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Friends say they can't believe allegations that TV chef tried to solicit murder

May 16, 2010 |  7:26 am

me-chef-suspectNeighbors and co-workers described a TV chef accused in a murder-for-hire scheme as a devout churchgoer, community volunteer and doting husband.

They said they could not believe Juan-Carlos Cruz would try to have anyone killed, as Santa Monica police allege.

"He's a fine guy. I find this hard to believe," said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous.

Today, he sits in a Los Angeles County jail cell, booked on suspicion of solicitation to commit murder, his bail set at $5 million.

Santa Monica police say Cruz, 48, of Westwood, asked some homeless men to commit homicide for him. After one of the homeless men told police, investigators launched a weeklong undercover operation that ended with Cruz's arrest on Thursday in a Cheviot Hills dog park.

Cruz is a Knights of Columbus member who attends St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church as well as a dog owner who volunteers at Love on 4 Paws, a therapy program that provides animals to sick children.

Cruz's wife, Jennifer Campbell, his high school sweetheart, worked long hours as an attorney, neighbors said. He was often seen walking the couple's two dogs outside the Westside condominium complex where they had lived for many years.

Cruz came to the United States at age 3, the youngest of three sons of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and grew up in Arcadia, according to news articles and his book biography.

He created a television show, "Cruising in the Kitchen," that aired on a local California public-access station. That led to a featured appearance on the premiere season of Discovery Health Channel's "Body Challenge," on which he shed 43 pounds. He lost 17 more pounds after the show ended, according to his biography.

Cruz submitted a clip of the show to the Food Network. In 2004, the network signed him to produce the television show "Calorie Commando," in which guests challenged him to prepare their favorite meals with fewer calories while retaining the taste — dishes included peanut butter cookies and mashed sweet potato casserole topped with caramelized bananas. His motto became "Keep the taste while you trim your waist."

Cruz produced 39 episodes of "Calorie Commando" before it was canceled in 2006.

In 2007, he published a cookbook — "The Juan-Carlos Cruz Calorie Countdown Cookbook" — co-authored with Los Angeles-based writer Martha Rose Shulman.

Read more here.

-- Sam Quinones and Andrew Blankstein

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