs for her, the only reason Noelle was accepted to UCLA. Earlier classmates will testify as to how they were consistently paid by Noelle to do her work and steal answers to exams.” He spun around and faced the defendant, pointing an accusing finger at her. “Noelle Reynolds, the woman sitting comfortably before you in an air-conditioned courtroom after leaving her precious toddler to suffocate in the trunk of her car, has lied her way through life and lived off the backs of others. But the one thing she wanted, she couldn’t have. She wanted Mark Stringer, a fellow student at UCLA. She wanted him so desperately that she set out to get pregnant with his child with the belief that he would marry her. When she didn’t immediately get pregnant by Stringer, the defendant went on a promiscuous binge, sleeping with an untold number of men until she accomplished her goal. What Noelle didn’t know, and even Mark Stringer himself wasn’t aware of at that time, was that he was physically unable to father a child. Mr. Stringer was sterile.
“For the first time in her life, Noelle tasted failure and rejection. And she now had a baby to care for when she had never cared for anyone or anything other than herself. As her lies began to unravel and her gravy train came to a screeching halt, the defendant began to plot ways she could rid herself of what she saw as a liability—her own flesh and blood, her son, little Brandon Reynolds.”
As Silverstein walked back to the counsel table, his face frozen into hard lines, he stopped and stood beside a large poster-size photograph of Brandon, propped up on an easel. The boy had white blond hair and enormous blue eyes, and there was a happy smile on his young face. “Does this look like a liability to you, something to be shoved in a garbage bag and left to float in the frigid waters of the ocean until his tiny ravaged body ended up in a place his murderous mother believed he belonged—floating among human waste at the Oxnard sewage plant? I don’t think so.”
Several of the female jurors had tears streaming down their faces and even a few of the men found it hard to remain dry-eyed in the face of such depravity. At the counsel table, Silverstein leaned down to quickly confer with his co-counsel, Beth Sanders, a fortyish woman with brown hair and a masculine jawline. “When the defendant ran home to her father, believing he would take care of her problems as he’d always done in the past, Dr. Reynolds became furious and refused to let his daughter and her new baby live in his home. He also cut the defendant off financially, forcing her to get a job to support herself and little Brandon. Ms. Reynolds begged her friends in Ventura to help her, but by now, they all had responsibilities of their own.”
Many judges actually went to sleep on the bench, especially during this stage of the proceedings. Prior to a case reaching Lily’s courtroom, a preliminary hearing was held in the municipal court. A preliminary hearing was similar to a mini trial without a jury. At the conclusion, the municipal court judge decided if the defendant should be held to answer in superior court. Of course, Lily had already read through the court reporter’s transcript on the preliminary hearing, so she was all too familiar with the facts of the case. She had never fallen asleep but her thoughts occasionally wandered, and having Richard Fowler only a few feet away was hugely distracting. She tried not to look at him, but she was only human and as hard as she fought, she couldn’t stop herself from remembering the first time they had made love.
The district attorney’s office had been having a party. She generally didn’t go to these affairs, but it had been her birthday and no one had remembered except her mother. Her husband hadn’t remembered. Her daughter hadn’t remembered. If her mother hadn’t sent her a card, even Lily would have forgotten. But she would never forget that night. She had experienced plea sure she never knew existed, went on to end her marriage to Shana’s father, and had set a chain of events in motion that had possibly led a rapist to her doorstep and turned her into a killer.
SPRING, 1993 VENTURA, CALIFORNIA
The Elephant Bar was filled to capacity with suits, both the male and female versions. Since the completion of the new government center complex, the legal community had claimed the bar as their own. The atmosphere was straight out of Casablanca, circa 1993, with whitewashed walls, ceiling fans, and a black piano player who played when no one could hear and everyone was too preoccupied to listen. But deals were cut here daily, plea bargains and under-the-table transactions, the days of a person’s life dealt out like so many playing cards. Attorneys would brag about settling a case in Division 69; everyone knew that meant over drinks at the Elephant Bar.
Clinton Silverstein and Marshall Duffy, both district attorneys, were standing at a table near the front door. It was one of those high tables with no stools, the kind used by establishments like the Elephant Bar to cram more bodies into a small space. Silverstein was running his finger around the glass rim of his gin and tonic while Duffy poured beer from a pitcher. Duffy was black and handsome, dressed in a stylishly tailored pin-striped suit and a crisp white shirt and tie. He towered over the short, stocky Silverstein. “You’re a righteous nutcase, you know,” he said, “even if I do call you a friend.”
“I’m a nutcase. Well, at least I don’t wear tinted contacts. Do you know how weird those things make you look?” Silverstein stepped back from the table, loosening his tie and smiling at the other man.
Duffy tipped his glass and let the beer slide down his throat before responding. “My baby blues. Women love them. As long as they get me laid, I’m wearing them. So what’s the big deal with this transfer? I thought you put in for it.”
“Before, I put in before, back when Fowler was still running the unit. I’m sick of the misdemeanor division. Shit, if I have to handle another DWI, I’m gonna hang my-self from a tree with a beer bottle stuck up my ass.”
“So you don’t. You got the transfer. What have you got against Forrester? She can’t be all that bad. Nice little ass. Reminds me of my wife’s.” Duffy stepped back and almost toppled a plastic palm tree.
“I don’t care what she looks like. I just know she’s one tense lady. What she needs is a good tranquilizer, a good fuck, or both. That’s what I think. She’s going to run that unit with an iron fist.”
“Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black, my man.” Duffy’s eyes turned toward the door. “Take a big slug of that drink, Clinty. Your new boss just arrived.
“Lily,” Duffy called to her. “Over here.”
