On a drizzly day in March, Phillip Rabichow, a retired Los Angeles prosecutor, stood outside a beige ranch house in Sherman Oaks with a tape measure in his hand and an anxious look on his face.
Twenty-two years earlier, almost to the day, a woman named Dorka Lisker had been killed in that house. Her 17-year-old son, Bruce, was charged with the murder. He had a drug problem and a history of fighting with his mother.
Rabichow, then a deputy district attorney, convinced a jury that he was guilty. As the years rolled by and Lisker reached middle age in prison, Rabichow rarely gave the case a second thought.
But in recent months, new information had shaken his faith in the fairness of the verdict: A bloody footprint found at the scene did not match Lisker's shoes. A mysterious telephone call made around the time of the murder raised further questions.
Rabichow, 61, was having trouble sleeping. He replayed the trial in his head obsessively, going over the evidence, trying to reassure himself that he had not put an innocent man away for life.
In his distress, he clung to one element of his case, a piece of evidence that he still believed was irrefutable proof of Lisker's guilt. But to be sure about it, he would have to visit the crime scene.
"This is the critical issue of the case," Rabichow said before entering the house. "If I was wrong about this, I would not be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt."
'She's Been Stabbed!'
"Help me, please! I need an ambulance right now. . . . Hurry!" [ ]
It was 11:26 a.m. on March 10, 1983.
"My mom -- she's been stabbed!" Bruce Lisker cried into the phone. "She's been stabbed!" [ ]
_ _ _
When police and paramedics arrived at the three-bedroom house on Huston Street, they found Dorka, 66, lying on the floor near the front entryway. Her face was bloody, and she had been stabbed in the back. Her skull had been crushed, her right ear nearly severed and her right arm broken. [ ]
As the paramedics worked, Bruce paced back and forth and screamed at them to take his mother to the hospital. He was high on methamphetamine, and his hands were covered with blood.
He became so agitated that two police officers handcuffed him and put him in the back of a patrol car so he wouldn't interfere.
"Do you believe in God?" a tearful Lisker asked one of the officers. "Will you pray for my mother?"
A Child's Paradise
Dorka Zeman, a blond beauty of Czech descent, married Bob Lisker in 1946. They had been dating for about a year when another couple at a New Year's Eve party in Hollywood playfully dared them to tie the knot.
A little tipsy, they piled into a car and drove through the night to Tijuana, where they were wed the next morning. He was 19; she was 29.
Dorka soon became pregnant, but had a miscarriage. The couple kept trying to have a child but eventually gave up and poured their energies into their careers -- his as a lawyer, hers as a film cutter for Technicolor.
In 1964, one of Bob's clients asked for help with a delicate matter. Her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. The family wanted to put the baby up for adoption.
Lisker saw a heaven-sent opportunity: He and his wife would take the child. The baby was 3 days old when the Liskers brought him home in June 1965. They named him Bruce.
Dorka, then 49, was not "particularly enthusiastic," her husband recalled years later. "But once the baby got home, she was delighted." She quit her job to become a full-time mother.
Their Sherman Oaks neighborhood was a child's paradise, with wide-open spaces for flying model airplanes, playing baseball and riding trail bikes. Bruce splashed in the family's backyard pool, dressed up as a tiger for Halloween and went on Boy Scout camp-outs.
In a faded snapshot from 1973, a grinning, blond-haired Bruce, then 8, displays a Little League trophy he won with the Pirates of the San Fernando Valley.
Not long after the photo was taken, Bruce's poor grades and rambunctious behavior began to cause friction between him and his mother.
"I was basically the class clown, and I got in a lot of trouble for that," he would later explain. "I was always a real skinny kind of kid that everybody used to overlook, and I wanted to be heard."
By his own account, he began drinking and smoking marijuana at 10 or 11. By 13, he was experimenting with cocaine and LSD. He stole from his parents to support his habit.
His disputes with his mother became frequent and explosive -- "semi-hysterical scenarios" in which the two of them would scramble around the house shouting at each other, according to a report by psychologists at the California Youth Authority.
While their arguments raged, Bob Lisker would often sit watching television with the family dog in his lap.
"Usually, at some point in this mother-son contest, either Bruce or his mother would solicit Mr. Lisker's involvement, psychologically forcing him to be the judge in a 'courtroom' game," the Youth Authority report said.
Unable to control the boy, the Liskers sent him to Mountain Meadow Ranch, a school for troubled children near Susanville in the Sierra Nevada. He spent eighth and ninth grades there.
Returning to Los Angeles, he bounced from Birmingham High School to two continuation schools before dropping out in the spring of 1982, a month shy of his 17th birthday.
He persuaded Bob and Dorka to rent him an apartment of his own -- a $210-a-month studio on Sepulveda Boulevard, about four miles from their home. They gave him a car and spending money and hoped he would straighten himself out. They were disappointed.
He smoked pot and shot up methamphetamine. In June 1982, he was arrested for throwing a screwdriver at a motorist after a traffic dispute. Police booked him for assault with a deadly weapon; the charge was later dropped.
Bruce told a police officer who witnessed the incident that he became enraged when the other driver cut him off. According to the officer, Bruce declared: "I was gonna kill that son of a bitch."
Skeptical of His Story
By the time Det. Andrew R. Monsue arrived at the crime scene, Dorka Lisker had been taken to Encino Hospital, where she died that afternoon.
A former Marine who had served in Vietnam, Monsue wore his brown hair short and had a gruff military bearing. He followed a trail of blood through the house, looking for clues.
He concluded that Dorka's assailant had beaten her with her son's Little League trophy and her husband's metal exercise bar. Then she had been stabbed in the back with a pair of steak knives, which were lying on the floor next to her body. Monsue saw bloody footprints in the front hallway, the bathroom and the kitchen -- and more footprints outside the house.
Bob Lisker told detectives that he had given his wife about $150 in grocery money the night before. They searched her purse but did not find it. They also searched Bruce. He did not have it.
Around 1 p.m., Monsue took the teenager to the Van Nuys police station for questioning. Bruce said he had gone to his parents' house that morning to borrow a jack so he could repair a shock absorber on his 1966 Mustang.
His mother didn't come out to greet him as she usually did, so he knocked on the door. No answer. He tried the doorknob. It was locked.
Lisker said he made his way to the backyard, where he peered through a window into the living room. He thought he could see his mother's feet on the floor in the entry hall.
His heart pounding, he ran to the dining room window to get a better view. From there, he could see her head lying motionless on the floor, he said.
Panicked, he ran to the kitchen's louvered window, an entry point he had used more than once to sneak into the house after curfew. He said he removed the panes of glass and climbed into the kitchen.
He ran to the entry hall and found his mother on the floor, unconscious but alive. Trying to help, he pulled the knives from her back. Then he grabbed two kitchen knives and searched the house for the intruder. Then he called for an ambulance.
Monsue, who listened quietly, thought Lisker was lying. If he had seen his mother's body through the living room window, why hadn't he just smashed his way in? Why would he disassemble the kitchen window instead, squandering precious seconds?
For that matter, Monsue doubted that Lisker could have seen Dorka's body from outside the house. Based on his own observations, he thought that the sun's glare would have made it impossible to see through the living room window, and that furniture and an interior brick planter would have blocked the view through the dining room window.
Monsue had dealt with Bruce before and didn't like him. He considered him "a loudmouth -- an in-your-face little punk," he later recalled.
He read Lisker his rights.
"Let me tell you what I think happened," Monsue said, according to a transcript of the interview. "You went in the house through the kitchen window. . . . She surprises you there. You guys get into a big fight. You pick up the trophy off your desk that's sitting there. You smack her in the head."
"No, I wouldn't do that," Bruce protested.
"She stumbles down the hallway," Monsue continued. "There's a workout bar. . . . You pick that up. You smack her and break her arm. She starts running. . . . You get scared. You pick her up. You drag her in there, right [by] the front door. And then you stab her."
"You better stop, man," Bruce said.
"How does that sound to you?" Monsue asked.
"That sounds like a lie," Bruce replied. "That sounds more gruesome than I would even think of doing."
Monsue placed Lisker under arrest.
The teenager demanded to be given a lie-detector test. Monsue and another detective drove him to police headquarters in downtown L.A., where a polygraph examiner questioned him: Did you hit your mother with that trophy? Did you stab your mother? Did you kill your mother?
Lisker exhibited deception in answering, the examiner found.
On the ride back to Van Nuys, Lisker asked how he did. The detectives told him he failed. They said the examiner had never seen someone so deceptive.
Bob Lisker had lost his wife. Now he might lose his son, too. He wanted desperately to believe Bruce's story. But he had no answer to an obvious question: If Bruce hadn't done it, who had?
Then the elder Lisker remembered a conversation with his wife the night before she was killed. Dorka told him she'd had an unexpected visitor that day, a friend of Bruce's from the apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard. His name was Mike Ryan. He was looking to earn money doing chores. She turned him down.
John Michael Ryan, then 17, was a chronic runaway who had been in and out of foster homes, mental institutions and juvenile hall. He had a rap sheet dating to age 11, with convictions for theft, trespassing and assault with a deadly weapon.
A psychologist who evaluated Ryan for a 1978 court hearing described him this way: "Impulsive and selfish, operating entirely on his own feelings . . . unpredictable."
Bruce had met Ryan at a drug-counseling meeting in 1982. Ryan was living on the streets. Bruce offered to let him sleep on his couch in exchange for half the rent.
Their friendship revolved around getting drunk, smoking dope and listening to the Doors, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. To earn spending money, they occasionally did odd jobs at the Lisker home.
The two soon had a falling-out over Ryan's failure to pay his share of the rent. Bruce kicked him out of the apartment in January 1983 and Ryan left for Mississippi, where his father lived.
Bruce and his father told Monsue about Ryan's troubled past and his visit to the house the day before the murder.
Monsue tracked down the teenager in Gulfport, Miss. He was once again in juvenile hall, this time for trying to break into a woman's apartment.
At Monsue's request, Mississippi authorities took a brief statement from Ryan as to his whereabouts on the day of the killing. Ryan said he had checked in to a Hollywood motel that morning. [ Monsue wondered aloud why the teenager was so eager to place himself in Hollywood, 12 miles from the crime scene, right around the time Dorka was killed. Why had he lied about his check-in time? And why had he boarded a bus and headed back to Mississippi the morning after the murder? Monsue challenged Ryan on his finances. The teenager claimed to have left Mississippi with just $52. Yet what he had described spending on food, drugs, cigarettes, bus fare and the $21-a-night motel room added up to more than that. "Something is not jibing here," Monsue said. [ ] Ryan said he hadn't been thinking much about his brief visit to California or the murder -- ".'cause I didn't do it." "You better be thinking a whole bunch about it," Monsue replied. "Because your ass is gonna be back in California in jail unless I can get some straight answers out of you." Monsue never got those answers. In fact, he quickly lost interest in Ryan. LAPD records suggest that he did so at least in part because of a mistaken belief that Ryan had no criminal record. The LAPD case file -- the "murder book," in which detectives document every step in an investigation -- indicates that Monsue ran a records search for Ryan using the wrong birth date. A handwritten note in the file reads: "John Michael Ryan, 1/24/66, No record." [