Crime & Justice

Deadly robber struck Rodeo Drive jewelry store 25 years ago, remains on death row as appeals continue

Twenty-five years ago Thursday, Steven Livaditis was buzzed into the Van Cleef & Arpels store on Rodeo Drive at about 10 a.m. by an employee unaware that Livaditis intended to commit a robbery.

Moments later, as Livaditis was on his way out, Beverly Hills police arrived in response to a call that a robbery was in progress.

Livaditis spotted the officers, fled into the interior of the three-story store and took five hostages.

A standoff that would last 13 1/2 hours began, during which time Livaditis fatally stabbed security guard William Smith, 54, and shot and killed store clerk Ann Heilperin, 40.

Livaditis tried to escape from the store, tied together under a blanket with a store employee and a shipping clerk. Store manager Hugh Skinner, 64, who was separated from the other group, was shot and killed by a bullet fired by a member of a sheriff's Special Weapons Team, who mistakenly thought he was the suspect.

Livaditis was arrested around 11:30 p.m. at the end of the escape attempt, and was found to be carrying a briefcase filled with watches, jewelry and other loose gems, valued at more than $2 million.

Livaditis, described as a loner and drifter who was wanted in connection with a Las Vegas jewelry store robbery four months before the Van Cleef & Arpels heist, pleaded guilty in 1987 to three counts of murder, along with special circumstances allegations that made him eligible for the death penalty and charges of robbery, kidnapping and burglary.

Livaditis was sentenced to death on July 8, 1987. Now 47, Livaditis remains on San Quentin State Prison's death row as his appeals continue in federal court.

"This case is just one of many examples of the failure to implement the death penalty law in California," Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley told a local wire service this week. "Major reform of the appellate process is long overdue."

Stefanie Faucher, associate director of Death Penalty Focus – which bills itself as the nation's largest membership-based nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the death penalty and its alternatives – said the case "is further example evidence that the death penalty is failed public policy that is costing California taxpayers more than $184 million each year."

Faucher cited figures from a study by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.

"We need to stop throwing good money after bad and admit that the system is broken and that the only solution is to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, reducing taxpayer-financed appeals by 80 percent and ensuring that the state will never execute an innocent person," Faucher said. "We can invest the savings into education and effective crime prevention programs."