Maria Victoria “Vicky” Ghonim was 17 when she was gunned down in 1992 in her car while her 6-month-old son was in the back seat. Ruthless? Absolutely. Predictable? Not even remotely. The person who orchestrated the whole thing was the most unexpected perpetrator: Morrad Ghonim – Vicky’s 19-year-old husband.
Vicky only got to live 17 years, but it took 23 years to finally put an end to her case. Only in 2015 did the monster she once called her husband get the punishment he deserved. Thanks to DNA testing and determined detectives, the case can finally be put to rest, just as Vicky was decades ago.
(Note: Reports vary on how Vicky’s name was actually spelled; some spell it Vicki).
The Worst Kind of News
On July 24, 1992, Vicky’s family had to hear the worst news a family could receive. The information came from someone they trusted – a man they accepted into their home as the husband of their dear Vicky. Morrad was actually accompanied by two detectives, who at the time were not aware of the husband’s true connection to his wife’s death.
Nonetheless, Vicky’s family had to bear the news – that she had been shot the day before while she, Morrad, and their infant son, Michael, were at Creek Park in La Mirada. Morrad told them what happened…
Morrad Tells His Story
Morrad’s story went like this: he took his wife and their baby to the park to see the horses at the stables. But, out of nowhere, as the small family was walking around, some “gangsters” started making lewd comments at Vicky. The teen mom was not one to just stand back, and so she retorted.
That’s when some girls who were with the gang members started telling Vicky off. The couple decided to leave and quickly headed for their car. Morrad said that when they were getting into the car, one of the gangsters started shooting at his wife from the bushes.
Morrad Gets Pulled Over
Morrad said he couldn’t get a good enough look at the shooter’s face since he was shooting from behind the bushes. He was also trying to quickly put his baby into the car seat. And there was the fact that the whole incident occurred in the late evening hours.
Vicky, unfortunately, was hit by a bullet. Morrad drove away with his teenage wife slumped over on his lap, trying to find the nearest hospital. It was around 9 p.m. in LA County, and Morrad sped right through a red light, catching the eye of a California Highway Patrol officer.
Vicky Didn’t Make It
The officer pulled Morrad over, not prepared for what he was about to see. As he walked up to the car, he saw, sitting in the passenger seat, a teenaged girl covered in blood. Her head was crumpled onto the young man’s lap, and Morrad was sobbing uncontrollably.
The miracle was that their six-month-old was unharmed in the car seat. Since Vicky wasn’t breathing, the officer immediately pulled the teen out of the car to perform CPR. But it was too late – Vicky no longer had a pulse. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
High School Sweethearts
The autopsy revealed that Vicky had been shot five times with a .22 caliber weapon. According to police reports, the first fatal shot was to Vicky’s right eye, while the second was behind her right ear.
Morrad and Vicky had met when she was a student at John Glenn High School. The young couple decided to tie the knot after Vicky found out that she was pregnant. By the time she was killed in 1992, they had only been married for a little over a year.
The First Red Flag
They were living in Vicky’s family home with their baby and other family members. On the day that Morrad told them the devastating news, Vicky’s sister Martha asked him a very logical question…
She asked her brother-in-law why he didn’t take Vicky to the fire station that she knew sat directly across the street from the entrance to the park. Morrad told her that he hadn’t thought about it. This, in hindsight, was the first red flag that something just wasn’t right…
Scouring the Scene of the Crime
Meanwhile, Morrad was telling the authorities that they had been ambushed by a gang. He explained that in his panic, he ran the red light to search for a hospital. He also said that the shooter was about 25 to 50 yards away from them when he started shooting.
When investigators went to La Mirada Park to check out the scene, they scoured the parking lot and surrounding area for evidence. Yet they didn’t find anything in the lot – no expended cartridges, no bullets, no bullet fragments.
The Man in the Hoodie
What they did find, however, were several witnesses, one of whom revealed that they heard a few “popping noises,” one after another. Immediately after, a man in a sweatshirt with a hood ran past the witness. The same witness noticed that same sweatshirt in the park’s parking lot sometime later.
There turned out to be several witnesses who also reported seeing a man fleeing the scene. He was described as a “very skinny male Hispanic” wearing a Chicago White Sox sweatshirt. Witnesses also reported that the man took off his clothes and stashed them under a bush.
