Saturday, 11 July 2020

The Barbara LaForge murder: Police take a new look at the case

This is the sixth installment of a series on the unsolved October 2002 murder of Barbara LaForge.


LAKEPORT – When Kevin Burke took over as Lakeport Police chief in February 2006 – nine months after the retirement of his predecessor, Tom Engstrom – he inherited a mystery in the form of the Barbara LaForge murder. {sidebar id=14}


Burke, 41, is a first-time police chief, who brings with him 22 years of law enforcement experience and extensive connections from his time at Los Angeles Police Department. He also holds a law degree from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, was a criminal prosecutor for three years and has a master's degree in management from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.


He said the LaForge case is important to him and his department, and he's giving it new focus.


“It's still an active investigation and still one of our top priorities,” said Burke. “In fact, I think everybody here takes the case a little bit personally. I know I do and of course I wasn't even here when it happened.”


“But I know that when you talk to our staff, everybody here wants that case solved, and feels very much ownership of that case and personally disturbed by the fact that a crime like that could occur here in our town, (in) broad daylight, right on main street,” Burke added.


Currently, four Lakeport Police officers and one District Attorney's Office investigator are assigned to the case, according to Lt. Brad Rasmussen, 38, an 18-year Lakeport Police veteran who has been with the case since its beginning.


At this point, Burke said police don't have an active pool of suspects or “people of interest.”


“We really don't have anybody that we can single out as a lead suspect or main suspect,” he said.


However, the number of people interviewed continues to grow. “The case at this stage is very lead-driven,” said Burke.


In the weeks before LaForge's murder in 2002, there were a serious of unsolved commercial burglaries in downtown Lakeport. Former Police Chief Tom Engstrom stated at the time he did not believe them to be related.


That's still the operating assumption, Burke said.


Burke and Rasmussen say they can't divulge much about the specifics of the crime, because certain facts are known only to the killer, and will help identify that person.


They confirmed that the weapon used to kill LaForge was .22 caliber, but would not say if it was a pistol or a rifle.


Is that a common weapon used in homicides? Burke said no, but explained that he's seen all weapon calibers used in homicides.


“When someone usually decides to commit a murder with a firearm their choice depends generally on what they have available,” Burke explained. “I wouldn't say it's the most common. Generally, with the murders I've been involved with I tend to see larger caliber rounds than that.”


He added, however, that .22 rounds are certainly deadly, with a tendency to cause a lot of internal damage. “It's definitely an effective round although not necessarily common."


Rasmussen said several search warrants have been served during the course of the investigation, but neither he nor Burke would state where the warrants were served, again in the interest of protecting the investigation.


POLICE RESPOND TO CRITICISM


Over the years, many community members have severely criticized Lakeport Police for not solving the case. One of those people was Barbara LaForge's stepfather Tom Gilliam, who wrote a letter to Lake County Free Press in which he likened Lakeport's investigation to the Keystone Cops.


Last year, on the fourth anniversary of LaForge's murder, a petition was circulated locally asking Burke to bring in state and federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to help solve the crime.


“This unsolved murder has left a large black hole of suspicion and unrest between the business community, concerned citizens and family members,” an introductory statement accompanying the petition read.


The petition was signed by 225 people, and copies were sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office, the FBI, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney's Office and the Lake County Sheriff's Office.


Yet Burke said, from the beginning, local investigators with homicide experience have participated in working on the case. That includes Carl Stein, a veteran sheriff's office and Clearlake Police detective who reviewed the case for Lakeport Police and ruled they had conducted the investigation properly.


Since September 2004, Det. Norm Taylor has been the lead detective, taking over from Dale Stoebe, who had the case for its first two years.


Burke said this case is probably the most significant homicide Taylor has worked on, but he has experience in investigating other deaths and in crimes.


Added Rasmussen, “This is a criminal investigation like anything else.”


Burke also dismisses the idea that Lakeport Police have turned away help in solving LaForge's murder. “There's no concept of turf when it comes to solving a case like this,” he said.


The case has been thoroughly investigated, Burke said. Now, it just needs a break.


It also hasn't helped, said Burke, that some people haven't cooperated with police and given them a complete interview. He would not specifically identify those individuals.


A $50,000 reward for information leading to the murderer's arrest and conviction was issued several years ago from the Governor's Office. Police say the reward remains in effect indefinitely.


A COMPLEX CASE


The case, said Burke and Rasmussen, is painfully complex. LaForge's murder investigation files encompass thousands of pages of evidence, including witness statements, which sit in three large binders on the shelf in Rasmussen's office.


It's evidence that Burke and his department continue to guard diligently. Certain details are known only to the killer, and to share them might harm the case, he says.


