By Greg Risling Associated Press
OXNARD, Calif. — Dave Laut was the idolized local boy who did his hometown and nation proud.
A stellar shot-putter who scored a bronze medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, Laut married his high school sweetheart, Jane, settled down in the coastal community where he was raised and trained others to follow in his footsteps on the athletic field.
So when Laut, 52, was gunned down in his backyard in August by a possible prowler, hundreds of people paid homage at a memorial service where he was described as a gentle giant.
In recent days, however, a darker portrait has emerged of what happened at the Laut home. His wife was arrested and charged Tuesday with his murder, and her lawyer claimed it was to protect herself after abuse for much of their 29-year marriage.
“There won’t be any dispute she shot him,” defense lawyer Ron Bamieh said. “Our position is it’s a lawful homicide and it was done in self-defense. She was fearful of him.”
Ventura County prosecutors claim Jane Laut killed her husband in cold blood, shooting him four times in the head.
“This was an execution-style murder in which a man was shot multiple times in the head by his wife, found in a position and a place which is inconsistent with self defense,” Deputy District Attorney Bill Haney said.
Jane Laut, 52, posted $1 million bail on Friday and was released from jail after a judge reduced the amount from $3 million. A temporary gag order was placed on attorneys and family members. A hearing is scheduled Wednesday.
Those who knew Dave Laut said he was brawny, headstrong and excelled in any sport he tackled. After graduating from high school and attending two community colleges, Laut caught the attention of UCLA coach Jim Kiefer, who made Laut his first recruit after watching him hurl a shot put.
“He always worked hard and loved competing,” Kiefer said. “He just continued to get better and better. He was certainly one of the best guys in the country for eight or nine years.”
Laut won two NCAA titles at UCLA and a gold medal at the 1979 Pan American Games. His chances for Olympic gold were dashed in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow. He went on to set the American shot put record of 72 feet, 3 inches in 1982 and was favored to win gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but ended up with bronze for a mark of 68 feet, 93/4 inches.
Even though Laut didn’t win gold, he was a hometown hero, said Lou Cvijanovich, who coached Laut in high school football and basketball.
“The town was so elated that one of their boys did so well,” Cvijanovich said. “He was such a tremendous athlete and such a nice guy.”
Hobbled by an injury when he tore tendons in both knees during an agility test to become a firefighter in 1986, Laut was unable to make the Olympic team two years later.
Laut, who grew up in Ventura County, was a track coach and the athletic director at Hueneme High School in Oxnard.
Jane Laut was a homemaker who has been described as a soft-spoken and devoted wife and mother to the couple’s 11-year-old adopted son, Michael.
“You can sense Jane’s gentle nature by listening to her voice, and it is apparent that she would never hurt a fly,” her niece, Beth Baumer, said in court documents seeking to reduce Jane Laut’s $3 million bail. “Throughout my entire life, I have never seen her become violent in any way.”
While the couple gave the appearance they had a happy marriage, some said they noticed that Dave Laut held power over his wife.
Neighbor Rosa Navarro-Gray said she saw Jane Laut do much of the housework while her husband would bark out orders.
“That poor woman, from eight in the morning until dark, she was doing work while he was supervising her,” Navarro-Gray said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know how she put up with him. I felt sorry for her.”
Jane Laut initially told police that her husband went to the backyard Aug. 27 to investigate suspicious sounds and she heard shots fired, police said. Officers searched for a prowler, but concluded within days that the killing was not random.
The prosecutor said Jane Laut repeatedly lied to police and attempted to hide evidence.
Her lawyer is now presenting a much different story, citing that she was a domestic abuse victim who lied to investigators because she had been hiding the truth of their violent relationship for years.
After a night of heavy drinking, Dave Laut went to bed and awoke to the sound of his dogs barking, Bamieh said. Jane Laut, who was sleeping in her son’s room, said she tried to quiet her agitated husband. But in a fit of anger, Dave Laut grabbed a gun.
“He said he was going to kill Michael and make her watch,” he said.
The argument spilled out into the yard where Dave Laut lost his balance and tripped at the edge of the patio. A struggle ensued and once Jane Laut had the gun, Dave Laut came at her after threatening to kill her and their son, Bamieh said.
“She doesn’t know how many shots she fired,” Bamieh said. “She has mourned his death. She has a strong belief that when all the facts are heard, the truth will come out.”
Bamieh also showed photos of his bruised client that he said were taken after the killing.
Haney said Dave Laut had a blood-alcohol level of .05 percent, which is below the legal limit for intoxication.
Bamieh claims Dave Laut verbally and physically abused his wife for many years, even dating back to high school. He also said Jane Laut injected her husband with steroids on at least one occasion in the months leading up to the 1984 Olympics.
“In these kind of relationships you are conditioned to cover up the reality of your lifestyle,” Bamieh told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “It’s also heightened in this case by the fact that you have a public figure who had an impact on the community.”
Friends and family members still struggle to comprehend what went wrong and are saddened that the couple’s son, who is living with Jane Laut’s brother, is without his parents.
Cvijanovich went to the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary party a few years ago on a ranch and said they showed no sign of trouble.
“They were the nicest married couple I’ve ever seen,” he said. “What happened in that house, God only knows. It’s mind boggling.”