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COLUMN ONE : Murder or Natural Causes? : Four years after Crystal Spencer’s death, her case remains a mystery. Following the trail leads to rumors, theories and mishandled evidence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The death of Crystal Spencer has evolved into a bizarre mystery--a tangled web of rumors and botched evidence, lawsuits and personal obsession.

Nearly four years ago, the 29-year-old topless dancer was found dead in her disheveled Burbank apartment. She was half-nude, her body decomposed beyond recognition. Her telephone was off the hook.

Whether she was murdered, or merely died of a sudden illness, is a lingering question. Authorities labeled the cause of death “undetermined,” leaving angry, tormented loved ones to cling to theories: Spencer was killed by the Japanese mafia. Spencer was an FBI informant murdered by strip-club hoodlums. Spencer was strangled by a ruthless suitor.

The case has taken on a “Twilight Zone” quality, as if fate intended some sleight of hand. On the night of her death, the couple downstairs heard what they later described as muffled shrieks and screams, the apparent cries of someone “being tortured.” But they never called police.

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Glaring discrepancies marred the autopsy. Spencer--listed in one medical document as 5-foot-1, 107 pounds--was charted by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office at 5-foot-7, 140. Her identity was established only by fingerprinting, after the fingertips had been surgically cut from the body. No X-rays or dental records were compared before cremation.

Two lawsuits are pending--one brought by Spencer’s mother against the coroner’s office, the other by boyfriend Anton Kline against Burbank police, seeking access to the department’s files. Kline, 41, bitterly assails authorities who have attributed the exaggerated autopsy measurements to clerical error. He insists that pathologists examined the wrong body.

Almost single-handedly, Kline has kept the case alive--appearing on television, speaking before Los Angeles County supervisors, yelling, questioning, hatching theories, writing hundreds of outraged letters, all in a zealous crusade for answers. Yet those answers may never come. For the bottom line in a saga of shadowy clues and missing pieces is one apparent truth: In an upscale suburban neighborhood, at a time of ever-advancing techniques in forensic science, Spencer became that rare case of someone who slipped through the cracks, who died leaving only a trail of question marks.

“Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to have somebody make a ruling as to the cause of death on this,” said Burbank Detective Kevin T. Krafft, who says he has spent more hours on the Spencer case than on any other in 19 years of law enforcement. “In this instance, the coroner’s office was not able . . . to say that it was, or was not, a homicide. We don’t know why she died.”

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Of the roughly 18,000 deaths investigated each year in Los Angeles, about 40 or 50 fall into that same dark void, said coroner’s spokesman Bob Dambacher. A number are people discovered in the desert, or on remote roadsides, dead for weeks. “We do autopsies and work-ups of blood and urine,” Dambacher said. “We do a lot of things, and sometimes we just cannot tell why somebody died.”

Spencer’s case is especially unsettling--a grim commentary on a hard-edged society in which screams go unheeded; a pointed example of how government bureaucracies sometimes fail, leaving a legacy of anguish and heartbreak.

The trail of clues is complicated by the uneven circumstances of Spencer’s life in May, 1988, the time of her death. A stubborn, outgoing woman, she was given to moments of great hyperbole and was deft at orchestrating job opportunities and relationships, Kline said. She talked incessantly on the phone, left it off the hook regularly and lived in moderate disorder, he said. Frequently, she borrowed money from friends, yet she kept caches of five-, 10- and 20-dollar bills stuffed in her couch and in tissue boxes.

In and out at all hours, Spencer seemed to lead a “double life” devoted to dreams of acting and nights spent dancing topless, Kline said. Her acting credits were modest--two television commercials. Yet, like so many other young women, she longed for a chance at stardom and was enrolled in drama classes and a comedy workshop, Kline said.

To support herself, Spencer danced at the Wild Goose, a topless club near Los Angeles International Airport, performing two, three, even four nights a week. Her wages--about $40 a night--were nominal compared to the $150-a-night, or more, that she made in tips.

