“No, Tony, no!”
Those were the last words of California prison guard Elizabeth Wheat Begaren, according to grand jury testimony.
Then she tried to run up a darkened freeway on-ramp along a brick sound wall in Anaheim. Two bullets slammed into her body – one in the head and one in the chest – before she made it five feet.
Corrections Officer Begaren crumpled to the ground on the East Street on-ramp of the 91 freeway as three Los Angeles County gang members scrambled into a Buick Regal and sped off, according to the grand jury transcripts.
That was January 1998.
The investigation of the freeway slaying stalled and became one of Orange County’s most scrutinized cold cases – in part because the victim was law enforcement and in part because detectives felt from the beginning that the case was solvable.
The primary suspect from the beginning was Begaren’s husband, Nuzzio, who said he was crouching behind the Buick with his 10-year-old daughter when the fatal shots were fired.
He told detectives that it was a road robbery that became deadly when the gang members found his wife’s Department of Corrections badge. Nuzzio said they followed his SUV from a Burbank mall when they saw him put a large roll of cash into his wife’s purse.
Next week – more than 15 years after the late-night shooting – Nuzzio Begaren goes on trial in Orange County Superior Court on special-circumstances murder charges that could lead to a life term in prison without the possibility of parole.
Nuzzio Begaren’s middle name is Anthony, but most everyone calls him Tony.
Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin contends that Nuzzio Begaren orchestrated the murder of his newlywed bride to collect $1 million in life insurance from a policy he took out shortly after they married five months earlier.
Two of the three gang members who were in the Buick Regal have turned on Begaren, Yellin said, and will be prosecution witnesses who will testify that he hired them as hit men, led them to the darkened freeway on-ramp and got out of the way so his wife could be killed.
One of those witnesses, Jose Sandoval, will testify that Begaren was the driver of the Buick Regal who, by pre-arrangement, followed the Begaren family SUV for miles until Nuzzio Begaren pulled over on the East Street on-ramp next to the sound wall, grabbed his 10-year-old daughter by the hand and walked behind the car, Yellin said.
Sandoval testified before the Orange County grand jury that he saw Elizabeth Begaren, looking scared, get out of the SUV and attempt to run up the freeway before fellow gang member Guillermo Espinoza, 36, shot her twice.
Espinoza, who is also charged with Elizabeth Begaren’s murder in the 2011 indictment returned by the Orange County grand jury, is at large and authorities have asked for the public’s help in finding him. There is a $60,000 reward for information leading to his arrest, authorities said.
Sandoval, 36, is also charged with murder in the case, but he testified before the grand jury that he expects to get a deal from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony against Nuzzio Begaren.
A third gang member, a convict named Rudy Duran, testified before the grand jury that Nuzzio Begaren contacted him about wanting his wife killed, insisting that it look like a gang robbery. Duran testified he then recruited two other gang members to carry out the murder-for-hire plot.
Sal Ciulla, Begaren’s attorney, said the prosecution’s case against Nuzzio Begaren is built on questionable stories provided by Sandoval and Duran, the gang members who participated in the killing but who have been promised plea deals in exchange for testimony against his client.
“They will say anything and do anything to get a free pass,” Ciulla said.
Duran, who is said to have set up the murder, “knew what the police wanted and he knew what he needed to say to get his deal, and he gave it to them,” Ciulla added. “I don’t think my client had anything to do with his wife’s death.”
But Yellin said no one is getting a free pass in exchange for testimony, and that both Sandoval and Duran will be prosecuted after consideration is given to their cooperation.
Yellin added that solid circumstantial evidence will link some of the gang members to Nuzzio Begaren before the murder and show that the shooting was not a chance encounter.
Witnesses also will testify that Elizabeth Begaren helped solve her own murder when she jotted down the license plate of the Buick Regal as it followed her family’s SUV from Los Angeles County to Anaheim, Yellin said. Anaheim police officers found her note, ripped into six pieces, near the SUV.
They also found Elizabeth Begaren’s Department of Corrections badge discarded on the ground next to her body.
Nuzzio Begaren’s trial before Judge Richard Toohey is expected to last about two weeks.
By LARRY WELBORN / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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