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06.19.11

NFL Star's Love-Triangle Murder

She was a sexy young blond, and he was her wealthy sugar daddy. Now he's dead, and an NFL linebacker is charged with the murder—but was she the true mastermind?

The 1991 singles ad in an Orange County, California magazine was as salacious as it was straightforward. “I know how to take care of my man if he knows how to take care of me. Wealthy men only," it read. Included with the ad was a photo of a sexy young woman wearing even sexier lingerie. For 54-year-old Bill McLaughlin, a newly divorced millionaire businessman from Newport Beach, it was a perfect fit.

After he met 28-year-old Nanette Ann Johnston, McLaughlin fell hard and the two began dating. Within a few months, the California beauty had moved into his home in the gated community of Balboa Coves in Newport Beach, just a stones throw from the Pacific Ocean.

Three years later, on the evening of December 15, 1994, McLaughlin was dead. The man who made his fortune by inventing a device that filters blood was shot six times in his kitchen as he was making a sandwich. Upstairs, his 24-year-old mentally disabled son heard the shots and called 911. Police suspected Johnston in the murder and fingered former National Football League linebacker Eric Naposki, who she was seeing on the side, as the triggerman, but the two were never arrested.

Now, more than 16 years later, Naposki, a 44-year-old Connecticut personal trainer and father of two, is going on trial for the cold-case murder of McLaughlin. Johnston, now 45 and remarried with four children, will have her day in court later this summer. Opening arguments in Naposki's trial begin today.

Both are accused of scheming to get rid of McLaughlin, driven by greed so they could collect a chunk of the wealthy businessman’s considerable fortune. Johnston, who prosecutors believe was the mastermind, stood to inherit a $1 million life insurance policy and $150,000 from McLaughlin’s will. Plus, in the event of McLaughlin’s death she would have the right to live in his beach house for one year. Naposki, a dead-beat dad who squandered his NFL salary long ago, was desperately looking for a big payday.

The sensational crime rocked the wealthy Orange County coastal community. On the day of his death, McLaughlin had returned from a business trip to Las Vegas on his private plane. When he arrived home, he found a note from Johnston informing him that she was attending her son’s soccer game. Around 9 p.m., as McLaughlin was making a sandwich, an intruder snuck into his home using a brand new key and plugged six bullets into his chest.

The police arrived soon afterwards and found part of the key stuck in the front door -- the killer had inadvertently snapped it in half as he was trying to gain entrance. Lying on the doormat was another key that allowed entrance into the complex. Two 9 mm casings were discovered in the kitchen next to McLaughlin’s lifeless body.  

Around 9 p.m., as McLaughlin was making a sandwich, an intruder plugged six bullets into his chest.

By the time Johnston arrived home, the house was full of detectives. She told them she spent time at her son’s soccer game in the city of Walnut and later went Christmas shopping. Her ex-husband, who also attended the game, could vouch for her whereabouts, she said.

But when police went to confirm this with Johnston’s ex-husband they were surprised to learn that Johnston showed up to the game with none other than Eric Naposki. Investigators began looking into rumors that the two were secretly dating, and soon learned that the couple met at the Sporting Club Irvine in the winter of 1994 and started a relationship soon afterward. Naposki, who grew up in New York, was a college football star before he got drafted into the NFL. He played two seasons with the New England Patriots and one season with the Indianapolis Colts. Then he moved to Europe and played four seasons with the Barcelona Dragons.

Around 1993, he moved to Orange County and worked as a personal trainer before starting a security business called Coastal Elite Security, which provided security guards for apartments. He later got a job at the Thunderbird Nightclub, 131 yards from McLaughlin’s home. According to prosecutors, by the time he met up with Johnston, he was deep in debt.

“He didn’t have much money,” Naposki’s defense attorney Gary Pohlson told The Daily Beast. “He wasn’t some wealthy guy. There were child support issues. He was trying hard to pay his bills and get ahead.”

