30 Years Later, Fingerprints Bring Murder Case to Trial : Crime: Random computer search led to suspect. With other evidence lost, lawyers on both sides face hard task.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long after Arnold Sauro retired from police work, he was plagued by the memory of one murder.

He remembered how the victim was found, lying face down in bed, beaten and strangled, a silk stocking wrapped around her neck. He remembered her Hollywood apartment, the most brutal murder scene he had ever worked, with blood splattered on the walls, the ceiling and the bed. Sauro, a fingerprint expert, remembered that he had lifted 35 prints at the apartment from all five fingers of the intruder's right hand and four from his left.

Sauro was so stunned at the number of prints--the most he had ever recovered--that he said to his partner at the time: "We got this guy--dead bang."

But what Sauro did not know is that it would take 30 years to bring the suspect to trial.

The man whose fingerprints appear to match those at the Hollywood apartment will be tried in July for the murder of waitress Thora Rose. And Sauro, who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department 15 years ago, finally will get his chance to tell a jury about the evidence he collected on that grim afternoon in 1963.

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The murder of Thora Rose is a challenging case for the prosecution, the defense and the array of investigators. Many potential witnesses have died, evidence has disappeared and memories, for some, have dimmed. But the fingerprints have endured, and they will be the focus of the case.

The fingerprint match was made about two years ago, when 50 unsolved homicides were pulled at random from two years chosen arbitrarily--1963 and 1965. Detectives wanted to check the aging fingerprints against the department's new fingerprint computer network that tied into a statewide system.

One of the cases clicked. The computer pulled up the name of Vernon Robinson, whose prints appeared to match those at the Hollywood apartment. Robinson was an 18-year-old Navy recruit at the time of the killing. When he was arrested, he was living in a riverfront apartment in Minneapolis, where he worked as a $70,000-a-year executive for a building maintenance firm.

This case would have been a daunting one for the attorneys even if it had been tried in 1963. But defending Robinson 30 years after the killing has presented a number of added difficulties, said his attorney, Bruce Cormicle. Because of the passage of time, it has been difficult to find other evidence that might cast doubt on the prosecution's case.

The initial police report stated that a single hair was found on the stocking wrapped around Rose's neck. The hair has disappeared. Also taken into evidence was a man's business card inside Rose's purse. The card has disappeared.

The night of the murder, Rose went out drinking with a girlfriend who told detectives, according to police reports, that a man had "dragged Thora off her stool . . . and propositioned her." Neither the girlfriend nor the man can be located.

Two days before the murder, according to police reports, Rose had told a friend that a man driving a white station wagon had followed her home and harassed her. She was so disturbed that she called police to report the incident. But now investigators cannot find the man.

After the murder, detectives interviewed the man but released him as a suspect. But, Cormicle said, new information often is revealed in follow-up interviews, without police around. Now, 30 years later, he does not have that opportunity. From a list of 30 of Rose's neighbors, friends and co-workers compiled by Cormicle's investigator, six have been located, five have died and the rest have disappeared.

"When you're trying to create reasonable doubt . . . all these kinds of things, things we don't have now, could have been very helpful in preparing a defense," said Cormicle, who was in the second grade at the time of the killing.

Since the prosecution has no motive, no murder weapon and no witnesses, the case will revolve around the fingerprints. As a result, Cormicle will challenge the fingerprint evidence.

The state's computer network identified a possible comparison between the fingerprints found at the Hollywood apartment and the prints of a few suspects, including Robinson. Because a fingerprint expert then picked out Robinson's as an exact match, there is always the possibility, Cormicle said, of human error.

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Robinson wears tortoise-shell glasses, his hair is tinged with gray and he seems distinctly out of place in jail, where he has been awaiting trial since he was extradited from Minnesota in 1992. He is much older than most inmates, and the guards and everyone else call him "Pops."

He contends that he was in San Diego at the Navy's training center on the night of the killing. A former bunkmate of Robinson's, who came forward after he read about the case, testified that because of a meningitis outbreak at the time, the sailors were quarantined and could not leave the base.

The prosecution contends that Robinson, who was raised in South Los Angeles, had finished boot camp by then and was free to visit Hollywood on Oct. 3, 1963. But the Navy records are so old and incomplete that it never has been determined where Robinson was.

"All I know is that it's very easy to take prints from a table like this," Robinson said in a recent interview, tapping on the table in the jail visiting room, "put them on a card . . . and say they're from anywhere. That's the only thing I can figure. Because I don't have the slightest idea how my prints got there."

Robinson had no criminal record at the time of the killing. The prints that matched those at the Hollywood apartment were taken years later, after Robinson was convicted of robbery and assault. He served three years in San Quentin, was released in 1973, enrolled in college and never had any other problems with the law.

Although the defense faces a number of obstacles in the trial, scheduled to begin July 19, the prosecution has one distinct disadvantage. "Thirty years later, the emotional response about the killing has dissipated," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Turley.

This is a society, he said, where the need for retribution often diminishes with the passage of time. And although Turley will tell the jury that the crime was committed by a ruthless teen-age killer, the suspect in the courtroom will be a soft-spoken, middle-age man with three grown children.