A Case Gone Cold
The clothes were among the pieces of evidence the police found in the park. Back at the police station, Morrad agreed to take a gunshot residue test, which came back negative. Detectives received an anonymous tip about two gang members in connection to the murder.
The problem was that the park witnesses couldn’t identify anyone in the photos shown to them. Sadly, with little to no evidence to go by and virtually no leads to take them anywhere, the case went cold. It took 14 years for investigators to get their first big break.
The Case Opens Up Again
In 2006, a big break cracked the cold case open. By this time, DNA technology was at a new level and proved extremely useful in solving Vicky’s murder. Beyond the DNA evidence was a new look into an old phone tip that came from a woman claiming to know the man who shot Vicky.
Investigators received a grant which permitted forensic testing on the clothes they found in the bushes at the park back in 1992. Luckily, they had been saved all these years and could now lead detectives directly to the shooter.
The Shooter Confesses
It took three years, but investigators finally got the DNA results, which directed them to a man named Leon Martinez, who happened to be serving time for another unrelated crime. Leon tried to place the blame on a dead friend of his, but after further questioning, he fessed up.
He explained that he had been hired by the girl’s own husband, Morrad. The DNA evidence was one thing, but the new investigators came across an old phone tip from the cold case. Inside one of the case files was a report of an old phone tip…
An Old Phone Tip
The call had come from a woman who claimed to know important details about the shooting. She named Leon Martinez as the man who killed Vicky. Detectives tracked down the woman, who turned out to be the mother of Leon’s ex-girlfriend, Selena Woody.
Her mother, Barbara Woody, reluctantly told the officers what she knew about the crime. Barbara told them that Leon had been hired by Morrad to kill his young wife. At the time of the murder, her daughter was dating Leon, and she told the investigators that Leon even admitted to shooting Vicky.
Don’t Tell… Or Else
Moreover, Leon said that if she – Barbara – told anyone, he would kill her and her whole family. Selena also told the officers that Leon confessed to the crime in front of her and threatened her to keep her from talking.
Selena’s sister, Deanna, later testified as well, saying she had seen Leon with Morrad multiple times. Back in 1992, Deanna was dating a guy who introduced Leon and Morrad to each other. According to Deanna, Leon and Morrad were talking to one another on her street only days before the murder took place.
He Seemed Nice
On that day, Deanna was talking to Morrad about her own kid, who needed a heart transplant. She remembers telling Morrad that she was worried about the operation. He reassured her, telling her that when he was a child, he had also a heart operation and survived.
This reassured her, and she came to like the guy. Thanks to Leon’s confession, authorities were able to track down Morrad. By then, Morrad had already moved on. A few years after the shooting, Morrad married the woman who became his second wife.
The Main Person of Interest
He even went on to marry a third time. What Morrad didn’t know was that, after all these years, he was now the investigation’s main person of interest. Authorities tracked down Morrad, who by then was living on the island of Antigua with his third wife, a former Ms. Dominica.
In Antigua, Morrad started a company, Ayoushe Beauty Supplies, which was actually going well. In April 2015, LAPD collaborated with local Antigua police to get Morrad deported on homicide charges. He was thus extradited and sent to Miami.
The Price of a Hit
The arrest warrant for Morrad was put into place after new witnesses surfaced (the Woodys), which pushed the case “over the top,” according to authorities. Detectives also spoke to his second wife, Nisreen Alfaleh, who told them that their marriage had been a disaster.
When she threatened to divorce him, he told her, “If you try to get a divorce from me, I’ll do to you what I did to the other.” Morrad told Nisreen, “It may cost me more than $500 now, but it’ll be worth it.”
Up Close and Personal
The LA County Sheriff’s Department asked Morrad to come in for questioning. They told him they wanted to revisit the crime scene – for him to tell his story of the murder again. Morrad claimed that since a lot of time had passed, he could no longer recall the specifics of that night.
He said he couldn’t remember what the gang members looked like. But the autopsy report told an altogether different story. According to Vicky’s autopsy report, her wounds revealed that the gun had been fired “at close range, maybe even contact,” former Sgt. Mitch Loman said.
