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A Mother’s Obsession: Justice for Son

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It was a classic suicide. A prominent Hancock Park surgeon, trapped in an unhappy marriage, drove his Cadillac into his garage on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 23, 1974, and sat reading Time magazine until the exhaust fumes finally overcame him.

That was the story that seemed to be told by the circumstances of Dr. Theodore Loseff’s death. The police, the coroner and virtually everyone else declared it suicide.

Everyone, that is, except his mother, Zelda Loseff.

Almost from the beginning, Zelda Loseff did not believe that her firstborn would take, by his own hand, the life she had given him 41 years before. She began to suspect that her son had been murdered, and suspicious in particular that her son’s wife, who is now dead, had killed him.

Today, a little more than 11 years later, the Loseff case has become a classic of another sort: the story of a little old lady whose determination--some say obsession--is at least as compelling as the evidence she turned up.

Zelda Loseff began her investigation a few months after her son’s death. In the intervening years she has interviewed more than 100 potential witnesses and written dozens of letters. She has hired six private investigators, five attorneys, four forensic pathologists and a handwriting expert. So far, her investigation has cost her more than $100,000, she said.

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“I became a Grandma Moses in the art of murder investigation,” said Loseff, now 74, in an interview. “I now know the who, how, what, when and where of my son’s murder. And that is a terribly inhuman burden to bear. I want to know, will there ever be a light at the end of this black tunnel? Will my son’s murderers ever be brought to trial?”

The answer, at the moment, is no.

“It does not appear that we can consider filing a case at this time,” said Stephen Kay, a deputy district attorney who supervises the criminal complaints division of the Los Angeles district attorney’s office.

“The principal person Mrs. Loseff suspects of the murder is dead, and there appears to be no evidence establishing the guilt of any other party beyond a reasonable doubt. Mrs. Loseff seems like a very nice, sincere person. I hope that if anything ever happened to me, my mother would be equally energetic. But, at least at this point, the police have closed the case, and there’s nothing we can do.”

So the answer is no. But Zelda Loseff is not accustomed to taking no for an answer.

It was 10 o’clock that Saturday night when Zelda (as authorities have come to call her) learned that her son was dead. Her only other child, a daughter, knocked on her apartment door, and said, “Mother, Ted died.” A few hours earlier, the daughter explained, he had taken his own life.

Ted had been a brilliant child. Zelda had raised him and his sister by herself after her husband died of cancer. College-educated and interested in business, Zelda had supported the family by establishing a successful encyclopedia franchise in the Midwest. The son had grown up to be a doctor, like his father. The father had died at 37. And now, the son was dead at 41.

“It was like a bomb had exploded in my life,” Zelda recalled. “I kept asking, ‘Why would he kill himself? Why?’ ”

For information on her son’s death, Zelda turned first to his widow, Wilda. The couple had been married just 27 months. They had lived high and well, but their marriage was tormented, Zelda learned after Ted’s death. Ted had privately complained that Wilda had had frequent affairs and drank heavily. They had contemplated divorce.

After the death, Zelda said, Wilda was little given to mourning. She neglected for months to put a headstone on her husband’s grave. She became hostile toward Zelda, refusing to discuss Ted.

Desperate to learn more about her son’s death, Zelda finally made an appointment with the Los Angeles Police Department detective who had handled Ted’s case.

It was Aug. 9, 1974. She remembers the date--it was her 64th birthday. More significantly, it marked the beginning of her investigation. The detective, though kind, refused to give her the police report because she was not “next of kin.” She had a similar experience with the Los Angeles County coroner-medical examiner even though, she later learned, the coroner’s report was public.

“I gave birth to Ted, raised him and educated him, but I was not next of kin,” she said. “I was just a mother.”

In 1977, three years after Ted Loseff’s death, a private investigator Zelda had hired obtained the coroner’s and police reports.

Their contents provided a shock.

The police investigation was cursory. Because the death seemed so obviously a suicide, few questions had been asked. The coroner’s report was even briefer. No autopsy had been done. No blood had been taken to confirm that her son had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Some of Zelda’s sorrow turned to anger.