That includes information Lake County News asked to see but was informed remains sealed – including 911 tapes reporting the murder, information about suspects, even the final results of LaForge's autopsy. A copy of her death certificate, which Lake County News obtained, stated the cause of death was pending investigation.


It's a complex case, said Burke, for a variety of reasons.


“We have no eyewitness to the case, but there are no eyewitnesses in a lot of murder cases," he explained.


Additionally, there have been many leads that have taken police nowhere and actually been distracting at times, said Burke.


“If you were to look at all of our files, you'd get a migraine. There's just so much stuff,” he said.


In a small town like Lakeport, said Burke, “Everybody's got a theory.”


Some of those theories include a “stalker,” a man who LaForge had told friends and family was following her while she lived in Washington, shortly before she came to Lake County several years before her death.


There also is a story of an argument LaForge had with a woman who was parking in her parking space behind the frame shop, which reportedly happened the day of the murder.


All of those possible leads have been followed, say police.


However, to break the case, or even just to have a “coherent path” for the investigation, police need solid facts and not just hearsay, Burke said.


Added Rasmussen, “We just need a break on something and this case could be easily solved.”


If case isn't solved, said Burke, "Nobody here wants it to be because we didn't try hard enough.”


Which is why they keep looking at it from every angle and putting more resources toward finding LaForge's killer. That the murder hasn't been solved isn't a matter of lack of experience or competence, Burke said.


From the beginning, said Rasmussen, police were advised by Jon Hopkins, the chief deputy district attorney when the murder happened, who has since been elected district attorney.


Hopkins has extensive prosecution experience, and has been particularly successful prosecuting homicides. He has advised police about what information the District Attorney's Office would need to successfully make a case, as well as where to proceed next with the investigation, said Rasmussen.


“There's a standard of probable cause and then there's a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt," said Rasmussen. Police didn't want to just make an arrest, but also a case that leads to a conviction, he said.


NEW EYES ON THE CASE


Burke and Rasmussen said that the case is now out for review by a third party.


Two months ago, Burke sent the case for review to “Inside the Tape,” a Virginia Beach, Va.-based organization that trains law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. in homicide investigation and crime scene management techniques.


Inside the Tape founder, lead instructor and investigator, David Newman, a 21-year veteran of the Norfolk Police Department in Norfolk, Va., offers cold case reviews free of charge to law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., according to the Inside the Tape Web site.


Burke sent the LaForge case to Virginia for review this summer, and also sent Det. Norm Taylor to an Inside the Tape training.


Inside the Tape investigators with a combined 60 years of homicide experience will participate in the review, which Lakeport Police were told would take a minimum of three months.


An Inside the Tape report back on the case is expected back at any time, say police.


In addition, Burke has hired veteran investigator Jim Bell as an officer. Bell, who in 2006 saw his investigative work on the 2002 homicide of Diedre Coleman result in a murder conviction, is reviewing the case, as is another new department member, said Burke.


Two Lake County District Attorney's investigators have asked to aid in the case review, Burke reported.


Burke said he has approached two veteran Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigators who say they are willing to review the case as well.


There also is an option of taking it to an FBI or state Department of Justice profiler, Burke added. “It's something that we're seriously considering.”


On Oct. 5, Rasmussen updated the department's Web site with an “unsolved cases” page, dedicated to the LaForge case, www.cityoflakeport.com/departments/page.aspx?deptID=76&id=110. He also created a new e-mail just to take information and leads on the murder: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Early in the investigation, retired Police Chief Tom Engstrom said he believed the murder was a crime of passion because of the number of times LaForge was shot.


“I wouldn't be comfortable making a statement like that,” said Rasmussen.


Burke said the number of shots doesn't necessarily equate to a crime of passion, and said homicides and their circumstances can't be plugged into an easy equation that leads to solving them.


DISTRICT ATTORNEY WEIGHS IN


Hopkins agreed that investigators have worked the murder hard, trying everything they could think of to make a case. That includes bringing in experienced investigators from outside the investigation.


What's needed, he said, is evidence to tie the whole case together.


“My view on the case right now is that if somebody brings something up for us to try and work on – and that includes people within our team or outside the team – we will,” he said.


He added that investigators aren't done with LaForge's murder investigation.


“I've had a number of cases in my career where we just had to wait seven or eight years before something broke,” Hopkins said.


And there are some cases that can't be solved, he said.


However, Hopkins added, “I wouldn't classify this case as unsolvable.”


Burke agreed. “Some cases can't be solved but we're not convinced that this is one of those yet."


Asked if police now believe, as they did at one time, that they have interviewed the murderer, Rasmussen replied guardedly, “It's likely we've talked to somebody with information on this case.”


Could the murderer still be living in this community?


“I'd say it's definitely possible,” said Burke.


In part seven, those LaForge left behind seek an end to the story.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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