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New Light on a Distant Verdict

New Light on a Distant Verdict
In a snapshot from 1973, Bruce, then 8, displays the Little League trophy he won with the San Fernando Valley Pirates. The trophy would later be a weapon. (Handout / Handout)

On a drizzly day in March, Phillip Rabichow stood outside a beige ranch house in Sherman Oaks with a tape measure in his hand and an anxious look on his face.

Twenty-two years earlier, almost to the day, a woman named Dorka Lisker had been killed in that house. Her 17-year-old son, Bruce, was charged with the murder. He had a drug problem and a history of fighting with his mother.

Rabichow, then a deputy district attorney, convinced a jury that Bruce was guilty. As the years rolled by and Lisker reached middle age in prison, Rabichow rarely gave the case a second thought.

But in recent months, new information had shaken his faith in the fairness of the verdict: A bloody footprint found at the scene did not match Lisker's shoes. A mysterious phone call made around the time of the murder raised further questions.

Rabichow, 61 and retired, was having trouble sleeping. He replayed the trial in his head obsessively, trying to reassure himself that he had not put an innocent man away for life.

In his distress, he clung to one element of his case, a piece of evidence he still believed was irrefutable proof of Lisker's guilt. But to be sure about it, he would have to visit the crime scene.

"This is the critical issue of the case," Rabichow said before entering the house. "If I was wrong about this, I would not be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt."

'She's Been Stabbed!'

In this LAPD photo, the steak knives that were pulled from Dorka Lisker’s back lie on the floor of the Lisker home. Her skull had been crushed, her right ear nearly severed and her right arm broken.
In this LAPD photo, the steak knives that were pulled from Dorka Lisker’s back lie on the floor of the Lisker home. Her skull had been crushed, her right ear nearly severed and her right arm broken. (LAPD)

"Help me, please! I need an ambulance right now. . . . Hurry!"

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It was 11:26 a.m. on March 10, 1983.

"My mom — she's been stabbed!" Bruce Lisker cried into the phone. "She's been stabbed!"

A Lisker family Christmas photo. Bob and Dorka were unable to have children of their own. Bruce, an adoptee, was 3 days old when they brought him home in June 1965.
A Lisker family Christmas photo. Bob and Dorka were unable to have children of their own. Bruce, an adoptee, was 3 days old when they brought him home in June 1965.

Dorka Zeman, a blond beauty of Czech descent, married Bob Lisker in 1946. They had been dating for about a year when another couple at a New Year's Eve party in Hollywood playfully dared them to tie the knot.

A little tipsy, they accepted the challenge and drove through the night to Tijuana, where they were wed the next morning. He was 19; she was 29.

Dorka soon became pregnant, but had a miscarriage. The couple kept trying to have a child but eventually gave up and poured their energies into their careers — his as a lawyer, hers as a film cutter for Technicolor.

In 1964, one of Bob's clients asked for help with a delicate matter. Her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. The family wanted to put the baby up for adoption.

Lisker said he and his wife would take the child. The baby was 3 days old when they brought him home in June 1965. They named him Bruce.

Dorka, then 49, was not "particularly enthusiastic," her husband recalled years later. "But once the baby got home, she was delighted." She quit her job to become a full-time mother.

Their Sherman Oaks neighborhood was a child's paradise, with wide-open spaces for flying model airplanes, playing baseball and riding trail bikes. Bruce splashed in the family's backyard pool, dressed up as a tiger for Halloween and went on Boy Scout camp-outs.

In a faded snapshot from 1973, a grinning, blond-haired Bruce, then 8, displays a Little League trophy he won with the San Fernando Valley Pirates.

Before long, Bruce's poor grades and rambunctious behavior began to cause friction between him and his mother.

"I was basically the class clown, and I got in a lot of trouble for that," he would later explain. "I was always a real skinny kind of kid that everybody used to overlook, and I wanted to be heard."

By his own account, he began drinking and smoking marijuana at 10 or 11. By 13, he was experimenting with cocaine and LSD. He stole from his parents to support his habit.

His disputes with his mother escalated into "semi-hysterical scenarios" in which the two of them would scramble around the house screaming at each other, according to a report by the California Youth Authority.

