Friday, 17 May 2024

LaForge murder investigation still waits for conclusion

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Barbara LaForge was murdered on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2002. Police continue to investigate the case in order to bring her killer to justice.
 

 

LAKEPORT – Six years later, there are people in Lakeport who believe a murderer is walking among them. {sidebar id=101}


That murderer is the same person who, six years ago on this date, walked into a frame shop on Main Street, shot 43-year-old Barbara LaForge four times in the chest – once through the heart – and then walked back out into the broad daylight of a Tuesday morning.


“I would say that we believe the suspect is out there,” said Lt. Brad Rasmussen of the Lakeport Police Department.


No one reported seeing LaForge's murderer, and to this day no arrests have been made, making it one of the county's longest-running unsolved murder cases, and Lakeport's only unsolved homicide.


In the last year, the attempt to solve LaForge's murder has been hampered by forces beyond Lakeport Police's control – namely in the form of a budget crisis that caused the department to pull its only full-time investigator from the case and put him on patrol, said Police Chief Kevin Burke.


But Burke said he hopes soon to give resources back to the investigation, which he calls “an unfinished chapter” in Lakeport Police's history.


“We still care about this case,” he said. “It kind of hangs over us.”


For those who knew LaForge – and even for those who didn't – the mysterious story of her death continues to raise questions and leave behind it a sense of frustration that no one has yet been brought to justice.


“I don't know why they haven't solved her murder yet,” said businesswoman Sandi Ciardelli, who had a store just down the street from LaForge's frame shop.


And because there has been no arrest and no conclusion to the story, LaForge's murder continues to be a source of speculation, concern and even fear for some.


Old fears, continuing questions


When the murder first took place in October 2002, it cast a pall over the town and especially the downtown business district where it took place.


“When it originally happened people were very, very apprehensive,” said Melissa Fulton, chief executive officer of the Lakeport Regional Chamber of Commerce.


Ciardelli, who described LaForge as a “lovely person,” remembers the day LaForge was fatally shot, with the back door of her frame shop left ajar after the murderer left the building.


“It was frightful,” she said.


Ciardelli said she can't believe nobody saw or heard anything, and yet to this day no one has come forward to say they witnessed anything out of the ordinary.


The day the murder happened, a Tuesday, roofing work was going on around LaForge's frame shop, which may have accounted for no one hearing the shots. There also have been theories that a silencer may have been used on the .22-caliber murder weapon.


For Ciardelli, the murder of LaForge struck an uncomfortable connection with the murder several years earlier of another artistic woman who was executive director of the Lake County Arts Council. The assailant in that case later committed suicide.


Ciardelli said she thinks many people have put the murder to rest, but she said she thinks about it a lot.


“They gotta catch this guy,” she said. “I think he's wandering around here somewhere.”


For artist Gail Salituri, whose gallery shared space on Main Street with LaForge's Wild Wood Frame Shop, the memory of her friend is never far away.


Today Salituri and her daughter run the frame shop, which she bought from LaForge's family after her death.


The tables and framing equipment are arranged only slightly differently from how they were the day LaForge was found slumped on the floor at the back of the shop, facing the back door where she had entered a short time before.


LaForge's daily routine included coming into the shop at around 9 a.m., turning on the lights, closing the door and setting down her things before taking her dog, Carmen, off the leash. But when LaForge was found by a local businessman late on the morning of Oct. 8, 2002, her trembling dog was found huddled in a front window, her leash trailing from her collar.


LaForge was declared dead at Sutter Lakeside Hospital later that day.


People who know about the murder still ask Salituri about it. “For the most part, many have moved on and forgotten there is a murderer walking free,” she said.


Remaining silent on the matter is LaForge's husband, Dan Hamblin. He did not return a call from Lake County News seeking comment on the case, and has never agreed to an interview on the subject.


He's also not talking to police, said Rasmussen.


Police take new approaches


Burke said his department has continued to work the case when possible, but the city's budget and a hiring freeze – which is preventing him from filling open officer positions – has taken its toll on the resources available to current and ongoing cases alike.


“The budget issue has delayed things for a while,” he said.


The department also is under additional pressure because Burke – a chief who has frequently worked patrol alongside the rest of his officers – was tapped this summer to act as interim city manager while City Manager Jerry Gillham serves a year with the Army National Guard in Iraq.


Last year, Lakeport Police sent the LaForge case – which includes thousands of pages of reports, evidence and interviews – to an investigator with Inside the Tape, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based firm that trains law enforcement officers in homicide and crime scene management.


