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O.C. Man Bludgeoned and Tortured His Wife, Then Staged Murder as a Home Invasion
The slaying of a wealthy OC woman a week before Christmas appeared to be a robbery gone wrong – until police looked closer.
On December 15, 2005, the Cypress Police Department was in the middle of their office Christmas party when a report came in about a theft in progress at a local Orange County, California residence.
When officers arrived, Marvin Smith told them that his wife, Minnie Smith, 66, wasn’t home and that he heard intruders’ voices coming from the upstairs master bedroom.
Upon entering the room, police observed that dressers and a floor safe had been emptied. Then, they discovered Minnie’s lifeless body.
The way she died “was horrible," Susan Kang, public affairs counsel for the O.C. D.A.’s Office told The Real Murders of Orange County. "She had suffered blunt force trauma to her head."
Minnie was naked from the waist down, suggesting a sexual assault had occurred. Her hands were bound behind her back with a coat hanger wire and her feet had been burned.
Police suspected she’d been tortured to reveal the location and combination to the safe.
When officers informed Marvin that his wife of 28 years was dead, he appeared distraught. He told police that the bedroom safe had contained $30,000 in cash and $200,000 worth of jewelry.
As crime scene investigators combed through the house, they found an open bottle of cognac on the bar. Had the killer braced himself before the crime?.
Police also found a metal fireplace log roller was out of place. Closer inspection revealed blood on it, so it was collected as evidence for DNA processing.
Outside the house they found a toolbox near a window with a missing screen. Police believed that was the point of entry for the alleged intruder.
Investigators dug into the case and found that Minnie and Marvin owned a liquor store and rental properties. They were sitting on a nest egg of about $5 million, according to The Real Murders of Orange County.
The robbery-gone-wrong theory became less likely when police realized a car and guns had not been taken. “Firearms are very valuable on the black market,” said Heather Brown, now retired as the O.C. Deputy District Attorney.
The coroner found various defensive wounds on Minnie and signs that the killer was right-handed. The autopsy revealed no evidence of a sexual assault, which surprising because Minnie was found naked from the waist down.
Another unusual finding of the autopsy was that Minnie's hands had been bound after she was dead, said Jeff Swift, a retired investigator with the Cypress P.D. The time of Minnie’s murder couldn't be pinpointed, but it could have occurred between 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
As investigators considered the firearms left at the scene and the lack of a sexual attack, detectives suspected that Minnie’s murder was staged to look like a home invasion. A lack of DNA on the cognac bottle and the wire binding Minnie raised a similar red flag.
The violence of the crime “is telling you something,” said John Schaefer, a retired lieutenant with the Cypress Police Department. “There’s some rage going on here.”
Forensic analysis confirmed that Minnie’s blood was on the log roller. Marvin’s DNA was also on it. Because he lived in the house, that wasn’t unusual. Still, investigators focused on Minnie’s husband.
Interviews with Minnie’s close circle revealed that Marvin had an explosive temper. In the past, witnesses alleged, he’d pistol-whipped an individual in his liquor stores and struck one of his tenants.
At this point, police were determined to nail down Marvin’s whereabouts on December 15. By his own account, Marvin had a solid alibi for the entire day.
He left home early, bought gas around 7 a.m., went to work at a construction site, had physical therapy on his right shoulder, returned to work, and then home.
Sales receipts and witness statements shored up the alibi. Moreover, the physical therapy session made it seem unlikely that Marvin could have lifted the heavy murder weapon.
In an effort to drum up leads, investigators appealed to the news media. Tips poured in, including one by a delivery man. He told police that he’d seen Minnie at her home around 1:30 p.m. on the day she was killed.
Detectives were essentially back at square one. Three days after the murder they turned their attention to the stolen jewelry but their search led to dead ends.
A day later, Samuel Matthews, who used to work in the Smiths’ liquor store, reached out to police. He claimed that Marvin had “significant anger issues,” according to Swift.
Matthews overheard Marvin saying that he “wanted out of his marriage" but he didn’t want to dilute his fortune in a divorce.
Matthews also informed detectives that Marvin had a number of affairs going on with other women. Could one of those women be the murderer?
Detectives had to confirm Matthews’ statements. When they confronted Marvin, he said that he’d fired Matthews because he stole from the business.
At this point, Matthews became a suspect but a thorough investigation confirmed Matthews' alibi for December 15.
Detectives turned their focus back to Marvin. They confirmed that he was involved with a number of women – and that Minnie was aware of his cheating.
“My mom didn’t care,” said Bennie Thomas, Minnie’s son from her first marriage. “All she cared about was her family and her grandkids.”
On December 20, 2005, police got a search warrant for Marvin’s phone and financial records. They found numerous calls to Beverly Hubbard.
When detectives reached out to Hubbard she claimed that Marvin was her brother. Investigators also found that she and Marvin shared a joint bank account with $230,000 in it.
At the same time, the deliveryman who’d said he’d seen Minnie at 1:30 p.m. on December 15 recanted. He was unsure about what day he’d seen Minnie, again changing the timeline of her murder. Investigators considered the possibility that she was already dead when Marvin left in the morning.
Police had learned that Marvin used one of his rental properties as a love nest. On December 23, they obtained warrants to search it.
In the trash cans they found love notes from Marvin to his girlfriends. And in the trunk of Marvin’s car there, they found the jewelry that had allegedly been stolen. In response to the discovery, Marvin claimed that he’d forgotten that he’d put the jewelry there.
But people didn’t buy that story. Marvin was arrested on December 23. He hired a top-notch defense attorney, whose first move was to delay the proceedings.
Investigators used the time to bolster their case. One of his fellow construction site workers said that he’d seen Marvin use a sledge hammer the same day Minnie was found dead, suggesting he wasn't as weak as initially believed and he could have lifted the log roller.
In December 2007, Marvin’s trial began. Prosecutors portrayed him as a cold-blooded killer who’d staged his wife’s murder to look like a botched burglary.
Hubbard was never connected to any criminal wrongdoing, but she testified that Marvin secretly siphoned off more than $200,000 that went into their joint account.
On December 17, 2007, Marvin Smith was convicted of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2013, the State Appellate Court reversed Marvin’s charges on the basis that the jury instructions violated his right to a fair trial. But a year later, the Supreme Court upheld the original conviction. Marvin Smith is now serving a life sentence without the chance of parole.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Orange County, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.