The Son Was 18
“Somebody would have to had the gun inside the car with the gun pointing down, which makes sense if the shooter’s standing outside the car window, firing the weapon into the car,” the sergeant explained. By October 2010, investigators had enough evidence to arrest Morrad for the murder of his first wife.
Morrad, then 43, was taken into custody after dropping off his 18-year-old son at school. A video recording of his interrogation showed Morrad describing the events of the shooting. Detectives noticed several inconsistencies in the story.
His and Hers Prison Sentences
Amazingly, they had to let him go due to a lack of evidence. As for Leon, he was charged with capital murder. Since Leon was already in prison, he was then transferred to the Los Angeles County Jail. He then called his wife, Eva Martinez, from prison to ask her to intimidate his ex, Selena, against testifying in the upcoming trial.
Ultimately, both Eva and Leon were charged with dissuading a witness. Eva had pleaded guilty, which led to three years of probation and 180 days in jail.
A Plea Deal
Leon’s trial only began four years later. Leon was the prosecution’s star witness. Nisreen also testified against her ex-husband, telling the jury about his threat. She also confirmed that he had a scar from a childhood heart surgery.
While they convicted Leon of dissuading a witness, the jury was out on the murder charge. Leon was then retried the next year and ultimately found guilty. He was facing life without parole. He decided to strike a post-conviction plea agreement, agreeing to provide details of the murder plot in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Leon Tells His Story
So, he testified against Morrad – who, he said, asked him to kill his own wife. During the trial in 2016, Leon got to tell his side of the story. According to him, back in 1992, Morrad offered to pay him to kill his wife.
Leon agreed, and the next day he waited for the couple to show up at the agreed-upon location: the park. As Leon explained, Morrad asked him to stage the scene like a botched robbery. And so, once Morrad and Vicky parked the car, Leon walked up to the car and fired multiple rounds at the girl.
The whole walking around – getting-cussed-at-by-gangsters story – that was a lie. Leon also said that Vicky begged him not to harm the baby, which he didn’t. After the deed was done, Morrad reached over his wife’s lifeless body to pay Leon the rest of what he owed him.
Leon revealed to the court that Morrad had told him that he and Vicky were having marital troubles and he wanted his wife dead. He also claimed that Morrad paid him $20,000.
He Was Disowned
Leon was ultimately sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He was given an additional three years for dissuading a witness. As for Morrad’s motive, according to the investigators’ theory, Morrad wanted Vicky dead to get back into the good graces of his devout Muslim parents.
Apparently, they had disowned their son after he married Vicky, a Catholic. All the while, Morrad maintained that he was not guilty – that he really did love Vicky. He pointed the finger at a detective, who (he claimed) manipulated Vicky’s family against him.
A Coward and a Monster
It’s no surprise that to this day, Martha Guzman still obsesses over the final moments of her younger sister’s life. How did she feel before being shot to death? “I replay it over and over in my mind,” Martha admitted to the LA Times.
In court, she looked directly at Morrad when she said, “Morrad, you’re a coward and a monster… you deliberately put your son in danger to make your story more believable.” While Morrad didn’t look at his former sister-in-law, he swallowed hard.
Just a Kid Working at Little Caesars
“We now know the truth and find some peace in that,” she told him in court. “You’re finally going to be held accountable.” But Morrad wasn’t guilty. No, no. “I didn’t do anything,” he told the judge. “I loved her.”
He reminded the judge that at the time he was only 19 and working at Little Caesars Pizza. How, could he afford so much money to hire a hitman? He added, “The family loved me so much,” turning to the crowd where Vicki’s mother and father were sitting and crying quietly.
May They Rot In…
In February 2016, Morrad was finally found guilty of first-degree murder, involving special circumstances of “lying in wait and murder for financial gain.” He was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. As the judge read Morrad’s sentence, Morrad placed his forehead in his hands and put his thumbs in both his ears, sighing twice.
He now sits at Centinela State Prison in California. As for Leon, he is currently serving his sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego and will reportedly be eligible for parole in 2028.
The People v. Morrad Modle Ghonim
A journalist named Mark Cromer was called as a witness in 2016 for the capital murder case of People v. Morrad Modle Ghonim. The then-young journalist was the only reporter to interview Morrad shortly after the murder in the summer of 1992.
