Haunted By a Distant Verdict

Times Staff Writers

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. [ DOCUMENT: Autopsy Report on Dorka Lisker. ]

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.

Another Suspect

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. [ ]

A criminal-records search using Ryan's correct birth date -- April 24, 1966 -- would have revealed that he had been convicted of robbing a teenager at knifepoint 10 months before Dorka Lisker was killed.

It happened in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant in Ventura County. When the victim asked why he should surrender his $12, Ryan allegedly replied: "I will kill you if you don't."

Apparently unaware of this incident and Ryan's earlier crimes, Monsue wrote him off as a suspect.

Ryan went on his troubled way. In 1986, he followed a woman off a commuter train in San Francisco, grabbed her arm and threatened her with a knife.

"You don't want to make me angry," Ryan said, according to a sworn declaration by the victim.

When the woman broke free, he slashed at her with the knife, causing feathers from her down jacket to fly into the air. Ryan was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to six years in prison.

In 1993, he took a sledgehammer to his stepmother's car in Florida -- and attacked a police officer who responded, biting him on the thumb.

In 1996, back in California, Ryan took his life with a combination of alcohol and heroin. He left a note in which he thanked his roommate, gave instructions for what to do with his belongings, and told a friend that he loved him.

"F-- everybody else" were his parting words.

Ryan's mother, who still lives in Ventura County, spoke with Times reporters on condition that she not be identified. She said she did not want to be publicly associated with her son and his crimes.

She said she has always suspected that Mike killed Dorka Lisker. She said she confronted him once with her suspicions, and that he insisted he was innocent.

She did not believe him.

"I think he just got backed up into a corner and needed the money and did what he did. . . . He was probably on drugs," the mother said. "I feel like I'm stabbing Mike in the back by saying so, but I really believe there may be an innocent man in prison."

A Jailhouse Informant

Bruce spent the weeks after the murder in East Lake Juvenile Hall. He was allowed outside his cell for an hour a day, and spent it writing letters to friends. Every day at dinnertime, a nurse gave him a tranquilizer mixed with orange juice. His father's Sunday visits "were my salvation," he wrote years later. The two talked about Bruce's legal defense.

"I let my dad know again that I did not do this," he said.

At a court hearing April 4, 1983, a judge determined that Lisker should be tried as an adult -- but ordered him returned to juvenile hall.

The order was ignored.

Four days later, sheriff's deputies moved him to the Los Angeles County men's jail. He was placed in a "segregation" area for inmates who would be at risk in the general population -- youthful offenders and informants, among others.

Years later, a grand jury exposed a corrupt alliance between Los Angeles prosecutors and jailhouse informants. The snitches would claim their cellmates had confessed to the charges against them. Then they would testify about the confessions in exchange for reductions in their own charges or early release from jail.

Prosecutors suspected the confessions were bogus, but used them to secure convictions in as many as 250 cases from 1979 to 1988, the grand jury found.

The scandal led to a dramatic reduction in the use of jailhouse informants and a state law requiring that juries be instructed to view their testimony with suspicion. That would come later, however.

Within days of Lisker's arrival in the county jail, two inmates reported that he had confessed to them. The authorities dismissed them as liars.

Then a third informant came forward.

Robert Donald Hughes, then 29, was a career criminal serving time for burglary, vehicle theft and other offenses. He was also a practiced snitch. [ Robert Hughes a loan?" he asked. After deliberating four days, the jury convicted Lisker of second-degree murder. He was escorted to a holding pen, where he threw up into a trash can. Several jurors cried that day outside the courtroom. "He just didn't strike us as a hardened criminal," said one. "But the evidence was convincing." 'I'm Not a Killer' For a skinny kid who stands 5 feet 6, prison can be brutal. Soon after his conviction, Bruce endured a beating at the hands of a burly inmate at a juvenile facility in Ontario. He earned respect by fighting back and refusing to inform on his assailant. He told staff members he had suffered two black eyes falling out of bed. He learned to say little and keep to himself. He studied computer programming and trained to be a paralegal. He went to church, attended 12-step alcohol and drug programs, and dabbled in poetry. In a poem about Monsue, he wrote: An idiot simpleton who jumped to conclusions; Unable to reason, "If not the boy, who then?" When he turned 25, Bruce was transferred to adult prison -- first San Quentin, then Mule Creek, a concrete fortress about an hour's drive south of Sacramento where he has spent the last 15 years. Early on, he hoped higher courts would overturn his conviction. But his appeals were dismissed. Then he hoped to gain his freedom through parole. In 1992, when he first became eligible, he again admitted killing his mother and expressed remorse. "I was addicted to drugs and alcohol heavily. I stole money from my parents and I had no qualms about doing so. I was on a downward path, heading down a dead-end street, and it culminated in my murdering my mother," Bruce said. "A spoiled brat," interjected one parole commissioner. "Yes," Bruce agreed. "I was." Lisker now says he told board members what he thought they wanted to hear. He was denied parole. After that, Lisker said, he decided he would never again accept blame for a crime he didn't commit. He declined to appear at his parole hearings in 1993, 1996 and 1998. In 1999, he attended and read a statement proclaiming his innocence and repudiating his earlier admission. With a $150,000 inheritance from his father, who died in 1995, he hired new attorneys and private investigators and set out to clear his name. He established a website --www.freebruce.org -- to drum up support and donations. Lisker, now 39, said during interviews at Mule Creek that he understands why Monsue suspected him at first. But Monsue and, later, Rabichow developed tunnel vision, he said, closing their minds to evidence that contradicted their theory. "It's a Chinese proverb that everybody pushes a falling fence," he said. "I wasn't an angel. But I'm not a killer." Curious About a Call During Bruce's years in prison, Monsue was on a journey of his own -- a slow rise through the ranks of the LAPD. There was a stubborn persistence to his career arc. It took him 54 tries to pass the oral examination to become a supervising detective. A self-described "dinosaur," he occasionally bruised feelings with his bristly demeanor. In 1999, a citizen complained that Monsue jabbed a finger in his face. Higher-ups counseled the detective to tone down his "mannerisms." Later that year, he was reprimanded for displaying a coffee mug with a profanity on it. In 2001, an African American female sergeant complained that he made racially insensitive remarks, and that the LAPD punished her for objecting to his conduct. The woman quoted Monsue as saying that "the white man is at a disadvantage" because of affirmative action. He denied it. The department settled the case for $1.25 million. Monsue reached the rank of lieutenant, overseeing 45 detectives in the LAPD's Central Division, a position he still holds. Every few years, he would be notified of a parole hearing for Lisker and given the opportunity to submit a statement. In an odd way, this grinding of the bureaucracy kept the two men connected, aware of each other. One day in 2000, Lisker was searching his prison file when he came across a letter Monsue had written to the parole board two years earlier. In the letter, Monsue said that a final nagging question about the case had been resolved: the $150 missing from Dorka Lisker's purse. New owners of the house on Huston Street had discovered it in an attic above Bruce Lisker's old bedroom, Monsue said. "This revelation confirmed our initial theory that Mr. Lisker had in fact robbed his mother," the detective wrote. "He has clearly demonstrated what he is capable of and should never be released to prey on anyone else in the future." [ ] Though the discovery did not prove him innocent, Lisker believed he now had hard evidence that Monsue was dishonest. Energized, Lisker and his defense team pressed on. A year later, Lisker made what he considered a major breakthrough. He had always been curious about a phone call made from his parents' home around the time of the murder. At 10:22 a.m., billing records showed, someone dialed a number that neither Lisker nor his father could recognize. Lisker was reviewing the LAPD case file on a spring day in 2001 when he made a connection. The mystery number was nearly identical to the number for Mike Ryan's mother in Ventura County. Her number was in the file because Monsue had called to interview her about her son in the early days of the investigation. The two seven-digit numbers were the same except for the final digit. The Ventura County area code had not been dialed. Nevertheless, it appeared that someone had been trying to call Ryan's mother around the time of the murder. "I finally found it," Lisker wrote to one of his lawyers. "It just fits." Lisker spent the next two years working on another legal appeal -- the longest of long shots. In 2003, he filed a habeas corpus petition, contending that he was wrongfully convicted. He included the new information about the phone call and Monsue's letter. The petition is now before a federal magistrate. Bruce also filed a complaint against Monsue with the LAPD. [ ] Gavin turned his attention to Ryan. He tracked down several of Ryan's old friends from the apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard. They told him that Bruce Lisker had boasted to Ryan that his parents were rich and that his father owned a stamp collection worth more than $100,000. One of the friends was dying of AIDS. Gavin flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to interview him. The man said that before Dorka's murder, Ryan had planned to rob the Liskers and had "cased" the home at least once. The more Gavin learned, the more questions he had. Was it possible an innocent man had been convicted? Gavin was determined to find out, but his superiors had other ideas. Supportive at first, they had grown impatient as his investigation dragged on into 2004. His job was to look into complaints of police misconduct, they said, not to reinvestigate decades-old homicides. Gavin said he was told to limit his inquiry to Monsue's letter and wrap it up quickly. He followed orders and turned in an abbreviated report. Gavin wrote, but did not submit, a longer report. The title page read: "The Case of Bruce Lisker: Did a faulty investigation by an LAPD officer lead to Lisker's murder conviction?" Without telling his superiors, Gavin also gave Ingels, the private investigator, a copy of the criminalist's report on the bloody footprint. "He told me that he was probably going to catch some heat for doing that," Ingels said. "But he said: 'I'm OK with that.'." Claims Dismissed Last July, Lisker found in his prison mail a letter on LAPD stationery. It was the department's response to his complaint. An investigation had found no merit to his allegation that Monsue had lied to the parole board, wrote Capt. James Rubert, the detective's immediate superior. As for Lisker's broader claims -- that Ryan was the real killer and that Hughes had lied on the witness stand -- those had already been addressed by the courts, Rubert wrote. No further investigation was warranted. Lisker said he was disappointed but not surprised. Ingels, a former Pomona policeman, was furious. He called Gavin, who told him that he had been ordered to stop investigating. Ingels wrote Police Chief William J. Bratton, accusing Gavin's bosses of a cover-up. In response, the department has launched a fresh investigation into Monsue's conduct and that of Gavin's superiors. Gavin is also under investigation -- for revealing confidential information about the case. In February, he was transferred from Internal Affairs to the department's training facility in Sylmar. The evidence Gavin collected was turned over to a detective in the LAPD's cold-case unit, who conducted a quick review and concluded that Lisker was guilty. The review turned up a previously overlooked piece of evidence: an old autopsy photo showing a bruise on Dorka Lisker's head with a wavy pattern that looked like a shoe print. LAPD officials said a preliminary examination linked the print to Bruce Lisker's shoes, suggesting that he had stomped on his mother's head. Times reporters asked if police had compared the bruise to the mystery footprint found in the bathroom. They had not. Deputy Chief Gary Brennan said LAPD experts would perform such an analysis. But Brennan said he had no doubt that Lisker was the killer. "An innocent man is not in prison," he said. Fed Up With Questions Monsue says one of his "fundamental rules" as an investigator is "keep it simple, stupid." Many detectives have their own versions of this credo. They say it's best to focus on the likeliest explanation, on the most obvious suspect, and avoid time-consuming tangents. Lisker was the obvious suspect, Monsue said in an interview, and he remains convinced of his guilt. Monsue denied lying to the parole board about the discovery of the $150. He said it was his practice to document such developments in writing. He said he could not explain why no report could be found. With visible indignation, he insisted that the issue had no bearing on Lisker's guilt. "It's mildly interesting to me that they are calling me a liar, OK? What does it prove?" Monsue said. "We've got a lying, cheating, murdering son of a bitch in prison that's making these allegations ¼ and you're sitting here questioning my credibility? That upsets me." As for Ryan, Monsue said he had trouble believing that the teenager would have killed someone over $150. More important, he said, he had no evidence placing Ryan at the crime scene. Monsue said he had "no remembrance" of the phone call made around the time of the murder. Lisker may have tried to call Ryan's mother and accidentally misdialed, he said. "You've got to keep it simple, stupid," Monsue said. "Usually, people are killed by people close to them." He said the criminalist's finding that the bloody footprint in the bathroom was not Lisker's stirred his curiosity, "but I would not draw any conclusions ¼ until I did some work on it." Monsue said he was fed up with answering questions about the case. "I've got nothing to lose now. I've got my 30 years on, OK? My pension is in the bank. But I'm getting very tired of trying to explain this over and over and over and over." A Stunning Discovery The missing $150 has been a recurring issue in People vs. Lisker. At the trial, Rabichow told jurors that there was no money in Dorka's purse, indicating that Bruce Lisker stole it. Mulcahy said the failure to find the money was a glaring weakness in the prosecution's case. If Lisker took the money, where was it? he asked. Years later, Monsue told the parole board it had turned up in the attic. The Times learned recently that the money may have been in Dorka Lisker's purse all along. Three weeks after Bruce was convicted in 1985, a court clerk named B.J. Wilson conducted a thorough search of the purse before putting it in storage along with other evidence. Wilson snapped on rubber gloves and dug through the black patent-leather handbag. She'd pull something out, then write it down. "If there's a toothpick, I write 'toothpick,'." Wilson, now retired, said in an interview. "If there's a piece of gum. I write 'gum.'." And so she did. "Emory board. Safety pin. Nail file. Compact. Red and orange magnifying glass. Cookies in plastic wrap. Coupons. Rubber bands," reads her three-page handwritten list, which The Times found on microfilm in a court archive in downtown Los Angeles. Wilson placed an asterisk beside the second-to-last entry: "Also found in brown wallet compartment: 5 $20.00 bills – 1 ten-dollar bill, 1 five-dollar bill and five 1-dollar bills. Total $120.00." [

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