LOS ANGELES (AP) — A convicted drug dealer pleaded not guilty Thursday to killing a 20th Century Fox executive whose remains were found in the Southern California desert 2 1/2 years after he vanished.
John Lenzie Creech, 42, entered the plea to a charge of first-degree murder. He could face 25 years to life in state prison if convicted.
Outside court, his attorney, Alex Kessel, said that his client was attacked by Gavin Smith in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles and defended himself, possibly causing a fatal injury.
"It was total self-defense. It was mutual combat," Kessel said.
Smith, 57, was with Fox's movie distribution department for nearly 18 years and was a branch manager for several theaters. He was also a former UCLA basketball player and had three children. He was last seen the night of May 1, 2012, driving away from the home of a woman friend in eastern Ventura County's Oak Park.
His 2000 Mercedes-Benz 420E was found in February 2013 in a storage facility in Simi Valley. Inside the car, investigators found Smith's blood and body tissue, including skin stuck to the car's seat.
Smith's remains were discovered last Oct. 26 in a shallow grave near Palmdale in the Antelope Valley, about 70 miles from where he vanished.
The storage facility was linked to Creech, who currently is serving an eight-year jail sentence after pleading no contest in 2012 to transporting cocaine for sale.
A law enforcement official previously told The Associated Press that Smith was believed to have had a romantic relationship with Creech's wife, Chandrika Creech, after meeting her in drug rehabilitation several years earlier.
Kessel said Thursday that Smith and Creech's wife were in a car together on the night of the fight. "At one point in time, my client had asked Mr. Smith not to see his wife anymore years before, and he had no idea that his wife had reunited with Mr. Smith," the attorney said.
Smith's wife, Lisa, released a statement Thursday in which she said the evidence will show that "this was a cold-blooded, premeditated act of murder."