Then 19-year-old Morrad gave Mark his version of events – the same story he told Vicky’s family. A quarter of a century later, LAPD’s Sgt. Howard Cooper asked Mark if he remembered the murder of Vicky Ghonim in La Mirada. And he did… for the most part.
A Trivial yet Vivid Memory
Mark had written several pieces on the murder, but it was his second article (“Picking Up the Pieces: Family Numb as Violence Claims Young Mother”) and his conversation with Morrad that Cooper was interested in.
Mark had also gone over to Vicky’s family in the wake of the murder to gain a better understanding of the teen who was so unnecessarily killed. He told Cooper about a “vivid” memory he has of that day – of the men in the family chain-smoking and drinking Turkish coffee. It wasn’t so helpful, but it was a clear memory, nonetheless.
Odd yet Ordinary Behavior
Mark also remembered Morrad acting notably “more oddly” than most people would if their wife had just been killed. But people express emotions in so many ways, he thought to himself. He recalled that nothing about Morrad’s grieving seemed out of the ordinary.
But Cooper had a reason for contacting Mark – the reporter who interviewed the man who later would be found guilty of killing his wife shortly after the murder. Mark wasn’t a cop; he wasn’t interrogating Morrad; and it was fresh. Cooper wanted the goods: seemingly mundane facts that eventually became critical.
The Reluctant Witness
Mark told Cooper that none of his stories on Vicky’s murder led to further calls for clarifications, corrections, or retractions by any party to the story, including Morrad. After meeting at a bar, Cooper told Mark that he would make a good witness in the upcoming trial (this was in 2015).
A year later, Mark got subpoenaed. More than anything else, he was surprised that the case was still going on after all these years. Reluctantly, he testified. As he sat in the courthouse, he listened as Leon testified to shooting Vicky in the head, “but she wouldn’t die.”
The Devil Is in the Details
He listened as it was described how Vicky was reflexively waving her hands around as she was being shot. That’s why he shot her in her thigh, so that when she dropped her hands to the wound, “he stuck the gun in her eye and pulled the trigger.”
Other witnesses on the stand included a man whom Morrad had called a week before his wife’s murder. He told the guy that Vicky had come home with a hickey on her neck and wanted to know if he was the guy who gave it to her.
The witness explained that Morrad was in panic mode, asking if they could get together and “talk.” A few days later, Morrad called the guy again: this time in a completely different mood. This time, all was good – they were cool – as if his previous accusation never happened.
The witness told the court that Morrad and Vicky were supposed to have dinner with him and his girlfriend the next week, but, of course, Vicky was dead before their dinner plans took place.
The Whole Truth
Then came time for Mark to take the stand as the first witness called after the lunch break. He swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help him, God. He was asked some short questions and instructed to read a passage from one of his stories about the murder.
“They had dinner in Cerritos, and then, at Vicky’s suggestion, they drove to Creek Park in La Mirada to show the baby the horses that are stabled there,” he read aloud.
Nothing but the Truth
“We were going to look at some cars later on, but we wanted to go to the park first before it got too late,” Morrad had told Mark in their interview at the time. They were only in the park for a few minutes before the “Latino gang bangers” started harassing Vicky.
“I heard [her] screaming…and she hugged me, covered me,” Morrad told Mark. “She just held me and looked at me, then she didn’t do anything. I was just screaming and trying to drive.”
When the Mundane Becomes Critical
It was later determined by an expert that with the last bullet slamming into Vicky’s brain, it would have been impossible for her to do anything like hug or cover somebody next to her. Morrad’s version of the story that he told Mark didn’t match the ones he told other people.
In fact, the story he told Mark wasn’t even physically possible. It turns out Mark’s “mundane” notes were critical after all. This is exactly why he was sitting there in court, testifying to a story he wrote decades earlier.
Thank You for Your Time
The defense tried their best not to doubt the reliability of Mark’s interview with Morrad. but to cloud it with others he had spoken with at the time – who else told him things that were in his stories but not as direct quotes?
The defense tried to “muddy the water” – cast doubt and create confusion. In the end, the judge called for a sidebar. A few moments later, Mark was told that there had been a stipulated agreement regarding his testimony, and he was thanked for his time. Almost two weeks later, Mark learned of the guilty verdict.