Also last year, around the murder's fifth anniversary, Lakeport Police, District Attorney's Office investigators, and Carl Stein, a veteran Clearlake Police investigator, formed a special task force to examine the highly complex case, which has included more than 100 interviews.


Having a lot of people look at a case can be an advantage, said Rasmussen, because one of them might see something the others missed.


Rasmussen said the group last met at the beginning of summer to discuss the case.


He said Lakeport Police's detective, Norm Taylor, is going back to investigations full-time this month after working patrol through the summer. Burke said the department had an injured officer who is now coming back to work, which will help free up Taylor.


Taylor will work on the LaForge case exclusively, following up on leads the task force identified at its last meeting. Rasmussen said Taylor also will look at some information Inside the Tape provided in its case review.


“There are some leads that we have that we hope will assist in bringing this case to a conclusion,” said Rasmussen.


While the passage of time can sometimes hamper a case, at the same time it can aid technology.


That's true with development in DNA evidence.


Although the Department of Justice was called in to examine the murder scene the same day that LaForge died, investigators found no conclusive evidence such as fingerprints, Tom Engstrom, the department's retired chief, told Lake County News in a previous interview.


But with new DNA technologies now available, Rasmussen said the department has submitted some pieces of evidence for testing and examination to the Department of Justice.


Some of those items police already had and some were things identified over the past year, said Rasmussen.


However, that testing process won't necessarily be a quick one. Rasmussen said the Department of Justice currently has a backlog of evidence that requires testing.


Over the last year police have received some calls from members of the public regarding LaForge's murder, but Rasmussen didn't think those calls resulted in any new leads.


“They caused us to take a second look at some of the stuff that we already had,” he said.


Interest in the case increases each year around the anniversary, but Rasmussen said they've continued to receive calls throughout the year.


Police have never named a suspect. “We're just not at the point where we're ready to name somebody,” Rasmussen said, who added that they would want to have a criminal case ready to file before identifying the person responsible.


The Governor's Office continues to offer a $50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for LaForge's murder.


Not too late to solve the murder


District Attorney Jon Hopkins, who has been involved with the murder investigation from its beginning, said there has been no arrest yet because the evidence isn't there to support a conviction.


“There have continued to be avenues that we can explore,” he said. “That's our goal, to keep exploring every avenue until every one ends in a dead end or produces evidence.”


Hopkins said it isn't uncommon for a complex homicide investigation to take years to make its way to an eventual prosecution and conviction.


He pointed to the case of Nathan Davison, who was convicted in October 2005 of murdering his wife's stepfather, Tracy Lyons, in 1998. Davison was convicted despite Lyons' body never being recovered.


That case's first trial ended in a hung jury before his conviction in the second trial. A state appeals court upheld Davison's conviction in August, as Lake County News has reported.


“The opportunity to prosecute him came up earlier and I said no, because the evidence wasn't adequate,” said Hopkins.


It can be a very tedious process, said Hopkins, made more difficult by the day-to-day challenges of keeping up with current cases that need to be prosecuted right away.


“It's not an easy task,” said Hopkins, who added that his office also is short-handed these days.


Remembering LaForge with positive action


Earlier this year, Salituri decided to remember her friend with a special gesture.


She began the Barbara LaForge Memorial Fund, and raises funds for it through raffles and silent auctions of donated and original artwork, including her own original oils.


So far, she has raised $1,800, which will go toward the Lake Family Resource Center's domestic violence shelter project.


Tommy Gilliam, LaForge's stepbrother, has donated money to the cause from a trust fund from his late father, Tom Gilliam Sr., who married LaForge's mother and had a close and loving relationship with LaForge. Tommy Gilliam said his father would have approved of the effort.


He's also offered to donate some prints to the fundraiser that were in LaForge's gallery at the time of her death.


For Gilliam, the LaForge Memorial is more about looking forward than back at the past.


“We may never know who did this,” he said. However, he said Salituri's event can be used as a lever to help battered women in the community.


One family member not supporting the effort is LaForge's husband.


“Sadly, Dan has not,” Salituri responded when asked if Hamblin had shown any interest in it or made any contribution. “I had hoped he would.”


Gilliam didn't offer any theories on who he thinks is responsible for murdering his stepsister. “I think maybe the Lakeport Police know who it is.”


Rasmussen said he believes the case is solvable.


Salituri also is staying positive.


“I will never lose hope that this case will be solved,” she said. “Everything happens in it's own time.”


She added, “If for some reason it is not solved, there is always the Karma factor which I am a strong believer in.”


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


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