Murder of Lawrence Austin ordered by James Van Sickle examined on The Real Murders of Los Angeles

Police tape

The Real Murders of Los Angeles premieres with an investigation into the murder of Lawrence Austin, the proprietor of a silent movie theater in Hollywood, who was gunned down in the lobby by Christian Rodriguez.

Rodriguez had been paid by Austin’s boyfriend, movie projectionist James Van Sickle, to kill Austin so he could claim his estate.

One night in January 1997, 74-year-old Austin was in the lobby of the Silent Movie Showcase theater in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles when 21-year-old Rodriguez shot him three times with a .357 magnum. Austin was hit in the face at close range.

About 60 theatergoers were watching a movie a short distance away.

Austin was shot as 19-year-old concession worker Mary Giles looked on in horror. Rodriguez then shot Giles in the chest before fleeing the scene. Thankfully, Giles survived her injuries and would later testify against Rodriguez.

The police learned that Van Sickle had masterminded the killing. Van Sickle was due to inherit Austin’s estate, including the theater, but he was in dire financial straits and decided he couldn’t wait for his boyfriend to die from natural causes.

Van Sickle offered Rodriguez $25,000 to kill Austin and said he’d give him another $5,000 to make it look like a robbery. Van Sickle told the gunman to kill Giles, suggesting it would make the crime look more like an attempted robbery.

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James Van Sickle and Christian Rodriguez arrested for Lawrence Austin murder

However, Rodriguez never got his money, and both men were arrested.

Rodriguez was convicted of murder and faced the death penalty due to special circumstances because he had lain in wait for his victim and acted purely for financial gain. In the end, his life was spared, and he was sentenced to life without parole.

The gunman was also convicted of the attempted murder of Mary Giles and attempted burglary, for which he was sentenced to a further 37 years.

Rodriguez’s defense team portrayed their client as a victim of poverty and claimed Van Sickle was the sole mastermind behind the murder.

Rodriguez’s attorney, Ezekiel Perlo, said his client’s parents were “ashamed for what he did.” Perlo further claimed, “They’re victims of his, just as much as Austin’s family is.”

Prosecuting attorney Jeffrey Ramseyer told the court, “And what did Mr. Rodriguez do it for? He did it for money.”

James Van Sickle given life for ordering Lawrence Austin death

James Van Sickle was also charged with murder and also escaped the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The silent movie theater was subsequently shut down but was revived a couple of years later by a new owner.

The Real Murders of Los Angeles premieres Friday at 9/8c on Oxygen.

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