Murder Mystery Follows Him Home

Times Staff Writer

When Roger Lawrence Strunk moved from the San Joaquin Valley decades ago, he left a hometown bursting with pride. As a teenager in 1959, he had scored a hit single, "If I Had a Girl." Next came a string of low-budget Hollywood movies. He then married one of the Philippines' most beloved actresses and built a life with her there.

Now, this town's native son is back in its warm embrace under darker circumstances.

Strunk, 63, is wanted in the Philippines on suspicion of arranging the murder of his wife of 22 years -- film and television icon Nida Blanca. The 2001 stabbing death of the legendary Blanca -- likened to a Philippine blend of Carol Burnett and Shirley MacLaine -- devastated the nation. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has pledged that the government will not rest until Strunk is brought to justice.

But the case has been frayed from the start, its plot twists more outrageous than those of a soap opera. A man's confession implicating Strunk was followed by a tearful recantation on national television. A former soldier who claimed he was solicited to murder the actress was himself killed. Mystery accomplices were charged but never materialized.

Then, last week, the Philippines lost an attempt to have Strunk extradited when a U.S. magistrate ruled that the evidence against him was "so inconsistent and conflicting" that it failed to meet the standard of probable cause. Strunk was freed from Sacramento County Jail, where he had been held since federal marshals arrested him last May as he sat with his sister on the front porch of their childhood home.

Strunk has denied any involvement in the death of his wife.

The Philippine government, meanwhile, has vowed to collect fresh evidence and file another extradition petition. Diplomatic tensions are running high: Several Philippine legislators have called for the extradition treaty with the United States to be overhauled or scrapped altogether, saying the Strunk case is evidence that it is one-sided and unfair.

Even as the international scandal swirls around him, Strunk is trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life. And this town of 70,000 about an hour east of San Francisco is coming through with loyalty and love.

"I have a box with hundreds of cards and letters of support," a grateful Strunk said Wednesday as he sat in bathrobe and slippers at his Tracy home. "It's like I've come full circle."

Strunk's family moved to Tracy from Fresno when he was a toddler. His mother was an elementary school teacher who wrote and played music for her church. His father worked on the railroad and sang opera.

Strunk and his sisters, Sharry and Tammy, were musically talented. Tammy was homecoming queen. Roger -- who would later adopt the stage name Rod Lauren -- was popular and religious, said Sharry Strunk, now 60. He also had the combined good looks of Elvis Presley and James Dean.

While Strunk was studying at Fresno State University, his bandleader in a lounge act sent Strunk's recordings to record labels. It was August 1959. Presley was in the Army and RCA Victor was looking for another heart-throb, Strunk recalled. A producer called and an audition sealed the deal.

By Thanksgiving, Strunk appeared live on the Perry Como TV show. A Bob Hope Christmas special and the Ed Sullivan show followed, Strunk recalled.

"It put Tracy on the map," laughed Strunk, whose deep baritone voice is still mellifluous. "I was their golden boy."

Strunk released other records, then moved to the screen, landing his first film role in "The Crawling Hand," a cult classic that he concedes was "the worst film I ever did."

It was while filming John Derek's "Once Before I Die" in the Philippines that he met Blanca. The two would later marry in the United States -- first in 1979, then again in 1981 after Blanca realized that her divorce from her first husband had not been legally binding. Local Filipinos piled into the tiny Las Vegas chapel to see their idol. By then, Strunk's professional career was on the decline, and the couple moved to the Philippines.

"He really loved her. She was the best thing that happened in his life," said Patricia Kenyon-Dore, a close friend who has known Strunk since they were teenagers.

Blanca was already a national icon when the pair wed. Over the course of her career, she appeared in more than 160 Philippine films. Her TV sitcom, "John and Marsha," about a wife from a wealthy family who marries a poor man for love, ran for 17 years.

Strunk stepped into a life of celebrity, saying he attended four presidential inaugurals, singing at birthday parties for Ferdinand Marcos and dancing with Imelda Marcos. He also pursued his own projects, bringing professional darts to the Philippines.

