Watching as police move in on suspected Southern California child killer in Idaho

In Idaho town, resident describes police moving in on suspected Southern California child killer

Amy Dexter and the other parents in the Idaho resort town grew nervous about the man inside the parked car on their street. 

For three days he just sat there, watching.

On Friday morning, Dexter, 48, placed a call to Sandpoint police.

“I thought it was a child molester stalking my kids,” Dexter said. “But police called me back. They only said ‘we’re watching somebody. Just let it go at that.’”

About 45 minutes later, Dexter learned the man in the car was a detective monitoring her neighbor Kenneth Rasmuson, 53, a convicted sexually violent predator.

While residents were aware of Rasmuson’s designation as a sex offender, they had no way of knowing that police in Pomona had recently linked him to the strangulation murder in 1981 of 6-year-old Jeffrey Vargo from Anaheim Hills.

After Dexter called police about the suspicious car, officers – including that detective in the car – moved in on Rasmuson. He appeared to surrender without incident, she said.

In 1997, Pomona police confirmed that they had reopened their investigation into Jeffrey's killing. But the investigation into the cold case 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," said the boy's father, Bob Vargo.

Rasmuson had 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 a Pomona detective, Jennifer 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?'"

When Rasmuson first moved to Sandpoint in late 2010, Idaho State Police and local law enforcement passed out pamphlets and posted fliers announcing his arrival to the community. Residents were told he was a sex offender, but neighbors say details of his crimes weren’t discussed.

“We’ve always known what he was, but we didn’t realize a lot of that other stuff,” said Joyce Hartley, 84, who lived two doors down from Rasmuson on Third Avenue.

When Rasmuson moved in, residents protested but were told “there was nothing you can do about it,” Hartley recalled. “A lot of people tried.”

Though Rasmuson is considered a sexually violent predator in California, he’s not in Idaho, authorities said. Rasmuson lived with his parents in the rear home of a duplex at the edge of the Pend Oreille River that has a pier and public park on the front side.

“That’s exactly where the kids swim,” Hartley said. “People always come and go there.”

The town is in one of the Idaho panhandle’s northernmost counties and has about 7,000 residents. It’s about an hour’s drive from Canada and is a big tourist draw for skiers and snowboarders who rent lakeside homes.

“We don’t want the killers coming here to north Idaho,” said Dexter, the grandmother to four children. “This is the closest to God you’re going to get. They come here, they’re going to get their vengeance.” 

Rasmuson was scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday afternoon, said Bonner County sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Kresch. Investigators from Southern California said they’ll pick up Rasmuson in about 10 days, Kresch said.

As for Bob and Connie Vargo, they said they recognize Rasmuson's trial could be a year away, but that seems manageable after more than three decades of waiting.

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

"They just fly in the wind and they look happy," she 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."

Staff writer Zahira Torres contributed to this report.

Twitter: @josephserna

 

 

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