‘Living Hell’

“I went through living hell just because nobody took two teaspoons of blood!” she said later. “I had been taught to be a lady and not raise my voice, but I should have been screaming bloody murder all along.”

The reports provided fuel for her investigation: names of possible witnesses, bits of forensic detail.

She began to reconstruct Ted’s last day. He got a haircut that morning, returned home to eat two roast beef sandwiches, watched sports on TV, and spoke with a friend by phone.

His wife returned about 2:30 p.m. They argued. She ran out and spent the afternoon at the maid’s house, saying she was afraid to go back. Finally, after dark, she called police to meet her at the house and escort her inside.

After police found the house empty, Wilda suggested they look in the garage. The suggestion seemed “strange,” one policeman would say later. But they looked anyway. They found Ted’s body in his car.

Wilda told police that Ted had a history of suicide attempts. What appeared to be a suicide note scribbled on a cardboard shirt collar insert was found on an upstairs dresser: “Wilda--All I ever asked was one moment’s compassion and understanding. I love you. T.”

The suicide theory seemed to hold. Yet, some details seemed wrong to the mother.

Unlikely Items

Ted Loseff didn’t drink beer or smoke. Yet beer cans and cigarette packages--brands Zelda later learned were favored by certain of Wilda’s friends--were found in the kitchen.

Ted was a fashionable dresser, yet he was found wearing a pair of old summer slacks and his best dress shirt with French cuffs. The clothes the maid had seen him wearing that morning were never found.

Ted had worn glasses since age 3. How, Zelda wondered, could he have been reading that magazine that police found in his lap?

Zelda located two people who were at the Loseffs’ home the night his body was found. One was Edward Jay, a Long Beach artist and close friend of both Wilda and Ted. The other was the maid, Bea Burrows, at whose home Wilda had spent the afternoon, and who was the last person known to have seen Ted alive.

Jay described some things Wilda had done that he had found puzzling.

Wilda had run up with Ted’s glasses as they were taking the body out of the garage, he recalled, and asked him to put them on Ted’s face. Shortly before his death, she had abruptly decided she did not want a divorce, but would not say why. Moreover, he believed the “suicide note” was an old note from Ted that Wilda had shown him months before.

“I began to realize all this in retrospect,” Jay told The Times this week. “I’d have to be an awful idiot to think it wasn’t murder.”

Maid’s Suspicions

Burrows, the maid, told Zelda that she believed it was murder from the beginning.

“That man didn’t commit suicide, and I said so that night,” Burrows said in an interview. “Someone did it for him.”

Burrows had worked for 17 years at a hospital and had cleaned up after patients who had died. She was puzzled that there was no fecal matter or urine in Loseff’s clothing, which is common after death, and that his coloration seemed unlike that of other carbon monoxide victims she had seen.

“Someone cleaned that man up,” Burrows said. “I told police that. But who was going to take the word of a domestic worker? The police said an autopsy would determine it for sure.”

When Zelda came to see her three years later, her advice was simple:

“Dig him up,” Burrows said. “You dig him up and find out how he died.”

In 1978, Zelda got a court order to exhume her son’s body. The resulting autopsy, conducted by Dr. Irving Root of San Bernardino, turned up the first physical evidence in her case.

Accurate forensic tests were impossible under such circumstances, Root said. But he did make one important finding: There was evidence of vomit in the deepest recesses of the lungs, suggesting a violent vomiting episode at death. If no vomit had been found on his clothing, Root surmised, his clothes might have been changed.

Blames Cyanide

“It is my opinion that the most probable cause of death is death due to cyanide poisoning, the cyanide having been taken elsewhere other than in the car, death having occurred elsewhere other than in the car, and the dead body having been moved from the place of death and placed into the car by unknown persons,” Root concluded.

Zelda hired other forensic experts to review Root’s work. Although they did not agree on cyanide as the cause of death, they felt that the autopsy raised serious questions about the nature of the death.

The conclusions were so disturbing that they affected Zelda physically. She found it difficult to eat, and suffered restrained urges to vomit, she said, in subconscious empathy with her son’s last moments.

She often awoke at night, thinking of her son’s death. She wrote hundreds of memos about the “inconsistencies” she had found in the case, addressed the memos “To Whom It May Concern” and filed them away.

Passers-by had noted movement inside the house long after the time that forensics experts concluded Ted had died, she wrote. The maid had seen a large stack of cash upstairs that was gone that night. A vomit-stained bedspread had been found in a back room near the garage.

Nagging Questions

Had her daughter-in-law spent the afternoon with the maid for an alibi? Had hired men gone into the house and killed Ted, leaving behind beer cans and cigarette wrappers? Had they cleaned him up, thrown away his clothes and placed his body in the car?

Her questions only raised more questions.

In 1982, Zelda’s latest attorney, Leonard Weinglass, persuaded the coroner’s office to conduct an inquest into the Loseff case. Much of the material Zelda gathered became court evidence, and the people she questioned became witnesses.

The coroner’s jury came back with a finding that officials consider at best confused: death at the hands of another by carbon monoxide poisoning. In essence, they decided, someone had killed Ted Loseff by exposing him to the exhaust fumes from his own car.

But no murder investigation came until Zelda had hired yet another private investigator to compile a professional report.

On Nov. 7, 1983, Zelda got a letter from the Los Angeles district attorney notifying her that the case was being reopened.

“I was thrilled to pieces,” she recalled. The detectives assigned to the case were among the best on the force. One had worked on the Hillside Strangler case. “Thank God, I thought. At last!”

Where Zelda’s investigation stemmed from a mother’s suspicions, the police inquiry grew out of the original evidence.

Their investigation spanned eight months and included interviews with eight to 10 people, said Lt. Ron Lewis, officer in charge of the Police Department’s special homicide section that handles complex murder cases.

“Mrs. Loseff’s case is just total speculation, that’s all,” Lewis said in an interview. “We are all very sympathetic to her. But we cannot prosecute from speculation.”

The first thing the detectives discovered was that Zelda’s prime suspect, Wilda, had remarried the year after Ted’s death, moved back east and died a few months after the inquest.

Police also found certain facts that made them feel that Loseff killed himself after all, Lewis added.

Earlier Suicide Attempt

The door to the garage appeared to have been locked from inside. Loseff had attempted suicide once before, in 1972. Although the belated autopsy suggested foul play, the findings did not preclude suicide. After reviewing the case, Dr. Ronald Kornblum, the current acting coroner, concluded that the findings still indicated suicide. He added that a blood test should have been made in the case, and that such tests are now routine.

“There are obviously a lot of questions that could have been answered during the original investigation that could possibly have precluded any doubt,” Lewis said, adding that unless someone confessed, no prosecution seemed possible.

“Unfortunately, 10 years later, we can’t do all that because of vague memory of witnesses, lack of physical evidence, and the fact that no blood test was done. Because of the unanswered questions, we have reclassified the death in our own files as ‘undetermined.’ ”

The evidence has been independently reviewed by four members of the district attorney’s staff. None found any basis for prosecution.

Her son’s death has transformed Zelda Loseff’s waning years. She avoids the sight of boats on the ocean; Ted was a sailor. She does not go to opera; Ted enjoyed music.

Her relationship with her daughter, who urges her to get on with her life, has been strained. She lunches often with potential witnesses, and with members of a group called Parents of Murdered Children.

She still wakes up at night, still fights the queasiness when she thinks of Ted’s last moments, still types the memos about those elusive clues and files them away.

At the very least, she hopes, laws will be changed so that parents can always see the death records of their children and that the taking of blood samples will be required in suspected suicides.

“If the police think they are through with this little old lady, they’re wrong,” she said. “I am developing new information all the time. Some beer cans were found in the bushes near the garage that night, and I have a lead on a man who may have been hiding out there.”


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