MURRIETA – Jury selection got underway today for the murder trial of an ex-con accused of beating a homeless man to death with a rock during a confrontation at a Lake Elsinore transient camp.
Jason Lee Schmidt, 37, could face 51 years to life in prison if convicted in the June 2012 slaying of 58-year-old Leopoldo Navarrete.
Schmidt is charged with first-degree murder and resisting arrest, as well as a sentence-enhancing weapon allegation. He also has a felony strike on his record.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Michael Rushton summoned prospective jurors to the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta for screening as to their availability and qualifications. Opening statements in the case are expected tomorrow or Wednesday.
According to sheriff’s investigators, Schmidt and Navarrete were loosely associated through encounters at a homeless camp known as the ”Olive Groves,” off of Adelfa Street and Grand Avenue in the community of Lakeland Village.
In an interview with Riverside County sheriff’s detectives, the defendant allegedly admitted killing Navarrete after becoming enraged when he mentioned having molested one of his own grandchildren.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, relatives of the victim vehemently deny that he ever had inappropriate contact with a juvenile family member.
According to a trial brief filed by Deputy District Attorney Burke Strunsky, Schmidt told a fellow cell mate that the killing was ”spur of the moment” and regrettable.
An occupant of the transient camp told investigators that she heard what sounded like a severe beating on the night of June 14, 2012, though she didn’t witness it. However, several other itinerants told authorities they encountered Schmidt in an agitated state that night, allegedly making self- incriminating statements, such as ”first kill of the year.”
The defendant tried unsuccessfully to torch Navarrete’s Toyota Camry, investigators allege.
The victim was reported missing by family members within a day of his disappearance. However, it wasn’t until July 19, 2012, that a man walking in the area of Akley and Gillette streets, about two blocks from the homeless encampment, stumbled onto Navarrete’s partially covered remains.
Based on video surveillance tape from a store where Navarette and Schmidt were seen around the same time, as well as statements from witnesses, investigators obtained and on Aug. 20 served an arrest warrant on Schmidt, who was staying at a group home in the 22000 block of Herbert Street in Good Hope. According to sheriff’s officials, the defendant took off running but was quickly apprehended.
According to court records, Schmidt has multiple prior felony convictions, including for drug-dealing, burglary and attempted burglary.
Schmidt is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Southwest Detention Center.