Man admits guilt in two gruesome killings in 2004

Times Staff Writers

The crimes were so gruesome they shocked even hardened detectives.

Dr. Morley Engelson, 69, once captain of Fairfax High School's football team, was brutally attacked with a knife while on the phone making airline reservations.

Inside his home, investigators found the decapitated head of a neighbor, onetime blacklisted scriptwriter Robert Lees, 91. The rest of Lees' body was later found in his bedroom by his longtime girlfriend.

On Tuesday, nearly four years after the killings in a tree-lined Hollywood neighborhood, Keven Lee Graff, 31, pleaded guilty to the murders in a deal that spared him the death penalty.

Family members said they are relieved to avoid a drawn-out trial while receiving some measure of justice.

"Although it took a lot longer than I would've liked to get to this point, which was agony for me and my family, now I truly feel that my husband can rest in peace because this was resolved in a way he would approve of," said Engelson's widow, Valerie London.

Lees' son Richard, 63, who opposes the death penalty, said he was satisfied with Graff's guilty plea on principle. But he still misses his father terribly, he said through tears.

"He was a very dear man, who had suffered enough in his life, and over such huge issues," Richard Lees said. "I just wanted him to have a wonderful old age with great friends."

Under Graff's plea deal to murder, mayhem and torture charges, he will get two consecutive life sentences in state prison without the possibility of parole.

He is scheduled to appear for sentencing April 4 before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson and has asked to address the court.

Graff's attorneys could not be reached for a comment but had argued in a court document that their client suffered from "a severe mental illness consistent with bipolar disorder with psychotic features or schizoaffective disorder."

Authorities alleged that Graff was on a methamphetamine binge when he walked into the upscale Hollywood neighborhood and savaged the men, whose homes are separated by a backyard fence.

Prosecutors said Graff entered Lees' home in the 1600 block of Courtney Avenue through an unlocked door in the early Sunday morning hours of June 13, 2004.

Graff attacked the co-writer of the 1948 comedy classic "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and writer on the TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," beheading him and removing some of his organs. Then he carried the head from Lees' home over a back fence to Engelson's home on Stanley Avenue, between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.

Graff fatally stabbed the doctor with his own kitchen knives, police said. Engelson had been on the telephone making airline reservations for a business trip to San Jose. The agent reported hearing a commotion before the line went dead.

During a televised appeal for help in the case, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton put up a photograph of the suspect; guards at Paramount Studios recognized Graff as the man they had just turned away from the main gate and kept him under surveillance until police arrived. Graff was found sitting on a wall under a row of ficus trees near Melrose Avenue carrying a Bible and a small can of Mace.

Although he expressed sympathy for Graff's family, Richard Lees said he feared that if he saw Graff face-to-face, he would "kill him on sight or rip him to shreds," so he does not plan to attend the April sentencing.

"There's no closure for something like this," he said. "I think it's a fleeting experience, but the loss is forever, and you don't get over it, ever."

After the elder Lees refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, he landed on a Hollywood blacklist and moved his family to Tucson, where he was a maitre d' making $2 an hour. He never worked in film again, but wrote TV scripts under the pseudonym J.E. Selby.

"He held the high moral ground that cost him a fortune in his personal wealth and well-being, and he never capitulated," his son said. "But he had had enough."

Before the double murder, the most notorious incident in the neighborhood was actor Hugh Grant's arrest in a car with a prostitute. Today, there is nothing to indicate that the grisly crimes ever happened. But residents said there are more locked doors, more alarm systems and more awareness and suspicion of transients.

"People became more cautious, more observant, though not so much paranoid," said Francine Matarazzo, who used to wave back and forth to Lees. "When something affects one person on the street, it affects everyone."

The night before Graff's plea, Matarazzo said she and several neighbors discussed how the slayings had more of an emotional effect on them than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the trauma has receded.

"Most of us knew that this was an aberration, just a reflection of what is outside this little realm of houses," she said. "You never forget about something like this, but it's cooled off."

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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