On Nov. 7, 2001, Blanca was found stabbed to death in the back seat of her car at her Manila offices.

"The world ground to a halt when she was killed," said Gerry Liriom, city editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has had a team of reporters assigned to the story for the last two years. "She was so nice, so sweet. She was everybody's mother. Even the president, even senators, even congressmen issued public statements asking for a probe."

Her funeral drew thousands, including President Arroyo. Deposed President Joseph Estrada -- a former actor and friend of Blanca's -- received a furlough from house arrest to attend her wake.

But the case against Strunk was troubled from the start.

A man once convicted in an abduction -- Philip L. Medel Jr. -- came forward 11 days after Blanca's death to confess to the killing and name Strunk as the mastermind. Then, in a nationally televised preliminary hearing, he recanted, falling to the floor with sobs and insisting he was tortured and coerced into confessing Strunk's role.

But the government continued to pursue the case against Strunk. Anti-American sentiment hasn't helped Strunk's public image in the Philippines. Many media reports have portrayed him as an uncaring leech.

Blanca's daughter, Katherine "Kaye" Torres of Torrance, told investigators her mother had been planning to divorce Strunk. In a statement to investigators, she described him as "irresponsible, extremely lazy, extravagant and very fond of drinking."

Strunk concedes he struggled with drug addiction in 1990 but said he had put that chapter of his life behind him to save his marriage.

"We always worked through our problems," he said. "Our relationship was getting stronger. There wasn't anything we couldn't talk about."

A lack of physical evidence has stymied the case. No human blood was found on a knife Medel claimed to have used in the killing, court documents show. And hair and fibers found at the scene could not be linked to Medel.

As for Strunk, the only thing tying him to the killing is Medel's recanted confession and the affidavits of potential witnesses who contradict Medel and one another, wrote U.S. Magistrate Gregory G. Hollows in refusing to grant extradition.

Meantime, accusations are flying in the Philippines. A prominent attorney representing Blanca's daughter has blasted the government as incompetent. Officials have vowed to investigate whether the case was bungled.

"We do feel there is a case to answer," Secretary of the Cabinet Ricardo Saludo said in a telephone interview. "Our Justice Department

Strunk worries that he could become a political pawn, but he said the lack of physical evidence should protect him.

"I was not involved," he said. "There's no fingerprints, no blood, no DNA, no nothing."

Strunk had returned to Tracy in early 2002 -- before he was charged -- to visit his dying mother. In this onetime farm town where the Strunk name is well known, he found solace in old friends and made new ones.

He joined the board of the Tracy Civic Theater, playing Uncle Teddy in "Arsenic and Old Lace" and helping to overhaul ticket policies. He volunteered at the local cable-access station, and began videotaping services at Good Shepherd Community Church. When he was arrested, he was rehearsing for a role in "Tracy, Our Town U.S.A."

"He's a very popular person in Tracy," said Ray Spann, pastor at Good Shepherd, who visited Strunk regularly in jail along with members of the congregation. "Every Sunday we said, 'Keep those cards and letters going.' "

Now free, Strunk is enjoying small pleasures and coming to terms with much larger losses. The family home purchased in 1941 is gone -- sold to pay his legal bills. Sharry, who lived there, too, has moved to the coast. Tammy, who lives in nearby Stockton, is gravely ill with breast cancer. Their mother died the day before Strunk arrived home from the Philippines to visit her. And, Strunk said, he is still grieving for the wife he adored.

But he is also singing with the Tracy Carolers and says he "feels needed" here.

Even in the Philippines, not everyone is convinced of Strunk's guilt.

Liriom, the Philippine Daily Inquirer city editor, said he happened to be at a hotel lounge in the couple's wealthy Manila suburb of White Plains several months before Blanca's murder. Strunk and Blanca were there, listening to a singer mimic Frank Sinatra. Strunk would get up to sing too, and beckon his wife to join him.

"Rod Strunk doesn't look like the killer investigators painted him to be," Liriom said. "There was an upheaval in our collective soul upon learning Nida Blanca was killed and, of course, we want justice for her. But we are not convinced. You have to show us more pieces of evidence."

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