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Clean-Cut Suspect in Arson Was Part of 'Perfect Family'

September 27, 1987|RICHARD BEENE | Times Staff Writer

'They are a great family. They are a family that is very involved and concerned. . . . They tried to be perfect parents.'--Eleanor Parks

By most accounts, Robbie Lowenberg was the All-American kid: altar boy, high school football player, popular with the girls. The kind of teen-ager, said a neighbor, "that you'd want your daughter to date."

The son of Cypress Police Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg, he was the eldest of six children in a family that seemed to epitomize the best of Middle American values. On Sundays you could find them at St. Polycarp Catholic Church, seated as a family in the front pews for morning Mass. During the week, Robbie was an eager young sales clerk at a Garden Grove electronics store who outsold older, more experienced salesmen through sheer hustle.

Other Image Alleged

"You'd think it was the perfect family," said the neighbor, Joyce Preuss. "All the kids are blond, really good-looking kids and very clean-cut. On Sundays you'd see the whole family troop out of the house all dressed up for church."

But federal prosecutors say there was another side of Robert E. "Robbie" Lowenberg, a side that led him, for reasons that remain unexplained, to set a fire earlier this month that blackened more than 5,000 acres of woodlands in the Cleveland National Forest. The cost of fighting it has been estimated at $1.3 million.

At the time the fire was set, prosecutors say, Lowenberg was with a former high school buddy driving through the hills, relaxing and shooting a BB gun. The friend, 18-year-old Richard Tafoya, would later provide investigators with information they needed to file arson charges against Lowenberg.

Lowenberg, 19, has admitted he started the Silverado Canyon fire. He remains jailed at the Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles. Under orders from U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown Jr., he must enter a drug and alcohol treatment program.

Search for Motive

Federal authorities prosecuting Lowenberg say motive is the most baffling question.

Former classmates say the tall, lanky teen-ager, who wears his hair in a crew cut, was neither a model student nor a picture of discipline. He dropped out of Rancho Alamitos High School in his senior year. But there apparently was nothing in his past to indicate that he was capable of arson.

"We don't have any idea why he did it," said Tommy Lanier, a U.S. Forest Service special agent who investigated the case. "It may take a court-appointed psychiatrist to find out why."

Lowenberg's family has declined to discuss the case, as have Tafoya and members of his family. In one of his few public statements on the case, Chief Lowenberg remarked after his son's bail hearing in federal court, "We love our son and we'll certainly give him whatever support he needs. He'll have to reconcile with himself and God."

Until recently the Lowenberg family lived in a quiet area of two-story and ranch-style homes near the corner of Magnolia Street and Katella Avenue in Garden Grove. It was there, amid manicured lawns and neatly trimmed cypress trees, that Robert E. Lowenberg was raised and attended school before his family moved to Cypress earlier this summer.

Lowenberg attended elementary school at St. Polycarp, a strict, well regarded parochial school on Chapman Avenue in Garden Grove, before going on to Rancho Alamitos High School, where he fell in with what several classmates called "the jock crowd."

Lowenberg's parents, Ronald and Kitty Lowenberg, are almost uniformly described as deeply religious and active in community affairs, he in his role as police chief and she through the neighborhood church, where she participates in charity drives and Christmas bazaars.

Those who know the family best and came to their defense say the Lowenbergs went to great lengths to create the perfect family atmosphere in a strict disciplinary setting grounded in duty to community and church.

Descriptions Vary

"They are a great family," said Eleanor Parks, a Garden Grove school crossing guard who has known the family more than 30 years. "They are a family that is very involved and concerned . . . they tried to be perfect parents."

But descriptions of Robbie Lowenberg by residents in his former Garden Grove neighborhood, who spoke on condition of anonymity, were not as uniformly kind.

One neighborhood teen-ager who went to high school with Lowenberg said he was "always a little wild. He went to a lot of parties where there was drinking and that kind of thing. When he was alone he was fine, but when he got around his buddies, he was a show-off."

At the high school, where Lowenberg is remembered as a capable if not outstanding defensive back on the football team, longtime basketball coach Pat Adams recalls him as "a very spirited guy with his share of disciplinary problems. But I was very surprised at what happened. You would never have guessed it."

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