Just before her death, Spencer was preparing for three months’ work as a nightclub “hostess girl” in Japan, a trip she feared, according to a former waitress friend. Yet she was determined to go.

“I feel stuck. I’m going to get unstuck!” Spencer wrote in a journal entry. “God guide me. . . . Get me out of the Wild Goose . . . by the end of May.”

Kline last saw her, he said, on Wednesday, May 4.

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Spencer had what Kline later described as a cold. He brought her milk, eggs and orange juice. They snapped photographs of each other. And Spencer talked about the Japan trip. Just a few nights earlier, she and her mother, Vernadine, who was in town for a visit, had driven to Hollywood for a planning meeting.

“When I left that apartment, around midnight . . . she was active, running around the apartment, making coffee,” Kline said.

A night later, Spencer called her sister, Julie, and had a discussion that would become central to the investigation. Spencer talked of having the flu and asked for the phone number for their mother. Vernadine, who was renting temporary quarters from a family in Los Angeles, had left the number with Julie for use in an emergency--but only in an emergency.

Julie, in an interview, said she pretended not to have the number, mindful of her mother’s wishes; her mother was afraid of disturbing her hosts. “Crystal would get on that phone and just ring it off the hook,” Julie said.

Spencer refused to believe her sister’s claim and talked of being “really sick--(saying) she could hardly make it to the bathroom,” Julie recalled. “I think Crystal . . . (was) hoping I would feel sorry for her and give her Mom’s number.”

Julie, who denied any bad blood between the siblings, said she still does not believe Spencer was seriously ill: Crystal was being Crystal, exaggerating.

The phone call was the last conversation between Spencer and anyone in her family. Very late that night, or in the wee hours of the next night, noises were heard from the apartment. One neighbor told police that the sounds had started during the day, becoming worse as the night went on--sounds “like (someone) really violently ill,” according to Krafft. But the detective, citing confidentiality laws, declined to identify the neighbor or to release the related police reports.

A floor down, Jet Taylor was awakened by his soon-to-be wife--Susan Akin, a former Miss America--who heard the noises at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Together, they listened to “moaning . . . but high-pitched . . . a muffled shrieking,” Taylor said in an interview. “At first, I thought it was a sexual thing going on, an ‘S & M’ (sadomasochism) thing.”

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That impression quickly changed. Akin, then 23, a newcomer to Los Angeles pursuing her own screen ambitions, said they listened nearly an hour. The cries were “very rhythmic . . . at intervals--boom, boom, boom,” Akin remembered. “All I could think about was somebody taking a cigarette butt to somebody and burning them. My gut reaction was that someone was being tortured.”

They debated whether to pick up the phone. “We were always told: ‘In California, you just don’t get involved in domestic disputes,’ ” said Akin, a native of a small Mississippi town, who imagined that a boyfriend was involved. The decision not to summon police or an ambulance has always haunted her, she added. “I get so mad at myself--and so upset.”

In the morning, Taylor mentioned the sounds to the apartment manager, who also refused to get involved.

Kline, meanwhile, said he tried to call Spencer over the weekend. “I called and called and the line was busy,” he said. Finally, the operator told him the phone was off the hook. On Monday, he tried again. Then, “I called the Goose, where she worked, and I said to the doorman: ‘Where’s Crystal Spencer? I’m a friend of hers.’ And he said to me: ‘Crystal has left for Japan.’ ”

Kline, a film company researcher and writer who had dated Spencer for about a year, recalled being “disturbed and angry about that . . . confused” that she would leave without a goodby. He accepted it as fact, however.

The body was discovered about a week later--on Friday, the 13th--after neighbors complained of odors. The deteriorated figure was lying prone on the floor near the couch, dressed only in a red shirt. A police officer at the scene reported suspicion of homicide and “probable sexual assault.” Coroner’s investigator Debrah Kitchings noticed unusual disarray. Belongings scattered throughout the apartment suggested ransacking--or, possibly, a very disorganized lifestyle.

