Jurors brace for long trial in Stein murder case

Jan.January 12, 2010 07:10 PM

Natavia Lowery, who is accused of murdering her boss, Linda Stein, the megawatt Prudential Douglas Elliman broker who died in October 2007, was a chronic thief with past employers, prosecutors said today in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court.

In a preliminary hearing to lay out the trial’s ground rules, Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi spelled out new instances of stealing by Lowery, in addition to the already publicized case of identity theft involving a former Brooklyn roommate.

For one, Lowery stole “thousands of dollars” from Planned Parenthood, where she temped before working for Stein, in a racket that involved buying items on a corporate credit card and then returning them for cash, Illuzzi said.

The scam, which prosecutors discovered after going through receipts confiscated from Lowery, also prevented her from landing full-time employment with the health center, whose directors could testify in the trial.

“Her skills and attitude weren’t ones that they thought were appropriate for permanent work,” Illuzzi told Justice Richard Carruthers.

Plus, years earlier, Lowery embezzled $3,000 from the Calvary Christian Church in Norfolk, Va., in a similar credit card fraud, prosecutors claimed. Meanwhile, they say, evidence shows that Lowery only paid back a $4,000 loan from the Kingdom Federal Credit Union in Norfolk after stealing money from Stein.

Lowery, an Axiom employment agency temp who worked as Stein’s personal assistant, is charged with killing the broker in her apartment at 965 Fifth Avenue on Oct. 30 2007.

Stein, who was a broker in Elliman’s 980 Madison Avenue office, was widely-known for her multi-million listings and celebrity clientele, including Billy Joel, Sting, Michael Douglas and Steven Spielberg, and her past as a manager to punk rock music acts including the Ramones. She was supposedly the inspiration for the chatty Upper East Side broker in the 1980s movie “Wall Street.”

In teasing out their strategy today, prosecutors seemed to try to poke holes in an expected defense effort to claim Stein often rewarded Lowery with money.

If during the trial Lowery suggests “that these were simply gifts to her,” Illuzzi said, then prosecutors would “open the door to her previous, recent and chronic theft from employers.”

Court was adjourned before defense attorney John Christie could challenge the accusations; that’s expected to happen Thursday. And Lowery, 28, who wore a cream-colored blouse and dark-tan pants, scribbled on a yellow legal pad without saying anything. But earlier, as she was led across the courtroom for a bathroom break, her hands cuffed in front of her, she waved and smiled to a group in the back of the courtroom, who later identified themselves as her mother, stepfather and uncle.

Today’s hearing came after continued jury selection, which was cut short yesterday when Lowery arrived wearing prison garb. Today, about 90 jurors met behind closed doors to determine whether they could commit to a trial that could last for two months. On Friday, lawyers for both sides will begin to question jurors more intensely, in the courtroom, in a process known as voir dire, which could last a few days.

But though the day’s activities were mostly hidden from public view, there were still notable moments. For instance, Illuzzi revealed that her evidence will include 16 autopsy photos, out of 121 that were taken; they show in detail Stein’s skull fractures, and her broken back and neck.

“I have to say that this was an extremely brutal murder,” Illuzzi said.

Prosecutors also are insisting that jurors watch a videotaped confession from the Brooklyn precinct where Lowery was arrested, which supposedly shows her confessing to beating Stein with a yoga stick. The defense is expected to argue that the confession was forced

In the hearing, which lasted for about an hour, Illuzzi also told Judge Carruthers that Stein’s daughters, Samantha and Mandy (who were not present in court today), were willing to testify in the trial. The daughters have sued Elliman, as well as Axion over its poor judgment in hiring Lowery.

“They feel as though both institutions failed in their obligation to Ms, Stein,” Illuzzi said, “by not properly vetting Ms. Lowery’s background.”

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