Crime

Two character witnesses describe Schuster as caring and nonviolent

VAN NUYS -- Larissa Schuster: a caring mother who wouldn't harm a soul.

James Fagone: a young troublemaker.

That's how witnesses who testified in Schuster's murder trial Thursday described Schuster and Fagone, the two people prosecutors say murdered Schuster's estranged husband in July 2003 and left his body in a barrel of acid.

Defense attorney Roger Nuttall, however, is trying to convince jurors that Fagone, who has already been convicted of first-degree murder, committed the crime by himself or with the help of friends. He said his client was not involved in the murder.

To make his point, friends of Larissa Schuster testified Thursday in a Los Angeles County courthouse that the 47-year-old former biochemist from Clovis is a nonviolent woman who worked hard and cared for her children before she was arrested more than four years ago.

Ellen Moezpoor, who said she has been Schuster's friend for more than 20 years, said that Larissa and Timothy Schuster seemed like a happy couple for most of their marriage. But in late 2002, Moezpoor said, Larissa Schuster became angry with her husband, whom she was in the process of divorcing. Still, she said, Schuster never said she wished her husband was dead.

"I don't believe she would commit violence against a person," Moezpoor said.

Renee Grate, who in 2004 befriended Schuster in Fresno County Jail while serving an eight-month sentence for a drug-related conviction, said Schuster was an inspiration to her.

"We just hit it off," Grate said. "She was a big mentor to me while in jail. I didn't know the Lord very well, and she gave me the strength to make it through."

Grate said she never saw Schuster react violently.

Prosecutor Dennis Peterson, however, noted two incidents in which he said Schuster has acted forcefully -- once when Schuster became angry with a fellow employee at a research lab in Madera and locked her in a room, and a second time when she and her teenage daughter got into a fight while visiting family in Missouri.

Asked about the incidents, Moezpoor said she hadn't heard of the first one and said of the second one: "I'm not sure what you told me was the entire story."

Fagone, now 25, worked at an agriculture research lab Schuster owned and operated in Fresno. During his trial last December, he testified that he and Schuster entered Timothy Schuster's house late at night, knocked him out and tied him up. Fagone said he thought the plan was to rob Timothy Schuster, but quickly realized that Larissa Schuster had come to murder her husband. After Timothy Schuster's body was stuffed in a 55-gallon barrel, Larissa Schuster filled it with acid, Fagone said.

Nuttall's version of the crime is different. He says that two days after Timothy Schuster went missing, Fagone confessed to Larissa Schuster that he had killed her husband on his own or with the help of friends.

On Thursday, people who knew him testified that Fagone, then 21, told them in the spring of 2003 that he had plans to rob Timothy Schuster's house and he asked them to help him.

"He wanted me to go up to the door of Tim Schuster's house, knock on it, and Taser the guy in the neck," said Afshin Salehi, who rode motorcycles with Fagone.

Fagone's friends also said, however, that Fagone wanted to carry out the crime because Larissa Schuster had asked him to.

Also Thursday, the prosecution asked the judge to remove a juror because she appeared to be crying during part of the day, wearing sunglasses and not paying attention to testimony. But at the request of the defense, the judge allowed the juror to remain.

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