The Larsen Files : Their Cases Alone--J. David Dominelli, the MGM Hotel Fire--Make Them Extraordinary. But There's Another Twist: They're a Father-Daughter Detective Team.

Steve Chapple's most recent book was "Outlaws in Babylon." His next is "Burning Desires: Love and Lust in Dangerous Times" (with David Talbot), which will be published by Dolphin / Doubleday.

NEITHER FATHER NOR DAUGHTER looks much like a detective. He, Larry Larsen, is tall and roly-poly, at 47 not quite fat--rather, large and dignified. Invariably, he wears a blue Oxford button-down shirt with a pen sticking out of the breast pocket. His manner is at first goofy, like TV detective Colombo's, yet even more disarming than that. Daughter Linda, 27, is the opposite: thin, tough, new wave, a black malachite stud in her right ear, two pearls in the left. After hours, he listens to baroque music; she lives in a world of studio musicians and actors.

The "daddy-daughter detective duo," some call them. Despite their appearances, the Larsens have become legendary in the hard-boiled world of Los Angeles private investigators. It was the Larsens who led the paper chase that recovered some $10 million from the hidden empire of fallen financier J. David Dominelli. It was the Larsens who ran down the assets of con woman Naomi Jerez after the FBI arrested her on a rented yacht. Father and daughter forced a famous television evangelist to return half of a multimillion-dollar bequest. They saved their client Essex Chemical Corp. from taking the blame for the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire. In the mid-1970s, Larry Larsen's investigation (for then County Supervisor Baxter Ward) helped bring down L.A. County Assessor Philip E. Watson. Later, Linda Larsen's research exposed the asbestos danger in many Southern California classrooms.

In fact, driving around Los Angeles with the Larsens is like covering a crime grid. Each part of town holds another scene. In Marina del Rey, there's the building where Linda Caroline Miller's body was discovered. Downtown, a mystery witness surfaced whose testimony saved the life of a gang member accused of stabbing another boy to death. Nearby is the Ambassador Hotel, where the Larsens (Linda, a young eager beaver) helped investigate Bobby Kennedy's assassination. In Beverly Hills, there was an almost-murder involving a dentist, his two girlfriends and a reluctant hit man. In Santa Monica, it's the Billionaire Boys Club trial; father and daughter were asked to investigate, but the fee was too low. Together, they insist on $120 an hour.

Today we are driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. The Larsens are looking into a murder in Oxnard that the small-town press is already calling an episode of surfer Satanism. Later, they will head back to Los Angeles for more meetings.

In Oxnard, Rodney Holder, whose father is prominent in the Ventura oil industry, is charged with bludgeoning a man to death with a metal bar. Holder led police to the body, saying, "I have killed my antichrist." The Larsens are not so sure. It is their job not to believe anybody, regardless of who's hired them. Like most private detectives, the Larsens usually work for the lawyers of the accused, compiling much of the evidence the attorneys will use later in court.

The discussion of whether any real Satanism is involved in the Oxnard case prompts Larry Larsen to talk about his investigation of Charles Manson. "The Family," Ed Sanders' classic of true-crime horror, is dedicated to Larsen, who was the principal researcher for the book.

Alongside the Malibu Riding and Tennis Club, Larsen takes a hand off the steering wheel of his black Thunderbird and points toward the ocean.

"Ed was convinced some sort of ritualistic ceremony was being conducted on the beach down there, around campfires at night. He wanted to check it out. . . . "

"The usual voyeuristic stuff," interrupts his daughter. Linda snuffs out one cigarette and lights a second. (Larry Larsen drinks coffee, 10 or 12 cups a day. Linda Larsen likes to smoke. She seems to smoke 10 or 12 Benson & Hedges Ultra-Lights every hour.)

"Pretty soon Ed had me creeping and crawling down that cliff," continues Larry. "But before we started out, we had an argument. Ed's a New Yorker, always a little paranoid. He'd brought his .45 to L.A. and insisted on taking it to Malibu. I got him to remove the clip and stick the pistol in the trunk. When we got to Malibu, I refused to open it. Ed was mad, but I don't believe in guns."

When we'd passed Topanga Canyon, several miles back, Larsen had talked about the only time in 21 years anyone has ever threatened him with bodily harm. "A man in Topanga told me he was going to hurt me; I started laughing. I couldn't stop. I said, 'This is too absurd!' The guy didn't know what to think." The Larsens have devoted a lot of thought to structuring their professional interactions so that nobody ever threatens them. They don't like violence.

