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One of the grimmest murder trials in recent memory concluded late Wednesday morning when a Los Angeles jury of eight men and four women convicted director and graphic novelist Blake Leibel of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Iana Kasian, in May 2016.
A room full of journalists, curious spectators and friends and family of both the victim and the accused, along with a few lawyers and staff, remained quiet during the hearing.
“I understand youv’e reached a verdict,” said the judge, Mark Windham. “We have,” said the foreperson. A clerk rose to read the verdict, finding Leibel guilty on all charges, including mayhem and torture.
Dressed in a blue blazer and crisp white shirt, standing to the left of his attorney, public defender Hayheh Takasugi, Leibel remained motionless, staring straight ahead. The victim’s mother, a Ukrainian health care worker named Olga Kasian, broke into tears and clutched the hands of a friend sitting nearby.
It was Olga who forced police to begin the search that would eventually lead them to the discovery of her daughter’s mutilated body in a West Hollywood apartment. Iana had just given birth to a daughter, Diana, three weeks earlier. Police discovered Iana’s body drained of all its blood and covered by a red Mickey Mouse blanket inside Leibel’s apartment.
Olga’s family and friends, many of whom had flown in from the Ukraine to offer support, surrounded her, translating and holding her close.
Leibel was flanked in court by a much smaller retinue; his brother, Cody, older by a year, was the only family member to attend every day of the trial. Jeremy Tenser, a longtime friend from Toronto, who had for a time worked as Leibel’s entertainment attorney, also attended much of the trial, and was often at Cody’s side (though not during the verdict). When the verdict was announced, Cody sighed heavily and stared ahead at the back of his brother’s head.
Leibel’s ex-wife, a former model named Amanda Braun, who appeared in court on the penultimate day of the trial, only entered the court on Wednesday after the verdict had been read. Leibel and Braun have two children together, neither of whom attended the proceedings. After the verdict was read, Leibel left the courtroom without looking at his brother or Braun.
In addition to the first degree murder charge, the jury found Leibel guilty of torture and mayhem, both of which carry additional sentencing obligations, along with special circumstances of using a deadly weapon.
After the ruling, a bailiff escorted Leibel out of the room, followed by his lawyer.
The trial offered a window into the dramatic socio-economic and cultural contrasts that can emerge in Hollywood.
A scion of one of Canada’s wealthiest and most controversial real estate developers, Leibel’s life was the epitomize of privilege, eccentricity and Hollywood access. He had worked alongside Mel Brooks on an animated Spaceballs show, and hobnobbed with high-stakes gamblers in private Beverly Hills poker games.
Iana Kasian, by contrast, came from a modest background, a Ukrainian who arrived in the U.S. with hopes for a better future, but little in the way of resources, contacts or access. As exposed as Kasian became throughout the course of the trial — photos of her naked, mutilated and earless body on display day after day — the contours of her life with Leibel, her yearnings, her accomplishments and her final thoughts remain immersed in uncertainty and shadow.
The trial, like the crime itself, was defined by particularly gruesome and macabre imagery. Pathologists testified that Kasian’s murder has already set a precedent in terms of the sheer barbarity on display, and the extent and brutality of her injuries.
Throughout the weeklong trial, prosecutor District Attorney Tannaz Mokayef and her co-counsel, Deputy DA Beth Silverman, displayed unusually graphic and disturbing crime-scene photographs to illustrate that Kasian’s murder, which included scalping and blood-draining on a victim who remained alive for much of the ordeal, was exceptionally, and even uniquely, horrific.
They also hammered at the idea that Leibel had orchestrated the murder to mirror certain elements from the plot of Syndrome, a 2010 graphic novel he helped create that told the story of a scientist who experiments on a psychopathic killer to find a cure for evil. Success is elusive in this fictional world, however, and the book’s narrator concludes “in the end we all become monsters.”
Silverman, toward the end of the trial, reminded jurors of the similarities between the fictional crime and the real one, and asserted that the novel was Leibel’s “blueprint.” The resulting real-world violence was so severe and extreme, Silverman said, that words “failed” to adequately describe what had occurred.
“This was depravity,” Silverman said, bluntly. “Ms. Kasian died a slow and painful death,” he said. “Her daughter will never know her, and that’s because of the unconscionable acts you heard about during this trial.”
The trial began with first-hand testimony from Olga Kasian, who speaks no English and used several court-appointed Russian language interpreters during testimony.
Distressed that she had not heard from her daughter for two days, Olga went in search of Iana on May 24, 2016, after dozens of calls, texts and emails went unanswered. The day before, Iana had gone shopping for baby strollers. It was the last time Olga would see her daughter alive. When Olga did finally manage to get the police interested, two LASD officers tried to perform a welfare check on Iana at the apartment she had been sharing with Leibel on Holloway Drive in West Hollywood. On another occasion, Olga went to the apartment by herself and stood across the street, screaming for Leibel to open the door. She testified that she saw him come to the window, only to close it and disappear inside.
