Fate of man accused of murdering woman, dumping body-filled suitcase into SF Bay in jury’s hands

(S.F. Examiner file photo)

Pearla Louis’ naked body was in the fetal position when a firefighter peered into the large black suitcase in which she was found. It had washed up on the rocks along The Embarcadero in May 2010.

She had been strangled and beaten — in all she had more than 30 contusions — and was last seen a few days earlier in a lower Nob Hill SRO with her on-and-off-again boyfriend Lee Bell, 47, who was arrested on suspicion of murdering her on or around May 16, 2010, the following month and has been in jail ever since awaiting trial.

“Her body was broken, bruised and battered,” said prosecutor Michael Swart, who displayed an enlarged photo of the opened suitcase and the 52-year-old’s body from the May 18, 2010, scene, in his closing argument in the San Francisco Superior Courtroom of Judge Carol Yaggy on Monday.

The closing arguments of Bell’s murder trial for the alleged killing of Louis centered on Bell’s history of domestic violence, DNA evidence found on the suitcase he allegedly used to dump her body and a number of conflicting witness statements.

Swart characterized Lee as a man who preyed on women who lived on the margins of society. Eventually, that behavior led to the “evil” act of killing Louis after she began to rebel from his abuse.

“It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ with Lee Bell. It was a matter of ‘who,’” said Swart. “Sadly, Pearla Louis was that ‘when.’”

But Bell’s defense attorney contended the prosecution has the wrong man based on the lack of wounds on Bell, the misidentification of a suitcase in a surveillance video, inconclusive DNA and faulty police work.

“The case doesn’t make sense, “ said defense attorney Malcolm Smith as his client sat nearby in a gray suit and large framed glasses. “[It is] suspicion based on prior conduct.”

Swart’s closing argument began with the history of domestic violence allegedly committed by Bell, first with several previous girlfriends in the late 1990s followed by his repeated violence against Louis, which started in 2009 and eventually culminated in death threats and her killing.

“This is what he does. This is who he is,” he said about Bell’s reported history of violence against women.

But Bell’s defense attorney said this focus on domestic violence was an attempt to smear him. “Take all these domestic violence [incidents] and put them aside,” said Smith, noting that those acts do not address the central facts of the case.

First, Bell had no nail marks or other sign of being attacked in defense as he allegedly strangled Louis, even though her body had defensive wounds indicating she tried to fight off her attacker.

“Her attacker was marked by those fingernails,” he said. “She did not mark Mr. Bell.”

Suitcase

Video footage from the Drake Hotel the day after Louis disappeared showed Bell coming up the stairs with a large black suitcase, similar to the one Louis was found in.

In court Monday, Swart held the suitcase before the jury as he made his argument about how it was used to drag Louis’s body 28 blocks from that SRO to the San Francisco Bay.

“Pearla was inside this suitcase,” he said. “Lee Bell thought he was gonna get away with this by throwing it in the Bay.”

But Smith pointed out that the suitcase Louis was found in had distinct differences from the one Bell carrying up to his room in the surveillance video.

“There’s certainly no two white strips on the suitcase,” said Smith about the suitcase in the video. “It’s not an identical suitcase.”

Additionally, DNA found on the suitcase was found by experts to be Bell’s, said Swart.

But Smith attacked that claim by pointing out that three separate DNA specials were part of the case and they disagreed with one another.

“They can’t agree on anything,” he said.

Smith also pointed out that it’s unclear where the murder scene was located. No noise complaints came from the hotel room May 16, the approximate date of her death, and no fluids or evidence were recovered from the room that would indicate the killing occurred there, said Smith.

“The sensible inference that you can make is that Pearla left,” he said, adding that several people at her place of residence thought she had gone to Oakland to visit her daughter.

In the weeks after her body was found, police issued an image of her face to the media in the hopes someone might be able to help their case. And at least one tip came in from a woman on June 3, 2010, who had said she saw Louis in an East Bay bar several days before her body was discovered. But the tip was never seriously looked into, and Yolanda Anderson’s story did not emerge until the trial.

“Lee Bell is not the killer,” said Smith.

Closing arguments concluded Monday.

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