A few miles north of the riding club, Larsen points into the hills, and continues on about the Manson case. "Ed heard that cults were worshiping at a millionaire's ranch right there. There were supposed to be columns and an altar with pentagrams laid out. Ed was especially interested in a tale of an underground chamber. So we went up there and tapped around and found this lid affair. I said, 'Ed, why don't you check this out? This might be the chamber.' We lowered Ed down on a rope, and suddenly he started screaming. The chamber was a cesspool."

Both Larsens laugh. When Linda laughs, she laughs young and strong. When Larry laughs, there is often a catch. Twenty years ago Larry was a seminary student at the School of Theology at Claremont. Afterward he worked in a Methodist slum ministry in downtown Los Angeles. When Larry laughs, there is a reservoir of sadness at the bottom of his throat.

WE ARE RUNNING LATE for an appointment with a young woman, in a coffee shop north of Los Angeles. To save time Larsen whips a sliding U-turn across the road divider. His daughter laughs at the display.

"Hey," the senior Larsen protests, "I haven't blown a red light in 18 years." Linda Larsen lights another cigarette.

We make it to the restaurant in plenty of time. They install me in a back booth and take the booth next door to wait for the young woman who, the Larsens hope, has key information about a case they're working on.

I am scanning headlines about the ambitious Lt. Col. Ollie North when she arrives. The woman, a girl really, is about 18.

Larry Larsen orders poached eggs and asks the girl what she would like. She orders a diet soda. Linda asks for coffee. Larry explains exactly who they are. He is cordial and earnest. The girl chooses her words carefully at first but soon she is talking freely.

"This one guy liked to joke around," she says. "One night he put 30 hits of acid in another guy's beer."

Larry Larsen's voice is so low and cordial as to be hypnotic. "We don't care about that," he says. "The police don't care either. We just want to know if these two and the others knew what they were doing when they were doing drugs."

The girl shrugs. "Everybody was always fried down in the caves," she says.

Larsen casually pops the big money question. "It's hard to believe everybody took part in the killing," I hear him say in his low, careful, compelling voice. "Was it really just one guy who did it?"

It amazes me that the girl answers.

More conversation, and Larry rises slowly from the padded booth. "Excuse me," he says, and like a closely bearded Raymond Burr he slowly weaves his way between tables to the bank of phones at the front of the restaurant.

This is a calculated maneuver, of course--one of the basic "daddy-daughter ruses." Now Linda can enter into a heart-to-heart. The Larsens have found that questions of jealousy, or on intimate health matters, are often better dealt with by Linda.

Soon we begin the drive back to Los Angeles. Larry is still behind the wheel. These new Thunderbirds are effortless machines. I notice that the digital speedometer rarely drops below 65. Larry dictates into a cassette recorder as he drives. His language has become legalistic:

"Subject recalled that a man with a shaven head--" he begins, then glances at Linda for the precise term.

"Skinhead," she tells him.

"Yes," says Larry. "A skinhead, which is--"

"A member," says Linda, "of an underground scene of punk music and skateboards."

Larry repeats this verbatim into the tape recorder for their secretary to transcribe, then pushes the pause button and smiles. "Or so I am told by a reliable source," he adds.

IT WOULD SEEM THE LARSENS live in restaurants. They feel safer this way. "We do not take meetings at the end of piers," Larry chuckles. This week we will hit several Du Par's restaurants, the trendy cafeteria Gorky's, the old-fashioned Pantry, the elegant 7th Street Bistro. One night Larry wants to try out a new restaurant located precisely below the intersection of the Glendale and Ventura freeways. That a restaurant is proud to locate itself under two freeways leads the more epicurean Linda to suggest Musso & Frank, Hollywood's center of compromise dining for half a century. In Musso's parking lot, Larry asks if we don't mind sitting in the car until Pachelbel's Canon in D finishes playing on a classical station.

The maitre d' shows us to a good table, but the Larsens insist on a booth near the cigarette machine, for three reasons: They can see everybody from this booth, nobody can overhear us, and it is a padded booth--and Larry, at 230 pounds, likes padded comfort.

The discussion quickly turns to "Getting in the Door."

"We always get in the door," smiles Larry, a bit devilishly.

"We expect to win every interview," adds Linda.

"I'm a folksy kind of guy on that front stoop," says Larry. "I talk about the weather, the lawn fertilizer. I put my back to the door. I use body language. Can we come in? It's hot / cold / rainy out here."