While their arguments raged, Bob Lisker would often sit watching television with the family dog in his lap.

"Usually, at some point in this mother-son contest, either Bruce or his mother would solicit Mr. Lisker's involvement, psychologically forcing him to be the judge in a 'courtroom' game," the Youth Authority report said.

The Liskers sent the boy to a group home for troubled children near Susanville in the Sierra Nevada. He spent eighth and ninth grades there.

Returning to Los Angeles, he bounced from Birmingham High School to two continuation schools before dropping out in the spring of 1982, a month shy of his 17th birthday.

He persuaded his parents to rent him an apartment of his own — a $210-a-month studio on Sepulveda Boulevard, about four miles from their home. They gave him a car and spending money and hoped he would straighten himself out. They were disappointed.

He smoked pot, drank heavily and shot up methamphetamine. In June 1982, he was arrested for throwing a screwdriver at a motorist during a traffic dispute. Police booked him for assault with a deadly weapon; the charge was later reduced to vandalism.

Bruce told a police officer who witnessed the altercation that he grew enraged when the other driver cut him off. According to the officer, Bruce declared: "I was gonna kill that son of a bitch."

'And Then You Stab Her'

In an LAPD photograph of the crime scene, Bruce’s Little League trophy lies in the blood-stained master bedroom of the Liskers’ Sherman Oaks home. It was determined that a metal exercise bar had also been used to beat Dorka Lisker.
In an LAPD photograph of the crime scene, Bruce’s Little League trophy lies in the blood-stained master bedroom of the Liskers’ Sherman Oaks home. It was determined that a metal exercise bar had also been used to beat Dorka Lisker. (LAPD)

By the time Det. Andrew R. Monsue arrived at the scene of the murder, Dorka Lisker had been taken to Encino Hospital, where she died that afternoon.

A former Marine who had served in Vietnam, Monsue wore his brown hair short and had a gruff military bearing. He followed a trail of blood through the house, looking for clues.

He concluded that Dorka's assailant had beaten her with her son's Little League trophy and her husband's metal exercise bar. Then she had been stabbed in the back with a pair of steak knives, which were lying on the floor next to her body. Monsue saw bloody footprints in the front hallway, a nearby bathroom and the kitchen — and more footprints outside the house.

Bob Lisker told detectives that the night before, he had given his wife a handful of bills — tens and twenties mostly — to pay for groceries. He thought it was around $150. Police searched her purse but did not find the money. They also searched Bruce. He did not have it.

Around 1 p.m., Monsue took the teenager to the Van Nuys police station for questioning. Bruce said he had gone to his parents' house that morning to borrow a jack so he could repair a shock absorber on his 1966 Mustang.

His mother didn't come out to greet him as she usually did, so he knocked on the door. No answer. He tried the doorknob. It was locked.

Lisker said he made his way to the backyard, where he looked through a window into the living room. He thought he could see his mother's feet on the floor in the entry hall.

His heart pounding, he ran to the dining room window to get a better view. From there, he could see her head lying motionless on the floor, he said.

Panicked, he ran to the kitchen's louvered window, an entry point he had used more than once to sneak into the house after curfew. He said he removed the panes of glass and climbed into the kitchen.

He ran to the entry hall and found his mother on the floor, unconscious but alive. Trying to help, he pulled the knives from her back. Then he grabbed two kitchen knives and searched the house for the intruder. Then he called for an ambulance.

Monsue, who listened quietly, thought Lisker was lying. If he had seen his mother's body through the living room window, why hadn't he just smashed his way in? Why would he disassemble the kitchen window instead, squandering precious seconds?

For that matter, Monsue doubted that Lisker could have seen Dorka's body from outside the house. Based on his own observations, he thought that the sun's glare would have made it impossible to see through the living room window, and that furniture and an interior stone planter would have blocked the view through the dining room window.

Monsue had dealt with Bruce before and didn't like him. He considered him "a loudmouth — an in-your-face little punk," he later recalled.

He read Lisker his rights.

