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Man Disappears: Tragedy or Hoax? : Mystery: He left a girlfriend, a new job and his beloved Harley. But now, police say letter from his purported killer may be true.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first, case No. 91-10270 seemed like any of the dozens of missing person reports that come to police agencies in Southern California every week:

Thomas Richard Roche was missing, having left his apartment without telling his longtime girlfriend and with only the clothes he was wearing. The 37-year-old machinist’s new job and bank accounts were left behind. So, too, was his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Believing that his Sept. 13, 1991, disappearance might be temporary, Burbank police held the report for a few days while waiting for Roche to show up--as do most people whom loved ones have reported missing. But Roche did not turn up. Instead, a letter surfaced from a person professing to be his killer. And case No. 91-10270 took on a unique light.

“I am suffering a great deal of guilt right now about what I have done and I feel it is necessary to write about it for my sake and yours,” begins the unsigned letter mailed to Roche’s apartment. “You don’t know me and hopefully you never will but I am the one who killed Tom Roche.”

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More than 10 months later, Roche remains unaccounted for. As time goes by, police are considering the letter as a possibly authentic note from a killer who wrote of a need to kill that he found difficult to control after serving in Vietnam.

“Either this is a legitimate disappearance and the person who wrote the letter had something to do with it, or Tom Roche disappeared on his own and had it done to cover his tracks,” Detective Cliff G. Thieme said. “The more time goes by, the more credence I have to give to the authenticity of the letter. I have to look more strongly on the possibility that he may be dead.”

Six days after Roche disappeared, the letter arrived at the Rogers Street apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Barbara Rondeau. It was addressed “To the family of Thomas Roche” and contained a driver’s license, credit card and a piece of jewelry belonging to the missing man.

Rondeau read the two-page letter on the apartment steps near her mailbox, collapsing in tears before calling police. The writer described meeting Roche at a topless bar and planning to “quickly and efficiently” kill him after luring him to a prearranged meeting.

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“He fell for it and we arranged to meet on Friday the 13th,” the letter said. “I must assure you that it was neat and quick. I do not think he suffered at all.”

Police have not disclosed all of the letter’s contents or its postmark, saying that the information is being withheld to protect investigative leads.

Apparently making a reference to Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the letter said that news about Dahmer rekindled desires that the writer had suppressed since serving in Vietnam.

“I loved being in Vietnam. In fact . . . those were the happiest days of my life. I felt such a rush whenever I had a confirmed kill that it was hard to switch it off when I came back to the states. For 18 long years I have held this in check despite the nightmares and fantasies about killing. This Jefferey Behemer thing really got to me and I wondered if I could still do it.

“I figured L.A. would be the best place for what I had in mind. I did not want just a random thing cause you can get caught that way so I set up a plan.”

Thieme said the property contained in the letter and other references to Roche make it clear that the letter is not a prank.

“The person who sent it either had possession of him or his cooperation,” Thieme said. “It leads us to the quandary: Is this for real?”

The detective said his investigation found Roche to be a man who was free-spirited, liked to ride with motorcycle clubs and hang out occasionally at topless bars. Roche was described as a large, heavily tattooed man who knew how to handle himself. But Thieme said he had moorings, such as a job, family and possessions tying him to the mainstream.

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Thieme said Roche has no criminal record and was not a drug user. He deposited a paycheck in a bank on the day he disappeared. He had just quit one job as a supervisor in a machine shop and was scheduled to start a similar job--at higher pay--the next Monday.

“He had nothing about him that you would think would make someone run away,” Thieme said. “It is just one of those absolute no-clues things. He liked to hang out on the edge of society. There is always the possibility that being a wanna-be he tied himself up with the wrong people.”

Rondeau, 32, has steadfastly said Roche would not leave their home without notice. The couple grew up together in Rhode Island. They had been living together eight years when Roche disappeared. Since his disappearance, Roche has had made no contact with his five sisters and brother.

In saying that Roche would not leave without notice, Rondeau realizes that she is giving credence to the letter.

“I don’t want to believe the letter, but Tom wouldn’t have done this on his own,” she said in a telephone conversation from Rhode Island, where she recently returned to live with her family. “He is an upfront man. If he had a problem he would have just said: ‘Barbara, I am out of here’ and then gotten on his bike and left.”

The motorcycle, for Rondeau and Roche’s other friends, is the most puzzling part of the disappearance.

“It was his baby,” Rondeau said. “He would never leave it. There is no way that he left on his own.”

Greg Sharp, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast, said he does not believe that his friend willingly disappeared. “Why he would leave his motorcycle behind I don’t understand.”

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But Sharp also called the letter Rondeau received a “crock,” saying that there are inconsistencies between the letter and facts about Roche’s disappearance. He also said the letter would be disproved if authorities can confirm a sighting of Roche on the Saturday after he supposedly disappeared.

“I just don’t think the facts of the letter really match the way he left,” Sharp said.

Meantime, Thieme said he has exhausted most investigative leads and the case has become a waiting game.

In the 10 months since getting the report, the detective has sent flyers to police departments nationwide, entered information on Roche into national police computer systems and checked the coroner’s office for unidentified bodies with physical descriptions matching Roche’s. Nothing has panned out.

Working with police in the undisclosed city from which the letter was mailed has not produced a suspect. No usable fingerprints were found on the letter or envelope. Thieme said the next move may be Roche’s.

“A body is found or he shows up somewhere,” Thieme said. “I’m waiting on the so-called ‘magic phone call.’ There isn’t much else we can do.”

For Rondeau, who calls police routinely for updates on the investigation, waiting for answers is difficult and frustrating. She said there has been no end to her pain.

“There are times and days and minutes that I feel that he isn’t with us and the letter is true,” she said. “But I find myself looking at every Harley that goes by to see if it might be him. We just don’t have any answers.”


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