MAYS LANDING, N.J. – A New Jersey man admitted Wednesday that he killed one of Britain's most eligible bachelors more than three years ago, but he claims he acted in self-defense, fearing the victim was part of a gang of illegal immigrants intent on killing him.
Robert Davies of North Wildwood is acting as his own attorney in his trial on murder and weapons charges, among others. In his opening statement to the jury, he said he mistook Lavern Paul Ritch of Penarth, Wales, for part of a group of Mexicans who were chasing him after one of them had assaulted him, bloodying his face.
Prosecutors said the Aug. 12, 2007, melee was touched off by a racist insult Davies hurled toward a Mexican man in the men's room of a bar in Margate, a Jersey shore community a few miles south of Atlantic City.
Davies told the jury that the prosecutor in the case "has presented that Lavern Paul Ritch was an innocent victim, and that I killed him. That I did; it's a fact. I wish I could change that. But there's a difference between being an innocent bystander and someone who interjects himself into a gang-style assault."
Ritch appeared as a contestant in the British adaptation of "American Gladiators" in 1998, making it to a quarterfinal round.
He was a swimming and fitness instructor in Cardiff, Wales; was listed in a 2002 poll of Britain's 50 most eligible bachelors by Company magazine; and was named the 12th most eligible man in Wales that same year in a local newspaper.
The BBC described him in 2007 as "a well-known clubber on the London and Cardiff scenes."
Assistant Atlantic County Prosecutor William Merz told the jury in his opening statement that Davies, 49, encountered a bar patron, Mario Chavez, in the men's room of a local bar, and hurled an anti-Mexican insult at him, "words to the effect of, 'Why don't you go back to Mexico?' "
Merz said Chavez was angered but left the men's room. Shortly afterward, the prosecutor said, Chavez found Davies outside the bar, ran up to him and punched him in the face, then fled, causing Davies to run after him.
The chase wound its way through the streets of Margate, past a different nightspot where Ritch and a few friends were waiting for a taxi back to their hotel room in an Atlantic City casino. Merz said Ritch joined the chase, intending to help Davies.
It is here that the two sides' stories diverge. Merz said witnesses, including several of the Mexican nationals, told police they saw Ritch run up to Davies and quickly draw back, with both hands raised high in the air, saying, "Look, I'm just trying to help you!" only to be stabbed in the chest.
Davies told the jury the 37-year-old Ritch ran up to him without a sound as a group of at least a half-dozen people were chasing after him.
"Lavern is a hero," Davies said. "He's a great guy. Beautiful guy, the kind of guy that everybody loved. He couldn't see somebody in need and not do something.
"He sees the big white guy, blood pouring down his face, chasing after the Mexican," Davies said. "He reacted. Lavern Paul Ritch ran up without words, without warning, without saying a word. As soon as he got there, he was struck."
Davies asked jurors to put themselves in his shoes: still dazed from an assault, pursuing his assailant and in turn being chased by the assailant's friends.
"He put himself in it," Davies said. "It's tragic; it's terrible."
He said he viewed Ritch as part of the group chasing him and felt threatened. In that split second, Davies said, he considered Ritch, a light-skinned black man, "one of the Mexicans moving in for the kill."
"You are allowed to defend yourself, and you are allowed to judge your circumstance," Davies said. "What are you supposed to do, wait for your enemy to land a kill shot upon you before you defend yourself?"
Davies' statement repeatedly referred to the Mexicans as a gang that was hunting him and describing himself as prey.
He faulted police for not arresting the Mexicans for a variety of alleged crimes, including conspiracy, witness tampering and obstruction of justice concerning their statements to investigators. The detectives and police officers, he told the jury, are guilty of official misconduct for trying to frame him.
But Davies did not directly address the event prosecutors say touched off the entire chain of events, the alleged encounter between him and Chavez in the men's room. Davies did not say whether he was ever present in the men's room or had interacted with Chavez in any way.
"You don't know, and you will never know, what happened inside that bathroom," Davies told the jury. "All you will have is the testimony of one person, Mario Chavez, who gave his statement 18 hours later. He and his buddies were orchestrating a plan. I was their prey."
Later, Davies told the jury that a man who looked exactly like him and was wearing the same clothes was present inside the bar that night, implying that the second man might have been the person Chavez claimed to have encountered in the men's room.
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