The Man Who Almost Got Away

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kenneth Dean Hunt is no criminal mastermind.

He was a handyman, the guy next door, a man with a record of sex crimes and aggressive outbursts. Yet, Hunt, 34, nearly managed to escape justice after raping and killing two women in his neighborhood. His crimes, a decade apart, were decidedly imperfect, but he managed to avoid detection: The first time, a tip pointing in his direction didn't register with police; the second time, investigators didn't realize a murder had occurred.

If there had not been a key break in the second case--the result of a county health department employee making sure paperwork was in order before a cremation--both killings would still be unsolved. And Hunt, found guilty of the crimes last month, might still be free.

The victim in the first murder, committed 13 years ago, was Myra Davis, a 71-year-old Hollywood actress, often cast as the quintessential grandmother in TV commercials. She was raped and strangled with her underwear in her West Los Angeles home. Hunt, then 22, was her handyman and neighbor. He eluded suspicion despite a haunting tip from Davis' granddaughter to police: "Check the guy next door." Instead, the LAPD detective on the case focused on Davis' grandson, who was never charged.

Then, 2 1/2 years ago, just a few miles from Davis' home, Jean Orloff, a spunky 60-year-old with a soft spot for Mick Jagger and the Chicago Cubs, was found naked and dead in her apartment. Hunt had worked as a handyman for her, too. A coroner's investigator and a Los Angeles police sergeant determined Orloff, a smoker, had died of a heart attack even though her loved ones and a fire captain suspected something more sinister.

Orloff's body was shipped to a mortuary for cremation. A second coroner's investigator, summoned to the mortuary to complete Orloff's death certificate, determined that Orloff had not died of natural causes, as his colleague had surmised but, rather, had been strangled and raped.

Ultimately, a tip from a relative to Hunt's parole officer linked him to the killings. On March 15, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury convicted Hunt of the rapes and murders. The jury deadlocked, 11-1, over whether to recommend the death penalty, and a second jury will be asked next month to decide that question.

The families of the victims say they want Hunt put to death. And they are trying to come to terms with how close he came to getting away with murder--not just once, but twice.

Lois Bachrach, Orloff's sister, was there when investigators misread the cause of her death. "I find it appalling that so many mistakes can be made and no one has ever had to explain themselves," Bachrach said. "It is merely a stroke of luck that Kenneth Hunt is not still walking the streets today."

Scott Carrier, a spokesman for the county coroner's office, insists that such miscalls by his office are rare and defends the actions of the initial investigator. Carrier said it was easy to mistake Orloff for a heart-attack victim given her age, her smoking habit and the fact that she was being treated for an irregular heartbeat. He also said that severe bruising around Orloff's neck, discovered at the mortuary, would have been less apparent at the crime scene.

The problem with a wrong call, even if caught later, is lasting: At a crime scene, evidence is collected; at the scene of a natural death, it is destroyed.

A Certain Case of Murder

Unlike the Orloff case, when Myra Davis' body was found in 1988, there was no question she had been murdered.

Davis, a widow, had lived in her home on South Beverly Drive in West Los Angeles for nearly 40 years when Kenneth Hunt moved in next door. She was an actress who began her career as a Hollywood stand-in for Janet Leigh, and in her later years was cast in commercials, hawking everything from Country Time Lemonade to Grandma's Homestyle Cookies. Davis and her husband had moved into their home after falling in love at MGM studios, where he also worked as a stand-in.

She worked in such classics as Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, "Psycho" and in "Bye, Bye, Birdie." Stand-ins sit on the set between takes while the film crew adjusts the lighting and cameras for the next scene.

"Back then, they had to look like the star," said her granddaughter, Sherry Davis, 44, who is also a stand-in and actress. "She had to cut her hair like Janet Leigh and keep it the same color as hers." Davis said her grandmother was active until her death, driving to auditions regularly and getting a lot of work.

The problems, her granddaughter said, began shortly after Adrianne Rosenfeldt, a manicurist, bought the house next door. As many as eight people lived there at one point, and "they were always arguing and fighting," Davis said.

Hunt moved in after marrying Rosenfeldt's daughter, Eileen. At the time, Hunt was a clean-cut, 22-year-old handyman who answered to the name of "Sonny." He had a troubled past, although Myra Davis was unaware of it.