The bar was dark and smoky, and Lily’s eyes were still adjusting from the sunlight outside. She followed the voice. “Hello, Marshall. Looks like the party started without me.” She was anxious, scanning the room. From the looks of it, the entire agency and half the private attorneys in the area were here.
“Hey, we’re all waiting for you. You’re one of the guests of honor tonight. What’re you drinking?”
She started to order her usual glass of white wine and then changed her mind. “I guess a margarita, with salt.” As Duffy flagged the waitress, she added impulsively, “Order me a shot of Patrón.” Might as well do it right, she decided. This is what the men did when they had a bad day, came over here and got smashed. It appeared to work for them. Maybe it would work for her. Today had been a rough one, and the new job assignment was weighing heavily on her mind.
“Whoa there, I’m impressed. Clinton and I were just talking about you. He’s been telling me how excited he is about working with you.”
“Guess he’s not that excited. He just walked away.” Lily laughed, but it wasn’t really funny. Attorneys like Silverstein presented another problem she had to contend with, one brought on by the promotion. Now she had to supervise other attorneys, some with far more experience and much larger egos. It wasn’t going to be easy. She could use a good stiff drink.
Duffy turned his head to the side, surprised. Clinton was standing a few tables over talking to Richard Fowler, Lily’s predecessor.
Lily tried to look into Duffy’s translucent blue eyes, but her gaze was drawn to Fowler. “You transferred into homicide, took my slot, right?” Her eyes burned into Fowler’s back, willing him to turn around. Instead of bending down and placing her briefcase and purse on the floor, she dropped them with a loud thud. The noise was lost in the bar and Fowler still didn’t turn around. Her face felt flushed. “Where’s the waitress?” she asked Duffy, thinking she’d change her order to a glass of wine. She didn’t want Fowler to see her tossing down shots of tequila like a rock star. It was too late. Duffy had already given the girl the order.
“Guess you can call me a victim of the big Butler shuffle,” Duffy said, placing his elbows on the table.
His words drifted past her and once again her thoughts turned to Fowler. For the past two weeks he’d been working with her, coaching her to make the shift in supervisors as smooth as possible. He was tall, maybe six-five, with the lean, hard body of a runner. His hair and eyes were dark, a sharp contrast against his fair skin. He moved his long body and long legs without sound wherever he went, fluid and relaxed like a large cat ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey. He moved the way Lily wanted to move. And he moved Lily.
He finally saw her and headed in her direction. When the waitress appeared with the drinks, Fowler lifted the margarita off the tray, glancing at Lily. She nodded. Then he saw the shot glass and again looked at her. “Yours?” he asked.
“No … yes … I …” She blushed. She was stammering like a fool. Fowler did that to her. “It’s been one of those days. Thought I’d try to drown it.”
Setting both glasses on the table, he slid in close to her, in front of Duffy, who presently waved good-bye. A cloud of Fowler’s cologne drifted to her nostrils, a hint of lime. For the past two weeks she’d been inhaling it, even found it lingering on her clothes like cigarette smoke when she was forced to work closely with a smoker.
“Shots, huh?” he said with a smile that lifted only one corner of his mouth. “Was it really that bad of a week?”
“No, you’ve been great, Richard. I mentioned the sentencing I had today, didn’t I? You know, the sweetheart who thinks human life is comparable to a Timex watch.”
“You mean, ‘takes a licking’? Well, it’s kinda cute, isn’t it? The guy might become a stand-up comic when he gets out.”
The defendant they were talking about had pumped six bullets into a stranger in a public park. When the police asked him why he’d kept shooting when the victim was obviously dead, the killer told the cops, “He took a licking and kept on ticking.”
“That’s the problem,” Lily said. “That someone can commit a murder and be back on the streets to do it again in a few years. It makes me sick. It’s just something you don’t get used to, no matter how many times you see it.” She spotted the waitress and bent down to get her purse, turning her back and digging for her money. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“The waitress is gone. Next time, if you insist.”
He was so close now that their hips were touching. Lily downed the shooter of tequila with one swallow and chased it with the margarita, licking the salt off her lips. The closer he stood to her, the more flustered she became. She was talking like a rookie DA, like she’d never prosecuted a homicide before.
“Do you remember the last party we were both at? I do,” he said. “You were wearing this white backless dress and your hair was down, all the way down your back. You looked terrific.”
“The last party was a barbecue at Dennis O’Connor’s, and that was over five years ago. If my memory serves me right, you were wearing jeans and a blue sweater.”
Their eyes met and he refused to look away, searching there, prying where he didn’t belong. The tequila was still burning her throat and she felt uncomfortable. She took her cold glass and pressed it against her cheek. “I have to make a phone call. Watch my briefcase, okay?” She turned to head to the back of the bar, and then tossed over her shoulder with a smile, “And, Richard, I’ve never in my life owned a white backless dress.”
There were a lot of things Lily had never done, far more significant than not wearing a backless sundress to a party. One of them was having an affair. Although John had accused her of cheating on him for years, Lily had remained faithful despite the accusations and the complete disappearance of sex in their marriage.
Elbowing her way through the people, she spotted District Attorney Paul Butler on his way to the door. He was a short, serious man in his mid fifties who seldom mingled with those who worked beneath him. “Paul,” she said, “I didn’t see you earlier or I would have come over. I guess your secretary informed you of our conference tomorrow on the Lopez/McDonald matter.” The tequila had hit Lily hard on an empty stomach. She willed herself to remain sober, carefully articulating her words.
Excerpted from My Lost Daughter by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg.
Copyright © 2010 by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg.
Published in September 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.