Attorney for accused killer scoffs at murder charge, saying man buried in yard overdosed

More than two years after police unearthed the body of a missing man in a Long Beach yard, the person accused of digging the makeshift grave appeared in court today to face a murder charge.

Scott Leo, 54, is accused of giving 31-year-old Zach Kennedy GHB along with methamphetamine and then ignoring the younger man’s urgent need for medical attention as he was lying in Leo’s bathtub, overdosing. Authorities say Leo then hid Kennedy’s body in an attempt to cover up what happened.

In court, Leo appeared by video from the Long Beach Jail. He hunched forward and bowed his head, hiding his face as the judge read the charges.

Leo pleaded not guilty to murder and four other felonies—including a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter—in Kennedy’s death.

Leo’s attorney, Matthew Kaestner, took issue with the murder charge, calling it an audacious accusation with “no real substance.”

“At best, they have involuntary manslaughter,” he said about the prosecution’s case. “It’s a drug overdose. They know it is.”

Zach Kennedy

Zach Kennedy. Courtesy Jeff Kennedy.

Leo also faces two counts of providing Kennedy with GHB and methamphetamine, causing great bodily injury. And the final charge alleges Leo essentially ran a drug house out of his home in the Willmore neighborhood, where he is accused of inviting men over for sometimes reckless narcotics use and fetish sex in his basement.

Authorities say Kennedy disappeared at the house after Leo ordered an Uber to bring him over on Oct. 22, 2017.

Kennedy, who was originally from Pennsylvania, had been living in Long Beach for about 10 years at that point after abruptly moving away from his home state and connecting with a close group of friends, according to his family.

But after that night at Leo’s house, those friends were left frantically searching for him. They posted missing person flyers around the neighborhood and at one point confronted Leo on his porch, according to court documents.

Leo reportedly said Kennedy had walked off after their rendezvous, but detectives tell a different story in extensive court documents written while Kennedy was still considered a missing person.

The fact that nobody else had seen Kennedy since he visited Leo raised suspicion. And, they wrote, his phone and bank accounts were dormant.

After getting a court order to examine Leo’s phone records, detectives tracked down a man Leo had been texting with the night Kennedy disappeared.

The man reportedly showed investigators messages from Leo saying Kennedy had overdosed on GHB, a depressant that is commonly referred to as a “club drug” or “date rape” drug.

At one point, Leo allegedly wrote he couldn’t find a pulse. Leo even sent pictures of an unconscious or dead Kennedy slumped over in the bathtub and asked for help moving him, according to detectives’ account.

Later though, Leo would reportedly text that Kennedy eventually “popped up like nothing happened.”

Detectives doubted this. Convinced Leo had hidden the body, they repeatedly asked for search warrants to scour his property.

During the third search on May 3, 2018, they excavated Leo’s yard. There, authorities said, they found Kennedy’s body underground. His feet were severed, they said.

Police searched a home on Eighth Street three times in the months after Zach Kennedy disappeared, according to court documents. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.

Police searched a home on Eighth Street three times in the months after Zach Kennedy disappeared, according to court documents. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

It’s not clear why Leo was not charged or arrested earlier. Prosecutors did not respond to questions on that topic. Detectives originally submitted a case to the district attorney’s office in March 2019, but authorities did not file charges or arrest Leo until late last month.

Kaestner, the defense attorney, accused prosecutors of dragging out the process because they knew the case was weak. He accused the district attorney’s office of passing the case “up and down the chain of command” until someone finally agreed to file a murder charge.

On Monday, police took Leo into custody at his Eighth Street home.

The arrest comes as a relief for Kennedy’s family, who recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Leo but have been waiting to see what, if any, criminal charges he’d face.

“The weight on my shoulders, it’s taken away,” said Kennedy’s father, Jeff Kennedy, who was pleasantly surprised that prosecutors were willing to pursue a murder charge.

Leo is being held on $2 million bail, but Kaestner has asked for a judge to reconsider that decision and let Leo go free without bail. He argues the 54-year-old has already demonstrated he’s not a threat to the community.

“He’s been at his home for two years,” the attorney said, claiming that detectives weren’t able to find any new evidence during that time.

A judge is set to decide on a bail amount Sept. 9.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram.