A bludgeoned body found in the back seat of a burning car in Woodland Hills was identified Monday as that of Herbert Wallerstein, a veteran television director and producer, and a former top executive for 20th Century Fox.
Wallerstein, 59, was last seen Friday evening at a supermarket near his Woodland Hills home, police said. Detective Stan Miller said that what happened after Wallerstein left the supermarket is unclear, except that police believe he may have been robbed and then clubbed on the head.
His body was found Sunday in his 1982 Dodge Charger, which had been intentionally set on fire at about 10:15 a.m. in the 5000 block of Boda Place, about one-quarter of a mile from his home, police said.
Wallerstein, who resigned last winter as senior vice president of feature film production at 20th Century Fox, most recently produced the pilot film for the ABC-TV series "Lady Blue."
Woman Seen Running Away
Residents along the quiet, upper-middle-class street said they saw a short, heavy-set woman wearing red clothing and a large-brimmed baseball cap running from the car after it had been set on fire with a flammable liquid. Police are also searching for a white van parked in the area that "didn't belong in the neighborhood," Miller said.
Miller said that the car had been set on fire to cover up evidence of the killing, but he would not describe the evidence. The car's gas cap was found inside the vehicle, leading police to believe that someone had previously tried to set the car on fire by igniting the gasoline in the tank, then returned and set the interior afire with a flammable liquid, Miller said.
Area residents, who helped put the fire out with extinguishers and garden hoses, said the car had been parked next to the curb since late Friday night but that they did not see the body, which was in the rear seat, partly concealed under bags of groceries.
'Sort of a Mystery'
"We're really looking for public help on this one," Miller said, adding that police have a composite sketch of the woman seen in the area and are drawing a second sketch based on descriptions by other witnesses. "He went and got his groceries, but after that it's sort of a mystery."
Wallerstein, a native of Brooklyn, worked in the motion picture industry for more than 40 years and directed episodes of many television series, including "Happy Days," "Star Trek," "Quincy," and "Gunsmoke."
He had been at 20th Century Fox since 1978, overseeing production of movies such as "Alien," "9 to 5" and "The Verdict," executives said.
Friends and colleagues expressed shock Monday over the murder of Wallerstein, who was described as a deeply religious Jew and a workaholic.
Tony Habeeb, a motion picture publicist who said that he had been a close friend of Wallerstein's since the 1950s, remembered speaking to the producer by phone Friday, just before Wallerstein left for the supermarket.
No Indication of Trouble
"He said something about having to leave, but there was no indication that he was having any trouble," Habeeb said. "He's about the last person you would think would be involved in anything remotely controversial."
Gary Gerlich, senior vice president of post-production at 20th Century Fox, said Wallerstein had a "pleasant parting" with the motion picture studio in December after he decided to work independently and possibly form his own production company.
"He was extremely well-liked in the industry," Gerlich said. "He was the fellow in charge of production of all our feature releases, from making sure they came in on budget to supervising construction of sets."
Wallerstein is survived by his wife and a teen-age son. Funeral services have been scheduled for Wednesday morning at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park.