Murders without a murderer lie warehoused by the hundreds in the Los Angeles Police Department’s downtown archives, an endless, ordered riffle of files to maintain the names of the dead and the unanswered questions of the living.
On a day in early December, 50 unsolved homicides were pulled at random from the files of a year also chosen at random--1963. Someone thought it worthwhile to check the nameless, aging fingerprints against the state’s relatively new fingerprint computer network, the same system that helped identify Richard Ramirez as the Night Stalker five years ago.
Out of those 50, one clicked. The computer found in its database a print from an old booking card that matched prints from a murder scene.
And so it is that a week ago Thursday--27 years after a Hollywood waitress was found bludgeoned to death in her bed--police knocked on an apartment door in Minneapolis and arrested 45-year-old Vernon Robinson, accusing the $70,000-a-year maintenance supervisor in the murder of Thora Marie Rose.
Through his attorney, Robinson maintained his innocence, saying that he has an alibi for the night in question.
Robinson, who once served a three-year sentence in San Quentin for assault, was just a few days over 18 at the time of the murder. The victim was 43, and described in the journalist’s language of the day as attractive and blond; by the next day’s news story she was being called, more sedately, a grandmother.
Police were exultant over twin strokes of forensic and computer science that led to the arrest, no matter the 27-year delay between the first stroke and the second.
Unsolved murders, said Hollywood Detective Mike McDonagh, go on virtually forever, and “this is one case that just came right together.” He called it a “textbook” case even 27 years later.
Boxes of evidence are in storage awaiting the prosecutors’ pleasure. On the department’s retirement lists are the officer who took the fingerprints in the little apartment on Detroit Avenue, the officer who supervised the crime scene and the detective who dogged the case as long as it seemed worth dogging. All will be available to testify, McDonagh said.
All of the material would have continued to gather dust had police not turned to a Merlin in their midst, a statewide computer network that can do in moments what used to take investigators weeks to accomplish--to search and match fingerprints.
From about 70 million fingers and thumbs--the prints of 7 million people in California, most of them arrested for serious crimes--the computer, up and running for about five years now, can sort and select until it finds a matchup to the sample print, in this case one lifted from Rose’s little apartment.
The search of the old Rose files is not complete, and investigators said they do not know if the boxes contain any additional evidence to buttress the computer fingerprint match.
Robinson and his lawyer, Robert H. Meier, repeated Thursday what Robinson told police when he was arrested Dec. 27. He joined the Naval Reserves in Santa Monica in June, 1963, and by Oct. 3--the day a burglar is believed to have broken into Rose’s apartment and killed her--he was at the Navy’s training center in San Diego.
Robinson trained in building maintenance and systems at Treasure Island in San Francisco, Meier said, and after that, he served in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and in Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Navy officials said their records are stored in St. Louis, and it would take at least a week to locate and examine Robinson’s file.
Robinson had moved to Minneapolis last month to work for a branch office of the company he worked for in Los Angeles--American Building Maintenance, a contract cleaning company.
“You can imagine how scary this is,” Meier said. “He’s alone in a strange city. And he answers the door at 10 minutes to 7 one morning and he’s whisked off to jail for a murder that happened 27 years ago.”
ABM had lost some cleaning contracts in Los Angeles, and Robinson would have been laid off from his job. That job, since he joined the company in 1986, was supervising a janitorial crew of 100 at Los Angeles International Airport and handling projects elsewhere, said ABM’s vice president, Dennis Hooper.
Hooper, too, has felt the distant shock waves of 1963: Robinson was ever an “excellent” and “loyal” employee. A murder suspect is “not the person I’ve know for the last four years. I am absolutely shocked.”
Meier said Robinson was convicted of assault and robbery in 1970, served three years in San Quentin, and was discharged from probation in 1976.
His booking prints from an earlier arrest matched with those in the Rose file, officials said.
When he was arrested, Robinson was barely two weeks into his new job as a field supervisor for American Building Maintenance, and into his new apartment, at a pretty complex called Riverplace, on the banks of the Mississippi River.
After Robinson had been picked up, taken to the Minneapolis police station and finally told what all this was about, “he looked at us like we’re from another planet,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Mike Fesperman, who was in on the arrest. Fesperman was 8 years old at the time of the murder.
When she died, Rose was a waitress at a pharmacy, working at one of those lunch counters of the sort that once were found in drugstores like Schwab’s, the fabled Hollywood hangout.
She worked at King’s Pharmacy out on Pico, and when she didn’t show up to work one Thursday, her boss called the police, and the police called on her.
They found her dead in bed, face-down in her nightgown, a pillow covering her head and the wound at the back of the skull. She had died sometime between 3 and 6 a.m.--she may not have been awake when she was murdered, police said. From the torn window screen, they surmised that she had been killed by a burglar.
A serial killer was afoot in Los Angeles at the time, and police took the prints they found in Rose’s apartment and hand-carried them to Sacramento to check against nearly 30,000 sets of prints already on record. In those days, the process was done by hand, and no match turned up.
Robinson--divorced with a child who lives in Los Angeles--is in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County Jail on a $250,000 bail, and his attorney said the suspect intends to fight his extradition to California.
The district attorney’s office is sending the extradition warrant to Sacramento early next week for the new governor to sign. Minnesota’s governor must sign as well. The process may take six weeks.
The Police Department said it will continue to run old, unsolved cases through the new system as computer time permits.
Minneapolis free-lance journalist Rhonda Hillbery contributed to this report.