Disowned by his parents, Hunt had been raised by the state of California. He spent most of his childhood in state mental hospitals, according to trial testimony. After molesting female patients in the hospital, he was transferred to a juvenile correctional facility where he stayed until he was an adult. At 15, he escaped, only to be brought back after grabbing a young college student and groping her.

Rosenfeldt, who believes Hunt is innocent of the murders, had urged Davis to hire her son-in-law to do odd jobs around the house because he needed the money. Sherry Davis told her grandmother that she had misgivings about Hunt, but the elder Davis hired him anyway. "I just had an odd feeling about him," Sherry Davis said. "But I thought he might rob her. I never dreamed he would kill her."

On June 28, 1988, Sherry Davis went to check on her grandmother, who had not been answering her telephone. When Davis approached the house, she knew something was wrong. Her grandmother's car, usually parked in the garage, was in the driveway; there were unread newspapers at the front door.

Davis was so afraid of what she might find inside that she went around the outside of the house and peeked through a bedroom window. That's when she saw her grandmother's partially nude and decomposing body spread across her bed--she had been dead eight days.

Sherry Davis met Det. Gary Fullerton, the LAPD investigating officer, at her grandmother's house a few days later. She said she was in the driveway when the detective asked her whom she might suspect of the killing. "I remember it like it was yesterday," said Davis, explaining that she glanced over at the problematic house as she replied: "Check the guy next door."

Davis says she wasn't referring to Hunt, though; she meant Rosenfeldt's son, Joel Stein, who had a crush on her and whose attentions made her nervous.

But Fullerton never asked for a name, she says, writing in his notes simply, "the guy next door." Fullerton later told Davis he had other suspects--her younger brother and one of his friends. Fullerton, who has since retired from the force, did not return calls seeking his comment.

Davis says her brother, now 43, had a drug and alcohol problem at the time, and his grandmother was one of the few people still willing to give him a few bucks and an occasional place to sleep. While he was "no angel," Davis said, she couldn't believe her brother was capable of killing his own grandmother.

But, as months stretched to years with no arrest, Davis said her family could not look at her brother the same. "I couldn't have him around my children," Davis said. "It was always in the back of my mind. Could he have done this?"

Next Victim Also Knew Killer

On March 28, 1998, Hunt struck again. This time the victim was Jean Orloff, who, like Davis, knew Hunt and members of his family.

Hunt's wife, Eileen, sold Orloff Avon products; Hunt's mother-in-law, manicurist Rosenfeldt, did Orloff's nails. As with Davis, it was Rosenfeldt who urged Orloff to hire Hunt for odd jobs.

By the time of Orloff's murder, Hunt had added half a dozen adult sex-related crimes and a manslaughter conviction to his juvenile record, crimes that mostly occurred within walking distance of his West Los Angeles home.

Orloff, a divorcee with dark hair and striking green eyes, worked as an assistant for an oral surgeon. "She was complex," said her daughter, Debbie McAllister. "She was "an awesome grandmother. The best anyone could have."

Barbara Kappedal, Orloff's neighbor and friend, said Orloff convinced her to attend two Rolling Stones concerts, including one at Dodger Stadium. Kappedal said people teased Orloff about going to rock concerts but that she laughed it off. "Young at heart is definitely the best way to describe her," Kappedal said.

On Saturday, the day before her body was discovered, Orloff spoke briefly to her 87-year-old mother. She told her she was tired, planned to bake a chicken and go to bed. At about 5 p.m. the next day, when Orloff's mother couldn't reach her on the phone, she called Kappedal. Kappedal had lived in the apartment below Orloff on Bentley Avenue for two decades. Kappedal went to check on Orloff and said she knew something was wrong when she saw found the Sunday paper still outside and the front door unlocked.

Once inside the apartment, Kappedal saw the chicken still soaking in the sink. In the bedroom, her friend's nude body was stretched across the bed. The edges of the bed ruffle had been singed and the smoke detector had been taken off the wall. "That was completely odd because she had just had a kitchen fire. She would not take her smoke detector down," said Orloff's sister, Bachrach, who later was told by prosecutors that Hunt had tried to set fire to the apartment.

But Orloff also was a smoker who had been diagnosed since childhood as having an irregular heartbeat. After smelling cigarette smoke and seeing a full bottle of prescription heart medication, the initial police investigator, Sgt. John Giles, said he believed she had died of a heart attack after forgetting to take her medicine.

