Monday, February 08, 2010

Personal Assistant's Murder Trial Heats Up

,by Cathy Scott
Reprinted from Women in Crime Ink 

Two worlds collided when a quiet 26-year-old woman named Natavia Lowery went to work for the powerful, outspoken 62-year-old Linda Stein, a property broker to the rich and famous.

For years, the New York City media referred to Linda as the “realtor to the stars.” Despite her toughness, people were drawn to her. Stein, a self-made woman who swore like a sailor and smoked pot like a hippie, could command a room equally with her wit and razor-sharp sarcasm. She’d jumped head first into the music industry in the 1970s when she co-managed the legendary punk-rock band The Ramones.

Linda Stein had turned herself into a successful, fiercely independent businesswoman with big-name clients.

Natavia’s working-class upbringing contrasted starkly with Linda’s upper-class life. Natavia (photo right) was an only child, the daughter of a housekeeper and maintenance man, and had been raised in the Grant projects on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem. After her father’s death, her mother eventually remarried, and the family moved to Brooklyn. Natavia excelled both academically and in competitive sports. In high school, she was a star runner on the girls' track team. Upon graduation from high school, she enrolled at North Carolina State University, where she was a member of the modeling troupe Black Finesse. She dropped out after just one semester to finish a business degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. Natavia’s classmates remember her as being soft-spoken but also sticking up for herself when she needed to.

The morning of October 30, 2007, started out like any other. Natavia showed up for work at her boss’s Upper East Side, Fifth Avenue apartment. Linda spent the morning in her bedroom doing yoga exercises while Natavia printed e-mails from Linda’s personal computer. But as the day progressed, something went terribly wrong. By the end of the day, Linda was discovered dead and the police and paramedics were investigating the crime scene inside her spotless apartment, preparing to move her body to the morgue. Six days later, Linda was buried. Four days after that, Natavia was under arrest, charged with the murder of her boss.

According to a confession made by Natavia and released by the Manhattan district attorney’s office -- which was challenged by Natavia’s lawyers but ultimately ruled admissible in court -- Linda walked to the desk in her living room, where Natavia was working on Linda’s e-mails, and asked what was taking so long. Linda started blowing marijuana smoke in Natavia’s face and berating her at the same time.

“Get the fucking e-mails! How can you be so fucking slow?” Linda reportedly hollered. If that’s what actually happened that midday, perhaps Stein’s anger was born out of frustration: she could no longer open her own messages because her right hand and arm were numb from the after-effects of chemotherapy she'd endured fighting breast cancer. Linda apparently smoked marijuana to ease the lingering pain. In addition, Linda was on prescription medication that caused mood swings. Verbally, Linda was a fighter; physically, she was not in shape to defend herself against a physical attack.

Whatever it was that sparked the tirade that day, according to Natavia Lowery’s reported account to police, Linda then waved either a walking or yoga stick at Lowery as she continued berating her assistant. Then, at about 12.30 p.m., Linda returned to Natavia's work spot and offered, as a way of making peace, to buy her assistant lunch.

“I’ve got my own money in a savings account. I don’t need you to buy me lunch,” said an indignant Natavia, who repeated the alleged conversation to detectives. “Black people don’t have any money,” Linda purportedly responded. “C’mon, save your money. I’ll buy you lunch.”

Currently being tried in a Manhattan criminal courtroom, the case against Natavia Lowery is not looking good for the former personal assistant. The scenario prosecutors have laid out for the jury is that Linda, who sold homes to Madonna, Elton John, and Angelina Jolie, confronted Natavia, and, in response, Natavia killed her.But Natavia’s team of lawyers said their client may be a thief, but she’s no killer.

This week, lead prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon presented a taped phone message from Natavia to Linda. Natavia and Linda’s daughter, Mandy Stein, were the last to see Stein alive. Each was captured on security videotape leaving the Central Park West apartment building, with Natavia the last to leave.

The message from Natavia was left hours after Linda was killed. Prosecutors contend that Natavia called in the message to create an alibi.

Instead, according to evidence presented in court, Natavia slipped up. In the message left on Linda Stein’s phone answering machine, Natavia asked Linda to give her a call before 5:30 p.m. that day.

"Hey, Linda, it's Natavia," the 28-year-old said in her message, which the prosecutor described as a “breezy" message. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm leaving work at 5:30. … If you get this message before 5:30, you can just call me. If not, talk to you later."

The problem with that statement was that message was left just after 6 p.m. -- proof, the prosecutor told the jury, that it was done to cover Natavia’s tracks.

Testimony provided by Verizon and T-Mobile phone experts show the call originating at 6:09 p.m. from Brooklyn, where Lowery lived, and not from Linda’s apartment.

It’s evidence like this -- what at any other time would be considered a small detail -- that gets people convicted.

But time will tell. The trial is expected to last another four to six weeks. 

Photos courtesy of the New York Daily News.