"Let me tell you what I think happened," Monsue said, according to a transcript of the interview. "You went in the house through the kitchen window.... She surprises you there. You guys get into a big fight. You pick up the trophy off your desk that's sitting there. You smack her in the head."

"No, I wouldn't do that," Bruce protested.

"She stumbles down the hallway," Monsue continued. "There's a workout bar.... You pick that up. You smack her and break her arm. She starts running.... You get scared. You pick her up. You drag her in there, right [by] the front door. And then you stab her."

"You better stop, man," Bruce said.

"How does that sound to you?" Monsue asked.

"That sounds like a lie," Bruce replied. "That sounds more gruesome than I would even think of doing."

Monsue placed Lisker under arrest.

The teenager demanded to be given a lie-detector test. Monsue and another detective drove him to police headquarters in downtown L.A., where a polygraph examiner questioned him: Did you hit your mother with that trophy? Did you stab your mother? Did you kill your mother?

Lisker exhibited deception in answering, the examiner found.

On the ride back to Van Nuys, Lisker asked how he did. The detectives told him he failed. They said the examiner had never seen anyone so deceptive.

An Unexpected Visitor

John Michael Ryan befriended Bruce Lisker and did odd jobs at the Lisker home. He later killed himself.
John Michael Ryan befriended Bruce Lisker and did odd jobs at the Lisker home. He later killed himself.
Bruce Lisker was 17 in 1983 when he was charged with the murder of his mother, Dorka.
Bruce Lisker was 17 in 1983 when he was charged with the murder of his mother, Dorka.

Bruce spent the weeks after the murder in Sylmar Juvenile Hall. He was allowed outside his cell for an hour a day, and spent it writing letters to friends. Every day at dinnertime, a nurse gave him a tranquilizer mixed with orange juice. His father's Sunday visits "were my salvation," he wrote years later. The two talked about Bruce's legal defense.

Bruce Lisker at a hearing in 1986. Early on, he hoped higher courts would overturn his conviction. Then he hoped to gain his freedom through parole.
Bruce Lisker at a hearing in 1986. Early on, he hoped higher courts would overturn his conviction. Then he hoped to gain his freedom through parole.

Five days into the trial, Kolostian said he would consider allowing Lisker to serve a juvenile sentence if he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Lisker would be released at age 25.

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Mulcahy urged him to do it. Bruce resisted. Then Bob Johnson, a lawyer and family friend, spoke to him.

"He got right in my face and said I had to take the deal. 'They are going to convict you of first-degree murder if you don't,' " Bruce recalled.

Lisker relented. The judge halted the trial and dismissed the jury. As part of the plea bargain, several psychologists examined Bruce to determine his suitability for a juvenile sentence.

Abandoning his claim of innocence, he told them that he had indeed killed his mother. In one of the interviews, he blamed Satan: "I fell to what he wanted me to do.... It was so stupid."

Lisker later disavowed the confession, saying he admitted guilt thinking he would lose the plea bargain otherwise.

In their reports to the judge, the psychologists described him as manipulative and volatile.

"Bruce has an extremely difficult time controlling his aggressive impulses, especially in emotionally charged situations," wrote one psychologist. "He is demanding, self-centered, impulsive and has a low tolerance for frustration."

A pre-sentencing report from the California Youth Authority said that Lisker was "unmotivated for change" and "displayed little in the way of convincing regret or remorse."

Confronted with those conclusions, Kolostian changed his mind and ruled that Lisker would have to serve time as an adult and could face 16 years to life in prison.

"I can't see how the Youth Authority will do the job," Kolostian said. "I had no idea how deep his problem is."

Lisker was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and take his chances before a jury once again.

'Convincing' Evidence

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The second trial unfolded in a sixth-floor courtroom in the Van Nuys courthouse in the fall of 1985. Rabichow depicted the murder of Dorka Lisker as an act of spontaneous rage, followed by cold calculation.

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Desperate for drugs, Bruce drove to his parents' home and asked his mother for money, the prosecutor said. She told him no. Moments later, she caught him taking the grocery money from her purse and fought with him, tearing his plaid flannel shirt.

