ORANGE, Calif. - In the late 1980s, Patriots outside linebacker Eric Naposki wore No. 91. Like any defensive player, he hated watching the chains move.
There is no escaping that today. Naposki is a convicted first-degree murderer, No. 2516478 in the maximum-security jail here. The locked chains regularly jingle across his shackled, 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound body.
In July, he was convicted by an Orange County jury in the 1994 death of Newport Beach millionaire William McLaughlin. The panel believed he committed the murder so that his girlfriend could collect a $1 million life insurance policy, $150,000 from McLaughlin’s will, and the right to live at McLaughlin’s beach house rent-free for a year.
The cold-case murder went unsolved for nearly 17 years. No weapon was ever found. There was no DNA, no fingerprints, no admission of guilt, no eyewitnesses, and no surveillance tape.
“Look me in the eye,’’ says Naposki, 44, edging closer, his brown eyes locked in a laser stare. “I swear on my children’s lives that I didn’t shoot anyone. Absolutely, positively, not.’’
But jurors believed that on Dec. 15, 1994, at approximately 9:09 p.m., Naposki entered McLaughlin’s gated seaside home with keys provided by his girlfriend, Nanette Johnston. McLaughlin, 55, was shot six times with a 9mm Beretta pistol loaded with hollow-point bullets at close range while he was making a sandwich in his kitchen.
McLaughlin’s brain-damaged son was upstairs in his bedroom at the time. He managed to get downstairs and call 911 at 9:11 p.m.
Naposki worked later that night as a security guard/bouncer at the Thunderbird Nightclub, a little more than a football field away.
Naposki, 44, says he was convicted on the basis of suspicion and innuendo.
But Orange County Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy says the circumstantial evidence was undeniable. The jury heard more than three weeks of testimony and deliberated less than seven hours before returning a 12-0 guilty verdict on the charge of special circumstances murder for financial gain.
“The jury spoke and they got it right,’’ says Murphy.
Naposki, in his first interview since the conviction, says he was shocked by the verdict. “My lawyers came to me [during jury deliberations] and said, ‘You’re going home, they didn’t prove anything,’ ’’ he says.
After the verdict was read, he turned, smiled at his fiancée, and said, “I love you. Everyone makes mistakes, including these 12.’’
Eric Andrew Naposki has always done things differently.
Naposki had a football scholarship at the University of Connecticut, but quit the team in his junior year after a disagreement with coach Tom Jackson. Undrafted in 1988, he showed up at Sullivan Stadium and squeezed through an opening in the fence to grab a number at a Patriots tryout.
“I snuck in,’’ says Naposki. “They said, ‘OK the first guy to run the 40 is No. 442,’ and I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s me.’ I go out and run the fastest time in the country for a linebacker that year. The only one who ran a 4.5 that year was [Kansas City great] Derrick Thomas.
“[Patriots general manager] Dick Steinberg came over and said, ‘Who are you?’ ’’
Steinberg signed him to a contract.
“He was as tough as nails,’’ says former Patriots linebacker Ed Reynolds. “He was real quick, a high-energy guy, but he was undersized.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about him. He was the type of guy who wouldn’t hesitate going down a dark alley with you. He was just a fun guy to be around.’’
As a Patriots rookie in 1988, Naposki was seeing action at linebacker and special teams against the Houston Oilers when he got hurt.
“Toby Caston came up and hit me full speed in the back with his helmet and broke three ribs and lacerated my liver,’’ he says. “I came back, though.’’
The next season, he re-signed with the Patriots to help replace the injured Andre Tippett but was cut after one game.
“I never could hit my stride in the NFL,’’ he says. “But I had four great years in Barcelona.’’
He played for the Dragons in NFL Europe under Jack Bicknell, the former Boston College coach.
“He was one of my all-time favorite kids,’’ says Bicknell. “He was like a member of my family. If you knew him, he was everything you wanted in a teammate and a player. He was a leader and he was loyal.
“He didn’t talk much, but when he did, everybody listened. He was a good enough linebacker to have a 10-year career in the NFL, but he was never in the right place at the right time.’’
Naposki says he made the Redskins in 1991 but hurt his groin in the preseason and was released. Washington won the Super Bowl that season.
“I could have had a Super Bowl ring,’’ he says.
Now he faces life imprisonment without parole. His Oct. 21 sentencing was delayed because of a motion filed by his attorneys.
Naposki isn’t giving up. He has stacks of documents, including Johnston’s bank records, to sift through. He says the money trail will lead to the real killer, who was hired by Johnston.
Despite the conviction, authorities are investigating leads Naposki has provided while in jail, if only to garner more information before Johnston’s trial in November.
The case was a tangled love triangle.
Johnston was romantically involved with both men. She met McLaughlin, 25 years her senior, in 1991. He answered a personal ad she posted that read, “I know how to take care of my man, if he knows how to take care of me.’’
Both men planned on marrying her.
McLaughlin, who made millions by founding a company that separates plasma from blood, was worth an estimated $55 million. The retired Marine was recently divorced. He gave Johnston and her two children a beachfront home to live in, as well as a bedroom in his own bay-front home, and a luxury car, according to police.