The body, Kitchings said, was entangled in Spencer’s telephone cord, perhaps a sign of physical struggle. Or maybe Spencer had failed in an attempt to summon help, to call for an ambulance. With the body so decayed, not even Spencer’s race was certain.

Kitchings, who has since retired, still suspects a “50-50" possibility of foul play, based on a “sixth sense” about the case. “I do think there is a good possibility that she was murdered,” the former investigator said.

Krafft, who at the time handled nearly all death investigations in Burbank, never saw the apartment; he happened to be away that day. He suspects that the death resulted, at least in part, from illness.

“I’m not saying that is the cause of death,” Krafft said. “It would just seem logical to me that if somebody is complaining they’re so sick they can’t even get up to go to the bathroom to vomit--or something along those lines--and a short time later they die, you would certainly think, ‘Gee, what’s the connection between those two things?’ ”

No emergency calls were ever recorded; if Spencer tried to phone for help, she apparently failed.

Kitchings immediately began, as per standard coroner’s office procedure, to track down family members to gather information. Spencer, she learned, had a history of alcoholism and drug use and previously had threatened suicide. In fact, Spencer’s mother--who now declines to be interviewed about the case--characterized her as an “unstable personality,” according to the investigator’s first report.

The peculiarities of the case were only beginning. The body, wrapped in plastic, was transported to the coroner’s office. In its unidentifiable state, it was logged in as “Jane Doe 28,” whereupon it was weighed, measured, affixed with “toe tags” for identification and rolled on a gurney into a refrigerated storage area that typically houses 200 or 300 bodies at a time, said coroner’s spokesman Dambacher.

The autopsy was performed three days later. Fingertips too deteriorated for normal printing were cut off and sent to a laboratory, Dambacher said. A pathologist then charted the few remaining observable characteristics of a black-haired Caucasian woman whose eye color was no longer discernible.

The examination turned up no signs of trauma, no traces of drugs, aspirin or aspirin compounds, no bullet or knife wounds, no fractures, no evidence of rape or sexual attack. The cause of death: “Undetermined.”

According to Kline, family members had not received the report--and were led by police to believe that Spencer died of illness--when the body was cremated. In tribute to Spencer’s dreams of stardom, the ashes were scattered in a ceremony beneath the Hollywood sign.

By then, the police, and then family members, had combed through the disheveled apartment. The family’s search began to raise questions about the quality of the police investigation. Spencer’s camera was still there. Kline got the film developed. “The first eight pictures, in numerical sequence on the negatives, are Crystal and I,” he said, alluding to the photos taken on their last night together.

The ninth picture, however, was alarming: “A gentleman in his 40s with a mustache and T-shirt, and he’s sitting behind her table with a smile on his face. I had no idea who he was.”

Kline said he managed on his own to obtain Spencer’s phone records. By calling numbers, he was then able to reach the man in the photo, whose name he provided to police. The man was interviewed and dismissed as a suspect.

Although Kline has also come to believe in the man’s innocence, he lambastes police for not even confiscating the camera in the first place. “What type of thorough, in-depth investigation do you have when (police) leave the damn camera?”

Krafft admitted that the police investigation was less than perfect. “We’re human,” he said. “We’re going to make mistakes.” But police had no reason to believe the camera might be important, he added, and the evidence obtained from it solved nothing anyway. Burbank police pursued the case for only a few months. By summer, it was considered a closed matter, a death by probable natural causes.

In September, Kline obtained the autopsy report. It made no mention of Spencer’s previously broken ankle. There was no comparison of dental records. Neither did the autopsy show traces of the aspirin she had been taking. And on top of it all, the height and weight were wrong.

Kline reached a quick conclusion: The body was not Spencer’s. “She hadn’t been ID’d yet,” he reasoned. “She was just a toe tag. You switch a toe tag and a body disappears.”

