Digital Technology Helps Solve Murder Of California Nurse Found Brutally Stabbed
“I felt that there was something broken in that person,” one official said of discovering who had committed the crime.
Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from ID's "Caught in the Net")
A prison nurse was found murdered in her California home after she failed to show up for work. Would police be able to follow a digital trail left behind to identify and bring the killer responsible for the brutal crime to justice?
Shortly before noon on Oct. 24, 2018, Athena Valentiny was attacked in her Grover Beach home. Her body was found the following day on her bedroom floor. An autopsy later determined Valentiny’s throat was slashed and she had died from multiple stab wounds.
After speaking with neighbors, officers determined the victim’s dog was missing. “That was a key point because the dog was well loved by Miss Valentiny and would not go with a stranger, as what was told to us,” Grover Beach Police Department Chief John Peters says.
During the investigation, detectives worked to determine if Valentiny’s death had anything to do with California Men’s Colony, the San Luis Obispo County prison where she was employed. No connection was ever found.
The victim had a son, Levente Laszlo Lazar, and Shelby Holmes recalls her friend and former prison colleague loved him very much. “They had a great relationship,” Holmes says. “They talked every day over the phone.”
At the time, Levente was in college and lived across the country, in Bloomington, Indiana. After the murder, Casey Neall, the now-retired assistant chief investigator with the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s Office, contacted Bloomington police, who assisted in making an in-person death notification.
After learning about the killing, Lazar phoned Neall, and the assistant chief investigator asked him about the last time he had heard from his mother. “He tells me that he was in Bloomington, Indiana, on the day of this murder, which is a couple thousand miles away,” Neall recalls.
In the meantime, detectives turned to digital technology to help with the investigation, reviewing surveillance video footage recovered from motion-activated cameras outside Valentiny’s unit. According to Neall, footage showed a figure walking with what appeared to be Valentiny’s dog near her unit around 11 the evening of the murder.
Video from a nearby business also showed the figure around 6:30 that night walking toward Valentiny’s home while speaking on a cell phone. The same person was spotted again walking in the opposite direction with the victim’s dog around four and a half hours later.
“At this point, we wanted to investigate what that cell phone data could tell us,” Chief Peters says.
Cell phone records showed that on the last day of Valentiny’s life, she received phone calls from an area code in Ohio that was new to her and made contact with her multiple times throughout the day. Valentiny’s phone records also indicated she was on a call from the Ohio number at the same time the person seen on surveillance video walking towards Valentiny’s house who also appeared to be talking on the phone.
Detectives then learned Valentiny’s dog was friendly with its owner and people she knew, but the same couldn’t be said for the animal’s behavior with strangers. In video, detectives noted the dog was walking off-leash with the figure.
“We issued a search warrant for the 513 phone number’s records and received them from Cricket Wireless,” Neall says, explaining detectives learned the number was a burner phone, or prepaid phone, that was purchased at a Best Buy about a half mile from Lazar’s home in Indiana. “It was not a coincidence that it was activated a half mile from his house and it was calling his mom the day she was murdered.”
The burner phone’s records showed the phone pinged towers in the days leading up to Valentiny’s death in Oklahoma and along the interstate until it arrived in Grover Beach, California.
Lazar initially denied he went to California, but license plate readers captured his Jeep traveling across the country in several places in the days before and after Valentiny’s murder.
Eventually, Lazar admitted he had bought the burner phone and had gone to California, but he insisted his mother wasn’t home when he arrived and he never saw her.
Then police got another break in the case when a search of Lazar’s apartment in Indiana turned up an iPad. When processed by the cybercrime lab, investigators learned Lazar had done multiple searches on Google for murders on his mother’s street in Grover Beach — nearly an hour before she was found dead.
“When we arrested Levente Lazar, I felt that there was something broken in that person, and I was more confident that he had committed this crime than almost any other I had investigated,” Neall says.
At trial, prosecutors argued Lazar’s motive for killing Valentiny was that he wanted to inherit his mother’s property and estate.
Nearly one year after the murder, a jury in San Luis Obispo County found Lazar guilty of Valentiny’s first-degree murder.
Police were never able to determine what happened to Valentiny’s dog despite extensive searches for the pet.
In December 2019, a judge sentenced Lazar, now 31, to serve life behind bars. He is not eligible for parole because his conviction includes a special circumstances allegation that he murdered his mother for financial gain.
“While no amount of punishment will bring our victim Athena Valentiny back, a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is a just outcome for this senseless murder,” District Attorney Dan Dow said, the Paso Robles Daily News reported at the time.
“Mr. Lazar was wrong when he thought he could literally get away with murder by using technology and deception to hide his involvement,” Dow continued, adding, “We will always use every means at our disposal to find those responsible, even when they attempt to conceal their tracks.”
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