Naposki met Johnston when he was a personal trainer at an Irvine fitness club in 1992. He says Johnston told him she was McLaughlin’s business partner and he thought she was wealthy. Naposki claims he had no idea she was embezzling almost $500,000 from McLaughlin’s bank account.
“She treated me good,’’ he says.
The prosecution says Naposki was indeed a kept man. There were trips to Jamaica, San Francisco, and New York, a $600 pair of alligator cowboy boots, and three motorcycles.
“I’m sure not going to kill someone for a pair of boots and a vacation,’’ says Naposki.
Police questioned Naposki twice after the murder. He gave blood samples. His truck was combed for evidence. His home was searched. They found nothing of substance.
“If there was any money, they would have found it so quick it would make your head spin,’’ he says.
But Murphy says the payoff was down the road.
“He gets a piece of everything she gets because he’s planning on marrying her,’’ says Murphy.
The jury believed that Johnston persuaded Naposki to shoot McLaughlin.
“We never met,’’ Naposki says of McLaughlin. “I’ve never been in his house. I never had any reason to be, and there was no way in the world I could have committed that murder that night. It’s impossible.’’
Naposki says he was returning from watching Johnston’s son play in a soccer game in Walnut when he was paged by the bar manager of the Thunderbird Lounge. He says his calling-card record proved he returned the call from a pay phone at a Denny’s in Santa Ana at 8:52 p.m., 12 miles away. But his former lawyer lost his file years ago, and with it, his alibi.
At the trial, Murphy questioned whether Naposki’s call even took place. He says Naposki told police “a million lies.’’
Naposki admits that he did lie to police initially.
“Absolutely,’’ he says. “Why did I lie? Not used to being pulled over in the middle of the night, thrown in handcuffs, thrown in jail for four or five hours, and then interviewed by two cops.’’
The chains jingle as a shackled Naposki rummages through files at the Theo Lacy Facility, where he has been held for the last 26 months. He produces a 1995 police transcript in which he asks police to get his calling-card records so that, “You guys can leave me alone.’’
But police didn’t request his phone records until June 4, 2009, according to Newport Beach Police records. By that time, the records had been destroyed and Naposki had been arrested.
Murphy says that in December 2010 he had detectives drive the route from the Denny’s to McLaughlin’s house 13 times. Each time they arrived at the murder scene before 9:09 p.m.
“What difference does [his alibi] make if you still had time to get down there and commit the murder?’’ says Murphy.
According to Naposki, there was heavy road construction back then, different businesses, different ramps, and lower speed limits.
“Let me tell you something, my alibi was true,’’ insists an agitated Naposki. Driving the route in 1994, he says, “There’s not a chance in the world you could commit this crime.’’
Both Naposki and Johnston were prime suspects. But two previous district attorneys decided there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.
Johnston, who cashed a check for $250,000 from McLaughlin the day before he died, pleaded guilty to grand theft in 1996 and was sentenced to one year in jail. She is also facing murder charges and will stand trial Nov. 4.
Charged in 2009
Naposki says he was blackballed from the NFL for a year, in 1995, tried out in the Canadian Football League, and eventually returned to play with the Dragons in 1996. He finished his career in 1997 with a World Bowl championship.
His career over, he moved back to Connecticut and went on with his life. He served as a linebackers coach for Tony Sparano (now the Miami Dolphins coach) at the University of New Haven, and helped take the team to the 1997 Division 2 championship game.
Naposki worked security at ESPN and was even selected Security Officer of the Year in 2000. He was a personal trainer, had two children, and was engaged to a teacher. Wedding invitations were in the mail.
“I had a beautiful life,’’ he says sadly.
But Murphy reopened the investigation in 2007, and citing new evidence, ordered the arrests in 2009.
A SWAT team pulled Naposki from his car as he left his Greenwich, Conn., home on May 20. Police gave him one last chance. Call Johnston, they said, and let us listen. He refused. Johnston was arrested a short time later in Ladera Ranch.
Naposki says this case is really about Nanette Johnston, also known as Nanette Packard in court documents. Or as Murphy called her in court, “The worst person on planet Earth.’’
“All that I am guilty of is having the wrong girlfriend,’’ says Naposki. “She threw me under the bus.’’
Naposki’s behavior in the courtroom did not help him with the jury.
The trial drew national attention, and media coverage described Naposki, who grew up in the Bronx, as snorting, laughing, and shaking his head during prosecution testimony. That offended at least one juror, who watched McLaughlin’s two adult daughters weeping in the courtroom.
Asked why he didn’t testify in his own behalf, Naposki shrugs, “Because I’m an idiot.’’
Naposki says he hopes the real killer can be found before his sentencing.
Told that sounded a little bit like O.J. Simpson’s shallow promise, Naposki frowns.
“We’re not talking O.J.’s case - DNA, shoe prints, bloody glove at the scene,’’ he says. “I had none of that stuff.’’
But Naposki refuses to envision a life behind bars.
“I know I’m up the river without a paddle,’’ he says. “But I guarantee I’m walking out of here one day.’’
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.