Unappeased by the denials of the coroner’s office, Kline voiced his suspicions at a meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which ordered a Sheriff’s Department investigation. That review offered explanations for the autopsy errors that, according to investigators, ruled out Kline’s wrong-body theory.

Body weights can be miscalculated by 50 pounds or more when workers fail to account for the weight of movable gurneys, the investigators reported. Mismeasurements of height occur when a body is bent or the toes are pointed. Students performing much of the work “just guess,” complained Kitchings, the retired coroner’s investigator. “Nobody pays attention.”

To explore the chances of a mix-up with bodies, investigators said they reviewed the logs of “Jane Does” in a search for other unidentified females who were being processed with Spencer. Only two such bodies remained unaccounted for. In neither case, they said, were the fingertips removed for printing.

All in all, the investigators concluded, the problem appeared to boil down to sloppiness--a small moment of bungling that had cast a giant shadow of fear and suspicion. Even today, Spencer’s family holds to the wrong-body theory. In December, her mother filed suit seeking unspecified damages from the coroner’s office, charging that “the body of Crystal Spencer was disposed of with other John and Jane Does prior to autopsy,” said family attorney Terry Kling. That suit is pending.

Kline’s crusade has especially rankled authorities because of his high-profile approach. He has trumpeted the wrong-body question on TV programs such as “A Current Affair,” “Hard Copy” and “Unsolved Mysteries.” Not only that, but he has floated a long list of unproven theories--some of which, on instruction from his attorney, he no longer discusses.

One such hypothesis concerned a flamboyant, 300-pound man named Horace Joseph (Mac) McKenna, a onetime California Highway Patrol officer who was believed to maintain secret ownership of topless bars.

According to rumor, McKenna used some of the many women he knew to entertain friends in law enforcement. In addition to patronizing the Wild Goose, McKenna operated a clandestine gambling casino out of a warehouse in Inglewood, where Spencer spent time, according to a former waitress friend of Spencer’s who, for fear of reprisals, asked not to be identified.

McKenna died violently less than 10 months after Spencer’s death. He was ambushed in a hail of gunfire outside his Brea home less than 24 hours after a search warrant was made public disclosing a police investigation of his empire.

After McKenna’s death, Kline learned that the FBI had been keeping a file on Spencer. The agency made him wait seven months after he requested access to the file and then told him that 21 pages of documents were being withheld. Kline suspected that those records would reveal that Spencer had been providing information on McKenna. And in retaliation, Kline speculated, McKenna may have had her killed.

Kline’s speculation did not stop there.

“He’s alleged, in some instances, that I’ve covered up a homicide,” Krafft, the detective, said of Kline, decrying what he called an unending series of far-fetched “what-if” scenarios. “He’s (also) alleged that I belong to Japanese organized crime, that I’m somehow associated with Japanese organized crime. It goes on and on. It’s ridiculous,” Krafft said.

Still, the swirl of fact and rumor, testimony and hearsay, dogs the case. Even a fact so basic as whether she worked the night of her death is mired in questions and contradictions. If she did dance at the Wild Goose, the theory goes, she could not have been sick enough to die a few hours later, and was probably murdered.

Although the club’s records show that she did not sign in that night, a former waitress friend said she recalls Spencer being there. Looking back through the prism of nearly four years, the club’s security officer, J. D. Leffler, said he also remembers Spencer at work.

Leffler, who said he walked Spencer to her car, postulated that she is alive in Japan, a white slave. The body in the apartment, he thinks, was planted, or was the body of a friend who may have tried to keep her from going.

“There’s a lot of girls who go to Japan,” Leffler said, “and don’t come back.”

If there was a crime, Krafft said, even Kline would have to be regarded with suspicion because he was one of the last to see her and has shown enormous interest in the case. But, as yet, there is no crime, just a case in limbo.

“I know of actual homicide cases where . . . from five to 20 years later somebody will call the police and say something . . . and it breaks the thing wide open,” the detective said. “And that could happen on this.”

Or it might not. “It also could be that this case is never going to be solved, and nobody’s ever going to know.”


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