A San Francisco attorney and a bartender were among a team of “vultures” who killed a Palm Springs retiree for his financial assets, a prosecutor told a jury today.
David Replogle, 61, and Miguel Bustamante, 27, of Daly City, are charged with first-degree murder in the Dec. 5, 2008, slaying of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert.
The defendants also face sentence-enhancing allegations of committing a murder for financial gain and murder during a robbery and a burglary, making them eligible for life in prison without parole if convicted.
Also charged in the killing and awaiting trial are Daniel Garcia, 27, and Kaushal Niroula, a 28-year-old alleged con man from San Francisco.
A fifth man, Craig McCarthy, entered into a plea deal.
Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria said Replogle, Niroula and Garcia hatched a plan in November 2008 to kill Lambert, create forged power of attorney documents and steal his wealth.
“These men acted as vultures,” DiMaria told the seven-man, five-woman jury in her opening statement. “As Cliff Lambert lay in a shallow grave, they picked him clean.”
The prosecutor said “every player was necessary” to carry out the plan.
“They took his life, literally, in order to take everything Clifford Lambert … had. They erased him,” she said.
Replogle’s attorney, John Patrick Dolan, and Bustamante’s lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Joe Forth, were scheduled to give their opening statements Tuesday morning.
Lambert was a lonely, gay man who had no family and some friends, which made him vulnerable to the scam, DiMaria told the jury.
“He liked to meet men over the Internet, and you will hear he liked men younger than himself,” the prosecutor said.
Garcia met Lambert online and went to visit him in Palm Springs in April 2008, she said. Garcia, who got access to Lambert’s computer on that visit, was the only connection the group had to Lambert, DiMaria said.
Garcia knew Replogle from a civil case in the mid-2000s, when the attorney got a multimillion-dollar settlement for Garcia, then underage, by alleging a financier had abused him and several Mexican youths, she said.
Through Garcia, Replogle met Niroula, who was arrested in 2008 in San Francisco County and Marin County on theft charges. The attorney appeared in court several times with Niroula and posted bail for him, DiMaria said.
Niroula, a Nepalese citizen, falsely claimed he was a “prince of Nepal” and liked to live the high life, according to the prosecutor.
“He loves to give the air of living wealthy,” DiMaria said.
Garcia and Bustamante also sought to become rich, she said.
“(Bustamante) was willing to do what it took to make money,” the prosecutor said of the Guatemalan native who was McCarthy’s roommate in Daly City.
The prosecutor alleged that Niroula let Bustamante and McCarthy into Lambert’s home on Dec. 5, 2008, and Bustamante stabbed the retiree to death.
McCarthy, a former Marine, pleaded guilty to a voluntary manslaughter charge last month and is expected to testify against his co-defendants as part of his plea deal.
The three allegedly loaded Lambert’s body into the trunk of his Mercedes- Benz and buried him in the hills in Fontana. The retiree’s body has never been found.
Lambert was reported missing two days later by a friend. Detectives went to his home at 317 Camino Norte and found the mailbox full and his 2004 Mercedes missing.
Following Lambert’s death, Replogle allegedly created several false power of attorney documents that allowed the co-defendants to empty the victim’s bank accounts.
They also allegedly tried to complete a quick sale of his $1 million home for less than $300,000. A judge later halted the sale.
Bustamante — a bartender in the Castro District of San Francisco — was apprehended by police while emptying Lambert’s home, and he implicated the other men in Lambert’s murder, according to the prosecution.
Garcia was caught with Lambert’s debit card, which was used to withdraw money from one of the retiree’s accounts for a two-week period after the murder. Garcia also used the victim’s credit cards to make several purchases. He has claimed Lambert gave him the cards.