“You need a playbook to keep up with Nanette Johnston’s relationships!” That’s how crime reporter Jennifer Gould characterized the love life of the woman who was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her millionaire beau, Bill McLaughlin, on the latest episode of “In Ice Cold Blood.”
But how exactly, did Johnston’s relationships ultimately lead to her plotting to murder one of her men? Well, naturally, it involved both money and another man she was seeing.
On Dec. 15, 1994, Bill McLaughlin, a man who made his millions creating medical devices, was found shot six times on his kitchen floor of his gated Newport Beach, California home after his son, Kevin McLaughlin, alerted emergency dispatchers minutes after the incident.
Suspicion immediately fell on those closest to the victim.
“It’s unfortunate but you have to look at family members or anybody that happened to be at the scene, and Kevin was both of those,” David Byington, a retired detective sergeant at the Newport Beach Police Department, says during the episode.
Kevin told investigators what happened: He and his father had finished dinner together around 8:30 p.m. when Kevin went upstairs to his bedroom. He then heard several loud noises, later determined to be gunshots, and went downstairs to find his father dying at his feet.
As detectives are processed the crime scene, Johnston rolled up in a convertible to the home; this is how she (supposedly) found out about her boyfriend's slaying.
Johnston had met McLaughlin after placing an ad in the classified section of a newspaper explicitly looking for an older, wealthier man following his divorce from his first wife.
“She appeared emotionally upset,” Byington says. “Nanette told detectives she was very happy; they were engaged to be married. Bill McLaughlin provided her with not only financial security but the wherewithal to live a lifestyle she really enjoyed.”
But as soon as investigators really started looking into the crime, it became apparent that Johnston was at the center of a tangled triangle that involved her, McLaughlin, and a former professional football player named Eric Naposki.
In fact, mere days after the murder, police surveillance units saw Johnston suspiciously cozying up with Naposki at another of McLaughlin’s homes on the beach, decorating a Christmas tree and generally seeming as if they were the picture of domestic bliss.
“If she’s innocent, there’s a killer on the loose who may be after her,” Matt Murphy, Senior Deputy District Attorney at the Orange County DA’s Office, says. “She didn’t even draw the curtains — she knows she was in no danger.
Meanwhile, investigators’ attention shifted to her and Naposki.
Detectives found out that Johnston had initially lied to them about what she was doing the night of the murder; she said she was with her ex-husband watching their kids’ soccer game, but the ex told police that she was also there with Naposki, which immediately raised red flags.
Later, police pulled over Naposki when he was driving and arrested him on an outstanding traffic warrant. During a search of his vehicle, police found a notebook that included a page with McLaughlin’s license plate number scribbled on it.
“This was key evidence and obviously everybody’s eyes started turning toward Eric Naposki as being more and more important as a potential suspect in this murder,” Byington says.
Naposki also told investigators that he didn’t own any guns, but eventually relented and admitted he owned a 9mm handgun — the same type police believed was used in McLaughlin’s murder. When asked where it was, however, Naposki claimed first that he lent it to a friend, and then that it got stolen.
“That’s just bad timing for a suspect who’s being looked at for murder with a 9mm,” Byington says.
Later, it was discovered that not only were Johnston and Naposki in a relationship while Johnston was also supposedly with McLaughlin, but Johnston had been embezzling McLaughlin’s money after he was killed.
Two months after the murder, McLaughlin’s daughters discovered a check from Dec. 14, 1994 — a day before the murder — for $200,000 made out to Johnston that was eventually determined to be forged. Other huge checks were found, as well as a $1 million life insurance policy that McLaughlin made Johnston a beneficiary of.
In 1995, Johnston was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing about $500,000 from McLaughlin before and after his murder. She was sentenced to one year in jail for the crime, but it would be years before she and Naposki faced any repercussions for McLaughlin’s killing.
According to Jennifer Gould, Johnston was married and had another kid within eight years of McLaughlin’s murder. Seven years after that marriage, Johnston got married again and had yet another child, essentially reinventing herself as a “doting wife and soccer mom.”
Meanwhile, Naposki had also gotten married and had children, essentially starting over on the East Coast in the years after the crime.
It wasn’t until 2009 that McLaughlin’s cold case file was combed over again by Murphy at the Orange County DA’s Office — 15 years after the murder.
The silver bullet in the case would come in the form of an obscure tip that retired investigator Larry Montgomery discovered while listening to interviews from the case. It was from one of Naposki’s former neighbors named Suzanne Cogar.
“I received a call from the OCDA and I immediately said, ‘What took you so long?’” Cogar says in the episode.
She proceeded to tell them about a chance encounter with Naposki at her apartment in 1994, in which the football player apparently all but spelled out his intentions to murder McLaughlin. According to Cogar, Naposki thought his girlfriend, Johnston, was being sexually harassed and assaulted by McLaughlin, who Johnston characterized as her business associate rather than her lover.
Both Johnson and Naposki were eventually arrested for the murder, with each person’s defense attempting to pin the crime on the other: Johnson’s counsel said Naposki acted alone out of jealousy, while Naposki’s lawyers said Johnston was the mastermind of the entire plot.
What prosecutors determined, however, was that Johnston and Naposki plotted to kill McLaughlin so that he wouldn’t find out about her cheating on him and embezzling his money, and so that they could both reap the windfall of the life insurance policy.
On July 13, 2011, Naposki was found guilty of the murder of Bill McLaughlin. Almost a year later, on Friday, May 18, 2012, Johnston was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the same crime.
“No on should be interrupted while having dinner in the safety of their own home by a person pointing a gun at him,” McLaughlin’s daughter, Jenny McLaughlin, said at the time, according to the OC Register. “I feel very grateful to have such a wonderful father in my life for as long as I did. I wish he could have stayed with us longer and that God could have chosen his time to leave rather than a person with a gun and a greedy heart.”
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