Lisker went to the kitchen, got a pair of steak knives and plunged them into her back. Realizing that she was still alive, he grabbed the Little League trophy and smashed it against her head. Then he pummeled her with the exercise bar.

As his mother lay dying, he carried out an elaborate cover-up. He wiped his fingerprints and her blood from the trophy and the exercise bar. He ran outside and removed the glass panes from the kitchen window to fit the story he'd concocted. He placed a rope around his mother's neck, a detail he thought would suggest a cult killing.

Then he phoned for help.

The prosecutor insisted that Bruce could not have seen his mother through the windows at the back of the house, as he claimed. Police photos showed that furniture and glare from the sun would have blocked his view, he said.

"He couldn't think of everything," Rabichow said. "That is the most condemning lie that he told."

Further proof of his guilt, the prosecutor said, was that all of the bloody footprints in the house matched Bruce's shoes.

"Only his footprint is in the blood," Rabichow said.

If Lisker's story was true, he asked, "why isn't there an intruder's footprint somewhere?"

Mulcahy attacked the prosecution's case on several fronts. He said there was no evidence that Bruce wiped his fingerprints from the trophy or the exercise bar or did anything else to cover up a crime.

He challenged Rabichow's assertion that Lisker couldn't have seen his mother's body through the windows. The police photos were taken the day after the killing, he said, when the sun was brighter and the glare more pronounced.

Through patient questioning, Mulcahy pinned Hughes down to an account of the confession that he hoped would strain credulity.

Hughes said Lisker confessed during their very first conversation through the hole in the wall — before they even knew each other's names.

In his closing argument, Mulcahy asked jurors to imagine that they were in the business of selling cars and that Hughes had come in looking to buy one on credit.

"Would you give Robert Hughes a loan?" he asked.

After deliberating four days, the jury convicted Lisker of second-degree murder. He was escorted to a holding pen, where he threw up into a trash can.

Several jurors cried that day outside the courtroom. "He just didn't strike us as a hardened criminal," said one. "But the evidence was convincing."

'I'm Not a Killer'

Bruce Lisker at Mule Creek State Prison in 2000.
Bruce Lisker at Mule Creek State Prison in 2000.

For a skinny kid who stands 5 feet 6, prison can be brutal. Soon after his conviction, Bruce endured a beating at the hands of a burly inmate at a juvenile facility in Ontario. He earned respect by fighting back and refusing to inform on his assailant. He told staff members he had suffered two black eyes falling out of bed.

He learned to say little and keep to himself. He studied computer programming and trained to be a paralegal. He went to church, attended 12-step alcohol and drug programs, and dabbled in poetry.

In a poem about Monsue, he wrote:

An idiot simpleton who jumped to conclusions;

Unable to reason, "If not the boy, who then?"

When he turned 25, Bruce was transferred to adult prison — first San Quentin, then Mule Creek, a concrete fortress about an hour's drive south of Sacramento where he has spent the last 15 years.

Early on, he hoped higher courts would overturn his conviction. But his appeals were dismissed. Then he hoped to gain his freedom through parole.

In 1992, when he first became eligible, he admitted killing his mother and expressed remorse before the parole board.

"I was addicted to drugs and alcohol heavily. I stole money from my parents and I had no qualms about doing so. I was on a downward path, heading down a dead-end street, and it culminated in my murdering my mother," Bruce said.

"A spoiled brat," interjected one parole commissioner.

"Yes," Bruce agreed. "I was."

Lisker now says he told board members what he thought they wanted to hear. He was denied parole.

After that, Lisker said, he decided he would never again accept blame for a crime he didn't commit. He said he declined to appear at his parole hearings in 1993, 1996 and 1998. In 1999, he attended and read a statement proclaiming his innocence.

With a $150,000 inheritance from his father, who died in 1995, he hired new attorneys and private investigators and set out to clear his name. He established a website —www.freebruce.org — to drum up support and donations.

Lisker, now 39, said during an interview at Mule Creek that he understands why Monsue suspected him at first. But Monsue and, later, Rabichow developed tunnel vision, he said, closing their minds to evidence that contradicted their theory.