Linda rubs out her cigarette and demonstrates proper father-daughter technique: "Hi, I'm Linda Larsen and this is my dad. We've flown all the way from Los Angeles to speak to. . . . "

Her father interrupts: "Linda usually speaks first. A woman is less threatening. They always stare at us, a nice middle-aged guy and his daughter. That's sweet. That's always a new one to them."

Linda lights another cigarette in the time it takes Larry to say this, then she continues: "And we'd like to speak to Charlie if we could. . . . "

Now this Charlie might be an old fry cook, not just any old fry cook, but the fry cook at, say, the basement kitchen of the MGM Grand Hotel, a very important fry cook indeed, if your client's wallpaper glue could be construed as having caused, or somehow having contributed to, the spread of the world's largest hotel fire.

The Larsens quickly re-enact a prototypical scene.

" 'Charlie's--uh--not here,' " Larry mimics a worried housewife.

" 'But,' " says Linda, " 'we can see a man through the screen who looks a lot like our photo of old Charlie.' "

" 'Hi there, Charlie!' " says Larry now, sotto voce.

Linda takes over the woman's part: " 'Charlie's sick.' "

" 'Charlie,' " Larry plays on, " 'Aunt Em in California sent us.' 'Auntie Em?' asks Charlie. 'Yep.' "

"Obviously," says Linda, "Charlie is more drunk than sick."

" 'Sure, come on in!' " Larry finishes for Charlie.

Once through that kitchen door, the detectives ask for coffee. Coffee takes time to make and sip. They never ask to use the bathroom, which would make people suspicious. People assume that detectives will rifle their medicine chests. Larry will ask if he can turn off the television. Linda will start talking about the baby. "I'm hyper," she says. "Dad's methodical, relentless. But nice."

"The Larsens can talk their way out of anything and into anything," KABC producer John Babcock, who worked with Larry Larsen on the Linda Caroline Miller murder case, will tell me. "And once in, you can't get rid of them."

The Miller murder was a classic. The police had arrested Gary Smiddy, the last person to be seen with Miller. Smiddy had picked up Miller at the old Parasol restaurant in Marina del Rey. Her almost nude body was found at the bottom of a stairwell in a building under construction. Police investigators insisted that Miller's body had lain there for 12 to 30 hours. The coroner backed them up. Smiddy did not have a perfect alibi for the first 18 hours.

Larsen walked up and down that staircase a hundred times. He made a scale model with line-of-sight possibilities. He talked to all the workmen. Finally, he concluded that there was no way the body could have gone unseen for so long. He and attorney Stephen D. Miller brought in a coroner from Orange County who challenged the Los Angeles Police Department's time-of-death estimate. If the shorter time were true, Smiddy's alibi would hold.

"The final straw came," Babcock recalls, "when someone on the police side insisted that spaghetti sauce found in the stomach of the murdered girl was unique to the Parasol restaurant (indicating that this had been the woman's last meal). Larry discovered the sauce was nothing more than Chef Boy-Ar-Dee."

In court, the prosecutor himself moved to have the case dismissed. In a later civil suit, Smiddy, now represented by Robert Talcott (who would become president of the Los Angeles Police Commission), received a large judgment for a false-arrest claim against the LAPD.

In the booth at Musso & Frank, Larry says, "Real detective work is all footwork, phoning and public records."

Then what do father and daughter think of television's flashy detectives?

Maddie and David on "Moonlighting": "They never work. They're ditzy."

"Simon & Simon": "Cute."

"Magnum, PI": "We only use helicopters for aerial photos, not for swooping down on people."

"The Rockford Files": "Rockford had common sense, he worked on his feet. He was intelligent," says Larry Larsen, impressed.

"Rockford went to funeral homes for death records," adds Linda, "and sometimes he couldn't even figure out the case."

Father and daughter laugh. James Rockford is OK by them.

LARRY LARSEN IS STANDING outside his daughter's house in the Los Feliz district. It is a beautiful house, all high ceilings, vermilion tapestries, false atriums, sand-colored cabinets without knobs and a white-tiled bathroom large enough for hosing down the L.A. Rams. Frank Lloyd Wright's son designed the place. Linda is having dinner inside with David Crowley, an actor who appeared in a few episodes of "Hill Street Blues." It is after midnight, drizzling, and Larry Larsen has been talking about God.