Kappedal and Orloff's family protested. "I kept saying, 'This isn't right,' " Kappedal said. She said she pointed out her suspicions to Giles, but he told her he had been to "hundreds of homicides, and this isn't one of them."

Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Chadwick Spargo, who was also at the crime scene and believed Orloff was murdered, testified at Hunt's trial that Giles told him the same thing. Spargo said he told Giles that someone who had died of natural causes would not have fallen with their head straight down on the bed and palms straight up. The head would be cocked to the side as the person gasped for air, he said. Spargo also testified that he doubted a 60-year-old woman would have been cooking in the nude. And, he testified, he pointed out a suspicious mark on the back of Orloff's neck.

Giles eventually told him that the coroner's office would decide, Spargo testified. Kappedal said that when Michael Joseph, the coroner's investigator, arrived she told him of her suspicions.

"I said there is something really wrong here. I pointed out that the dust ruffle was burned," Kappedal said. "I pointed out the fact that the phone wasn't where it normally was. It was laying on the end of the bed like she was trying to get to it. I told him she would never leave the door unlocked."

But Joseph agreed with Giles and left. "He was literally there less than 15 minutes," Bachrach said. Two patrol officers told Orloff's family to make arrangements with a mortuary and to ask Orloff's doctor to sign her death certificate. Police officers also told the family they could clean up the apartment. Bachrach said she and another family member removed the bed covering, which likely contained crucial hair and blood evidence, and threw it in a Dumpster.

Bachrach, who could have requested an independent autopsy, said she and her family decided to accept Giles' and Joseph's explanation and go forward with a memorial service. But as Orloff's family planned the service, which Hunt's mother-in-law and wife attended, problems began to surface. There was still not a signature on the death certificate. And because it had been more than a year since Orloff's doctor had seen her, he could not sign.

The mortuary called the coroner's office to get a signature, but there was no record of any investigator seeing Orloff's body. Carrier says no file was opened and no photographs were taken at the scene because the investigator did not suspect foul play.

The coroner's office sent a second investigator to inspect Orloff's body at the mortuary. The new investigator quickly determined that Orloff, who was covered with bruises and had two broken ribs, had not died of natural causes. She had broken blood vessels in her eyes and mouth, textbook signs that she had been strangled.

Four days after Orloff's body was discovered, the coroner's office called the LAPD to report its findings. "I got over [to Orloff's apartment] just as they pulled up," Bachrach said. "Black and whites were coming from everywhere, screeching. They're putting up yellow tape and blocking the driveway. Suddenly, it was a homicide."

The ultimate break, and the link between the two cases, came a short time later from an unlikely source: Hunt's brother-in-law Joel Stein--the neighbor who 10 years earlier had had a crush on Sherry Davis.

Suspicions Lead to Hunt's Arrest

After Orloff's death, Stein called Hunt's parole officer and told him he believed Hunt may have killed Orloff. Stein said he also suspected his brother-in-law killed Davis a decade earlier.

Hunt was on parole after serving more than six years in prison for manslaughter in the death of another of his neighbors, 67-year-old Bernard Davis, who was not related to Myra Davis. In that case, Hunt punched Davis, who was walking to the market with his wife, after the elderly man scolded him for kicking his dog. Davis fell, hit his head on the pavement, lapsed into a coma and died.

LAPD Dets. Francene Mounger and Ron Phillips had Hunt picked up on a parole violation. Then, with a search warrant, they obtained samples of his blood for DNA evidence. But even a DNA analysis would prove difficult. The Police Department had only two swabs from the 1988 Davis crime scene, and Cellmark Diagnostics Laboratory had lost the first swab. But the final swab proved conclusive: Hunt's DNA matched that found at both scenes.

In December 1998, Hunt was charged with the murders of Myra Davis and Jean Orloff.

Mounger and Phillips broke the news of the break in the case to the victims' families. Orloff's family already knew Hunt was the prime suspect in both killings. But Sherry Davis had no idea the case was on the verge of being solved. She said she will never forget the day the detectives called her.

She was working on the set of the TV series "The Practice" as a stand-in when her children's baby-sitter called to tell her two LAPD detectives were at her house.

Phillips got on the phone. He told Davis they had located her grandmother's killer.

Phillips asked Davis, "Well, aren't you going to ask us who it is?"

Davis' heart dropped, fearing it might be her brother.

"You know who it is," Phillips told her: "The guy next door."

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