"It's a Chinese proverb that everybody pushes a falling fence," he said. "I wasn't an angel. But I'm not a killer."

Curious About a Call

Det. Andrew R. Monsue followed a trail of blood through the Lisker house, looking for clues.
Det. Andrew R. Monsue followed a trail of blood through the Lisker house, looking for clues.
Jim Gavin wondered if an innocent man was behind bars.
Jim Gavin wondered if an innocent man was behind bars.

Lisker's complaint landed on the desk of Sgt. Jim Gavin, a barrel-chested Irishman with a ruddy complexion and thinning reddish hair. He was skeptical at first. But he was not the sort to ignore a complaint, even one from a prisoner.

Last July, Lisker found in his prison mail a letter on LAPD stationery. It was the department's response to his complaint. An investigation had found no merit to his allegation that Monsue lied to the parole board, wrote Capt. James A. Rubert, the detective's immediate superior.

As for Lisker's broader claims — that Ryan was the real killer and that Hughes had lied on the witness stand — those had already been addressed by the courts, Rubert wrote. No further investigation was warranted.

Lisker said he was disappointed but not surprised. Ingels, a former Pomona policeman, was furious. He called Gavin, who told him that he had been ordered to stop investigating. Ingels wrote Police Chief William J. Bratton, accusing Gavin's bosses of a cover-up.

In response, the department launched a fresh investigation into Monsue's conduct and that of Gavin's superiors.

Gavin is also under investigation — for revealing confidential information about the case. In February, he was transferred from Internal Affairs to the department's training facility in Sylmar.

The evidence Gavin collected was turned over to a detective in the LAPD's cold-case unit, who conducted a quick review and concluded that Lisker was guilty.

The review turned up a previously overlooked piece of evidence: an old autopsy photo showing a bruise on Dorka Lisker's head. It bore a wavy pattern that looked like a shoe print. LAPD officials said a preliminary examination linked the print to Bruce's shoes, suggesting that he had stomped on his mother's head.

In March, Times reporters asked whether police had compared the bruise to the mystery footprint found in the bathroom. They had not. Deputy Chief Gary Brennan said LAPD experts would perform such an analysis.

But Brennan said he had no doubt that Lisker was the killer.

"An innocent man is not in prison," he said.

Fed Up With Questions

Monsue says he has a "fundamental rule" as an investigator: "Keep it simple, stupid." Lisker was the obvious suspect, the detective said in an interview, and he remains convinced of his guilt.

Monsue denied lying to the parole board about the discovery of the missing grocery money. He said it was his practice to document such developments in writing. He could not explain why no report could be found, he said.

With visible indignation, he insisted that the issue had no bearing on Lisker's guilt or innocence.

"It's mildly interesting to me that they are calling me a liar, OK? What does it prove?" Monsue said. "We've got a lying, cheating, murdering son of a bitch in prison that's making these allegations ... and you're sitting here questioning my credibility.... That upsets me."

As for Ryan, Monsue said he had trouble believing that the teenager would have killed someone over $150. More important, he said, he had no evidence placing Ryan at the crime scene.

Monsue said he was unaware of the phone call made from the Lisker home around the time of the murder. He said it did not necessarily implicate Ryan. He suggested that Lisker may have tried to call Ryan's mother and accidentally misdialed.

"You've got to keep it simple, stupid," Monsue said. "Usually, people are killed by people close to them."

He said the criminalist's finding that the bloody footprint in the bathroom was not Lisker's stirred his curiosity, "but I would not draw any conclusions ... until I did some work on it."

Monsue said he was fed up with answering questions about his investigation.

"I've got nothing to lose now. I've got my 30 years on, OK?.... My pension is in the bank. But I'm getting very tired of trying to explain this over and over and over and over."

A Stunning Discovery

Police searched Dorka Lisker’s purse for about $150 in grocery money her husband said he had given her the night before the murder. They did not find the cash, leading them to conclude that Bruce Lisker stole it.
Police searched Dorka Lisker’s purse for about $150 in grocery money her husband said he had given her the night before the murder. They did not find the cash, leading them to conclude that Bruce Lisker stole it. (LAPD)
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