"I've worked with people who have killed in anger and with people who have murdered for very small amounts of money, very brutally, and with white-collar criminals who have swindled millions upon millions of dollars, and I have to say, too, that there are things I am not proud of having done. So I don't think there is such a thing as sin. Either we all get to heaven, or none of us will."

NEXT DAY, LINDA LARSEN drives me to the Temple of Doom. The Temple of Doom is what the Larsens call the downtown monolith that houses the endless records of births, deaths, marriages, car registrations, civil suits--those paper footprints that allow the Larsens, and those perhaps less charitable, to track the rest of us.

"Larry wanted me to be anything but a PI," Linda says. "I studied anthropology at the University of Oregon, but I felt out of place. I went to high school in Highland Park. I think I always wanted to be a Chicana."

She laughs. She learned to play rhythm guitar and hung out at a lot of neighborhood--and later, music-industry--parties. "But I guess," she says, laughing again, "I just didn't like salsa." The back seat of her gray leased Honda is littered with rock tapes: Talking Heads, Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love," Brian Eno, the Replacements.

When she was in college, her father was working as general manager of the George Barnes detective agency, the famous firm that represented the rightful heirs to the Howard Hughes' estate, disproving Melvin Dummar's so-called Mormon Will. Her father offered to train her. But she felt she would be seen only as a daddy's girl. She became a researcher at KCET television, the public-broadcasting station, where she began her investigation into asbestos in the ceilings and halls of county schools. The story had a personal feel to it. She returned to her old school, Aldama Elementary, and discovered that the custodian, still there, had asbestosis. The report caused a splash. She decided to work for "the big guys," KABC, but they only wanted her to do features. After a few months at KABC, she took the plunge and joined her father at the Barnes detective agency. She was 25, making $45,000 a year and, as the asbestos story had proved, she was not just Daddy's Daughter.

Even so, she remembers, "The other detectives still saw me as the skirt. I was supposed to cry and tell people I'd lose my job unless they talked to me. I refused to do that."

Now that father and daughter are on their own, Linda Larsen declines certain types of cases. "If it is my interpretation that the attorney's client committed a rape," she says, "we won't work on it."

The Temple of Doom turns out to be a windowless world of microfiche and computer terminals. Hundreds of paralegals and PI's pour through the thumbnails of other people's lives. This has got to be the most boring place in Southern California.

Not at all, scoffs Linda Larsen. She slips a microfiche into a viewing machine and demonstrates that even a simple precinct voting record tells who lives with whom and whether they have any interesting felony convictions. We move to another fiche machine.

"At the Temple of Doom, we watched J. David Dominelli go crazy." Dominelli, who had been the boyfriend of a Del Mar city councilwoman, had created a fraudulent investment scheme. "It was a moral tale of excess," Linda says, laughing. "Each day we would find more racehorses, more Ferraris, another vineyard that he was trying to hide from the court."

The Larsens examined the financier's checks. Then before their personal computers, they cross-indexed payments with the names of Dominelli's lawyers, relatives and friends. They fed in the properties each person owned. "It was like peeling an onion."

"My mom--Larry's wife"--Linda laughs that quick ironical laugh--"calls Larry's computer the Bitch because it takes him away from her."

Although the Larsens seem expert at uncovering the secrets of other people's lives, Larry Larsen doesn't know who his own parents are.

It is late at night and we are drinking at the 7th Street Bistro when this information drops out.

Larsen is an orphan from Nebraska. He knows only that his stepfather forced his mother into a courtroom long ago. His mother was declared incompetent. The judge farmed out Larry and his five brothers and sisters to different foster homes. He never saw any of them again.

At the 7th Street Bistro the Larsens, who so carefully guard what is the coin of their lives, information, are just the tiniest bit loose. Larry Larsen has had his 10 cups of coffee. Now he's sipping Kahlua and Coke, the closest thing to an 11th cup of coffee.

Wouldn't it be the easiest thing in the world for the two of them, of all people, to locate their lost family?

"What would be the point?" the older Larsen asks.

The point, to most of us, would be obvious. Here is a man who spent his 20s seeking some sort of truth as a minister in the slums of Los Angeles, then later tracked more tangible things: identities, hidden fortunes, killers. Yet perhaps the most fascinating truth of all has lain unsearched for decades. Why not simply punch up the computer, check the court records, make the necessary telephone calls?

"What's the point?" Larry Larsen asks again.

Linda Larsen puts out yet another Benson & Hedges in the ashtray and looks into her father's gray eyes. He says nothing.

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