Police were unable to enter, even though Leibel and Iana were there at the time, phone records appeared to show. The detectives even tried a ruse to lure Leibel out, pretending to leave when in fact they were hiding in close range. But no one answered the door. Police left, but Olga persisted and, on the 26th, she called 911. With the help of a friend, she managed to croak out a desperate plea: “Help,” she told the emergency operator. Police returned to the apartment and broke in, where they were met with a horror show.
Much of the prosecution’s case rested on what police and forensic experts ultimately pieced together from the apartment. The testimony was largely comprised of a barrage of forensic and physical evidence, all of which pointed to Leibel as the killer. A forensic pathologist explained how blood found throughout the apartment matched the victim, and how DNA found at the crime scene belonged to both Iana Kasian and Leibel. Blood evidence was collected from all over the apartment, and was even found in the kitchen drain pipe. Police found pieces of flesh from Kasian’s mutilated body in the bed, behind the mattress and on the floor. A bed sheet bore distinct handprints that matched Leibel’s hand exactly, and was easily discernible by the jury because Leibel happens to be missing a portion of his right pinky finger.
In the basement, police found 11 discarded trash bags, many of which contained bloody sheets and clothes, body parts belonging to Kasian, and huge chunks of her hair and scalp. Finally, inside the apartment itself, police found Kasian’s corpse splayed out on the bed in the master bedroom, with Blake at her side. Prosecutors said there was some indication that he had been lying next to her body, which had been cleaned, for some time before police arrived. Police found a knife and a bloody razor blade that prosecutors said may have been used during the scalping.
Prosecutors provided text messages showing that Leibel had ordered food from PostMates on several occasions during the time when Kasian was dying, instructing the delivery service not to knock on the door, but to leave the food outside. “All the effort over the last two days, and he’s really worked up an appetite,” said Silverman. “He doesn’t want the delivery people to ring the bell, he doesn’t want to be interrupted.”
In the hours before police broke down the door, Blake had called his accountant, Stephen Green, who rushed over to help. Video footage showed him racing through the lobby and entering the elevator. Green testified that when he arrived, he helped police try to coax Leibel out of the bedroom. At one point, Leibel asked Green to pass him some clothes from the living room. Green did so, but not before police had a chance to search them, whereupon they found a passport and $4,000 in cash, which Silverman later surmised might have been Leibel’s ready escape plan.
Early on in her closing statements, Silverman asked the question that has hung over the case from the beginning: Why?
“I’m sure you’ve asked yourself the question of why?” she said. “Why would a human being do anything close to this to a human being, and why do that to someone he supposedly loves, someone he just had a baby with?” She conceded that motive was often difficult to discern, but offered clues as to what may have driven Leibel to such extremes. Power, jealousy and anger were likely at play, she said, suggesting that Leibel may have been jealous that Kasian’s attention had been diverted away from him and toward the newborn.
“He threw away pieces of his fiancée like she was trash,” said Silverman. “The mother of his newborn baby.”
Leibel’s public defender Takasugi tried to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, pointing out that DNA from an “unknown second male” was found on the outsides of three of the 11 trashbags in Leibel’s basement and casting doubt on the testimony of a blood expert the prosecution had put on the stand.
The jury was unconvinced. Silverman drove home the case with an emotional appeal.
“What happened here is beyond anybody’s worst nightmare,” she said. “Maybe you thought, how bad can it be? We’re all desensitized to the level of violence we have in our society. This seems very surreal, but yet it’s real. That’s the point. This is the world where the defendant lives, where people’s lives have no value. Maybe he did think that no one would care that a young woman from the Ukraine went missing here in the U.S. She was butchered and thrown away like pieces of trash.”
The trial was marked by several dramatic interludes that provided a window into the widespread wreckage the murder has wrought on friends, family and others.
From the start of the trial, prosecutors vehemently objected to Tenser’s presence in the room, speculating that he might taint the process somehow. Halfway through the trial, a juror asked to be dismissed, claiming that Tenser had followed her in his car. Judge Windham found Tenser in contempt of court. Tenser protested, calling the allegations against him “absurd” and accusing the judge of not listening to his side of the story. Tenser asked to be added to Leibel’s counsel, claiming that Leibel was being framed and had been denied a fair trial. Windham found him in contempt twice more, and then ejected him from the court. He was barred from attending future proceedings.
Meanwhile, on the last day of testimony, someone approached Braun and Cody Leibel as they exited the courtroom and served Braun with a civil lawsuit, filed by Olga Kasian. Braun swiped away the papers and they scattered to the floor. She and Cody then hurried to a side door and took the stairs to the bottom of the building.
But it was Kasian’s unrelenting presence that defined the true horror of her daughter’s murder. On the last day, when Silverman was delivering her closing arguments, she placed two pictures of Iana on a video monitor for the jury to contemplate. One showed Iana as she was in the months before her death, a smiling brunette with large brown eyes peering out and up at a camera. The other image showed a bruised and battered face, hardly recognizable as Kasian. Several members of the audience lowered their gaze.
Olga, who had watched unflinchingly through each day of the trial, turned her head toward a wall, covered her face and wept.
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