About their relationship, Pohlson said, “[Naposki] was in love with Nanette. She was real athletic and he was a jock.”

She was also a gold-digger with a history of lying -- Johnston was forging checks out of McLaughlin’s bank account months before the murder. Within 24 hours of his death, she cashed three more checks totaling $355,000. After McLaughlin’s death, she racked up his credit card bill and purchased $600 alligator-skin boots for Naposki.

Investigators couldn't find the gun that was used to kill McLaughlin, but they did find out that Naposki owned two handguns: a .380 caliber pistol and a 9 mm Beretta. He purchased the Beretta four months before the slaying but loaned it to a friend, he told the police. But when the cops tracked down the friend, they discovered the gun Naposki gave him was a .380 caliber pistol, not a Beretta. What's more, an employee who worked at a hardware store near Naposki’s apartment told detectives that he constructed a silencer for a Beretta for Naposki, ostensibly for use in a movie shoot.

The investigators' case was coming together. They found evidence that the lovebirds were house-hunting in July in Turtle Rock, a tony neighborhood in Irvine. A realtor told detectives that the couple told her they planned to move into a new home in the spring of 1995, three months after the murder. But despite the mounting evidence, Johnston has repeatedly denied she had anything to do with McLaughlin’s death. In a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she told a reporter that she “didn't do it and [Naposki] didn't do it... I don't think they [police] have any real facts. They couldn't, because I didn't do anything... I stood to gain a lot more by being with Mr. McLaughlin than [from] an insurance policy."

Six months after the murder, Johnston and Naposki split, said Pohlson, Naposki’s defense attorney. “Nanette was getting charged with a crime and [Naposki] found out there was more to their relationship than she told him so he decided to forget it,” he said. “He never met Bill. He never was in his house. [Nanette] told him Bill was her boss. After the murder it was all over the paper she was Bill’s fiancé.”
In March of 1996, Johnston pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $500,000 from McLaughlin before and after his death. She was sentenced to one year in jail.

Two years later, a woman who lived in the same apartment complex as Naposki contacted the Newport Beach police to report that Naposki had made troubling statements about McLaughlin prior to his death. Although four years had passed, the woman recalled that Naposki had confided in her that he was angry because McLaughlin had tried to force himself on Johnston. He allegedly told her, among other things, to deny that she knew him if she was ever questioned by the police.

Detectives brought the case to Orange County prosecutors but were told that there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges. There was no smoking gun. The case languished for more than a decade until Orange County senior deputy district attorney Matt Murphy, who specializes in complicated murder cases, reopened it. In May of 2009, after pouring over the dusty files and old evidence, re-interviewing eyewitnesses, and looking into new leads, Murphy decided he had enough evidence to prosecute the former lovers.

By the time they were arrested, Naposki was living in Connecticut and engaged to be married to a schoolteacher. Johnston had remarried and changed her last name to Packard, and had just given birth to a boy. She was living the life of a soccer mom in Ladera Ranch, a picturesque community north of San Diego.
Last week, Pohlson provided some glimpses into the defense’s case. He told The Daily Beast that the Orange County District Attorney’s case is weak and that Naposki has an alibi for the night of the murder. According to Pohlson, Naposki made a phone call from a payphone 12 miles away from the murder scene at 8:52 p.m. He couldn’t possibly have made it to McLaughlin’s house in the Christmas traffic for 9:09 p.m. when McLaughlin’s son made the 911 call.

Pohlson said there are plenty of theories about who really killed McLaughlin. He said McLaughlin had recently won a $9 million lawsuit over a dispute with his business partner. “They were involved in a big lawsuit that had gone on for along time in McLaughlin’s favor, “ he said.

"From my point of view the evidence hasn’t changed," says Pohlson. "It is a totally circumstantial case.”

Prosecutor Matt Murphy disagrees. During jury selection last week, Murphy argued that “the idea that circumstantial evidence is somehow bad evidence is a very commonly believed myth. But it is a myth. The law is crystal clear on that.”