Still, Turley said, he is fortunate that investigators at the time were able to obtain so many prints and that they were preserved so well. His challenge will be to persuade the jury that fingerprint evidence is exact and that they are unique to the individual.

"This case is not about: Did Vernon Robinson commit the crime?" Turley said. "The case is about: The person who left their prints all over the apartment committed the crime. So whose prints are these?"

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Thora Rose was killed in an era when a murder in Los Angeles still shocked people, when police had the time and resources to thoroughly investigate each homicide. There were only seven murders in the Hollywood Division in 1963--now there are about 10 times that many--and detectives spent an extraordinary amount of time on the Rose case.

"A homicide in Hollywood was a big thing in those days," said Sauro, the fingerprint expert. "We didn't have drive-by shootings; we didn't have carjackings and all the crazy things you see now. We looked at this as something heinous, and we went all out to find who did it."

Rose, 43, a divorced waitress at King's Drug Store in West Los Angeles, lived alone in a small apartment on Detroit Street near Sunset. The night of the killing, she went out drinking and dancing with a woman friend at the Continental Hotel in Hollywood and then finished off the evening with a nightcap at the Thunderbird Bar.

Early the next morning, her killer removed three louvered windows from the back of Rose's apartment, crawled inside and beat her, police believe, with the claw end of a hammer and then strangled her with a silk stocking. She was not sexually assaulted and no valuables were taken.

"I think the guy got so sickened with all the blood and gore that he just panicked and took off," said Jesse Tubbs, the homicide detective on the case at time; he is now retired. "He never had a chance to rape her or do much ransacking."

When Sauro began lifting prints from the louvered windows, the kitchen sink, the bedroom wall and other areas in the apartment, he figured they "would pull the killer right out of the files." But Sauro could not find a matching set of prints in Los Angeles County. The case was such a high priority that the LAPD sent a sergeant to Sacramento, where the officer spent two weeks hand-checking the fingerprints against nearly 30,000 sets of prints. No match was found.

In Los Angeles, detectives interviewed dozens of Rose's neighbors and friends and investigated countless false leads. They even attended Rose's funeral to see if anyone showed up they had not interviewed.

Despite the intensive investigation, police never were able to find the killer. But Sauro never forgot the case. He continued to compare the prints against all the new fingerprints that came in. When he transferred to Van Nuys to work as a patrol sergeant, he still called Hollywood Division periodically and reminded them to stay on the case. Even after he retired and moved to Las Vegas, he kept checking with detectives.

"Out of the blue we'd get a call from Sauro," said Hollywood Detective Mike McDonagh, who was 12 years old at the time of the killing. "He'd say: 'Check the prints. Check the prints.' He kept pushing that case."

It galled him, Sauro said, that with all those prints from so many fingers, he could not catch the killer. But the case stayed with him all these years for other reasons.

"The killing was so vicious and seemed so senseless," he said after a long pause. "I had a few real brutal cases in my time, but I cleared all of them . . . except this one."

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At the time Robinson was arrested, his life seemed to be a testament to rehabilitation and redemption.

After leaving the Navy in 1966, he spent the next four years in a haze of drug and alcohol abuse and was arrested seven times, for crimes ranging from forgery to assault to robbery. After three years in San Quentin, Robinson said, he decided "to make that choice and change my life."

He began college after he left prison, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and enrolled in broadcasting school. For several years, Robinson worked as a disc jockey and then began a building maintenance business. In the mid-1980s, he was supervising a crew of 100 at Los Angeles International Airport for a contract cleaning company, where he created computer programs for maintenance, security and landscaping services.

When he was hired by American Building Maintenance in Minneapolis, to head college campus services for the firm's Midwest division, Robinson figured that he had finally made it. He was earning $70,000 a year, plus bonuses, and had moved to a new apartment with a sweeping view of the Mississippi River.

"The day I left San Quentin, I thought I was done with all this," he said, turning around and surveying the jail. "The whole thing doesn't make sense. In 1963, I didn't even have a driver's license. There's no way I'd be taking the bus to Hollywood and walking the streets by myself at 3 a.m. As a young, black male, I would have felt pretty conspicuous there and I would have been afraid. I grew up in South-Central L.A. and saw plenty of beatings by police."

Although Robinson is divorced, he has a close relationship with his three children. When he moved to Minneapolis he was "getting ready to be a grandfather."

Then two days after Christmas, 1990, the statewide computer network searched through the prints of 7 million people--most of whom have been arrested for serious crimes--and in a flash pulled up Robinson's name.

The Rose murder case--and the 49 others chosen at random--were pulled from files because the Police Department wanted to test a new computer that tied into the statewide Automated Fingerprint Identification System run by the California Department of Justice. This system has helped identify Richard Ramirez as the Night Stalker and has matched thousands of other fingerprints lifted from crime scenes with prints in police files. The Rose case is the oldest one the system has ever matched.

"I wish I knew how the computer came up with me," Robinson said. "To be honest, I'm looking forward to going into court, looking people right in the eye and saying: 'I did not do this crime.' "

A Long Trail

Thirty years after a Hollywood waitress was found bludgeoned to death, the man suspected of killing her faces trial. The case is one of 50 unsolved homicides pulled at random from police files. A computerized check of fingerprints in this one clicked.

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