Child molester's arrest in 1981 slaying of couple's son brings relief, sadness

Bob and Connie Vargo are relieved by the arrest of a man in their 6-year-old son's 1981 slaying

Bob and Connie Vargo spent three decades waiting for police to find the person who killed their 6-year-old son Jeffrey.

The boy left his Anaheim Hills home on his bicycle July 2, 1981, and was not seen alive again. His strangled and partially clad body was discovered the next morning behind a pile of sand at a Pomona construction site.

No arrests were ever made.

In 1997, Pomona police confirmed that they had reopened the cold case. Again the investigation went nowhere.

Every few years, police would assign a new officer to review the case and run the forensic evidence through a national database that includes DNA taken from convicted felons. But for years there were no hits.

"We didn't put it out of our minds, but we were almost to the point of giving up on the idea that anything was going to be done about it," Bob Vargo said.

On Sunday, Vargo and his wife visited their son's grave. They brought along an Easter pinwheel, some flowers and the news they'd been wanting to give him for 33 years.

Police had arrested Kenneth Rasmuson, 53, in Idaho after DNA linked the convicted child molester to Jeffrey's case.

"We just told him, 'We finally got justice for you,'" Connie Vargo, 67, said of her son. "'They finally caught the guy.'"

Rasmuson remains in custody at Bonner County Jail in Sandpoint, Idaho, according to the Pomona Police Department. He is expected to appear before a local judge Monday.

Rasmuson will then be brought to California, where he will face murder charges, said Pomona Police Lt. Eddie Vazquez.

"We're feeling a little bittersweet, exhilarated, relieved and a little sad because all this is being brought up again," Bob Vargo said.

On that summer morning in 1981, Jeffrey David Vargo was riding a bicycle in his quiet Anaheim neighborhood as he had done many times before, his father said. He liked to ride up a slight incline in the street and then zip down.

His parents found his bike abandoned that evening in an alley near a fireworks stand. They called police, and the tight-knit community began combing the neighborhood for any sign of Jeffrey.

The next day, two workers found the child's body at the construction site in Pomona. The coroner's office said the boy had been strangled.

"Some things about that day are so vivid and so sharp, and others are very dim," Bob Vargo said. "Our oldest son was 10. We took him and sat him down and told him what happened. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in life. It was terrible."

Jeffrey's parents said the first five years were the hardest. They could not bring themselves to change anything about his room, including his race car bedspread. But as time passed, the couple carried on in the same house and neighborhood, always hoping that the person who cut short their son's life would be caught.

Jeffrey had just started the first grade when he was killed. He loved both of his parents but he was most taken with his father, a supervisor at General Motors.

"Jeff was like me. He would say, 'I always want to be like you,'" Bob Vargo, 69, said. "In fact, he even told my wife once, 'When I get big, I'm going to change my name to Bob.'"

The Vargos kept a few items from Jeffrey's childhood — his slippers, his robe, a suitcase full of Matchbox cars, a stuffed whale from SeaWorld, his "Star Wars" collection and photos. Still, they say they were robbed of many memories.

"We never saw him go to his high school graduation, go to college or get a job," his father said. "We never saw him get married, fall in love with somebody, have kids and come over for the holidays. Now we go visit him at the cemetery instead of at a house for Christmas."

Vargo said Pomona Police Det. Jennifer Turpin, the lead investigator in the case, was instrumental in keeping their hopes up even at some of the most disappointing moments.

"She told my wife a couple of years ago, when one of these things didn't pan out, she said, 'Don't you ever give up,'" Vargo said. "That was very good advice and advice I would now give anyone in a similar situation. This is a miracle. They really can happen."

Rasmuson has a violent history, according to court records. In 1982, he was sent to Atascadero State Hospital after being declared a mentally disordered sex offender for sodomizing and orally copulating an 11-year-old Santa Barbara boy. He was released after two years.

In 1987, Rasmuson was convicted of kidnapping and molesting a 3-year-old boy in Los Angeles. Rasmuson abandoned the boy naked in a deserted area miles from his home. A judge described his actions as "cruel, vicious and callous as conduct can become," according to The Times.

That judge sentenced Rasmuson to 17 years in prison.

Bob Vargo said Turpin called a few months ago to tell them that police had a lead in the case. She later told them that DNA testing had identified Rasmuson as Jeffrey's killer. The Vargos were asked not to say anything until he was arrested.

"The first time I slept was from Friday night to Saturday, when I was confident that this guy was in custody," Bob Vargo said. "Before that my mind kept racing, thinking, 'What if he's not the one? What if they don't have enough evidence? What if, when they are watching him in Idaho, he runs off?'"

The Vargos said they recognize Rasmuson's trial could be a year away, but that seems manageable after more than three decades of waiting.

"There is plenty I would want to say to him, but I'm afraid it will get me in trouble," Bob Vargo said. "The only time I'll probably get to talk to him is when the trial ends and he gets sentenced."

While they wait, Connie Vargo said her family will continue their tradition of leaving Christmas trees and pinwheels at Jeffrey's grave.

"They just fly in the wind and they look happy," Connie Vargo said of the pinwheels. "He'll always be 6 years old to us. He'll never be 40 like he would have been last year. He's just a little guy."

zahira.torres@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
63°