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A Lost Cause : Courts in 2 States Failed to Stop Suspect in Kidnaping, Slaying

October 29, 1987|MICHAEL CONNELLY | Times Staff Writer

Roland Comtois knew the routine well.

Arrested by Los Angeles police on suspicion of burglary, he hooked his glasses in the open neck of his shirt and stared coldly at the camera. The hard set of his eyes betrayed nothing. No fear. No concern. The camera clicked, and the mug shot was taken.

For Comtois, it was simply part of life.

Today, that June 1 mug shot is part of a history that tells much about the criminal justice system and the man accused in the abduction and shooting of two Chatsworth teen-agers last month.

Wendy Masuhara, 14, was kidnaped Sept. 19, shot in the head and killed. Her body was left in an abandoned car in a canyon six miles from the presumably safe neighborhood from which she and a 13-year-old friend had been taken.

Her friend was drugged, sexually assaulted, shot and also left for dead. But she survived and provided police with the information that identified Comtois, 58, and 33-year-old Marsha Lynn Erickson, accused of being his accomplice, as suspects. Both were familiar to police and the courts.

Comtois had woven a 46-year path through police stations, courtrooms and prisons. He was a man the criminal justice system could not handle, a man it could neither rehabilitate nor protect society from.

'Lashing Back'

"Ever since early incorrigibility," a probation officer wrote in 1962, "he has lashed back at society with a vengeance, reaching out for what he wants with a total disregard of the rights of others. . . . His personality effect is of a man who is very matter-of-fact, cold, hostile, cynical and daring."

Twenty-five years later, police describe Comtois as someone who beat the system--not because he has gotten away with crime, but because he has never gotten away from it. All told, records show Comtois has spent at least four stints in prison on convictions including attempted rape, robbery and heroin dealing.

And, after each sentence was served, he apparently returned to society only to lapse back into crime.

"It is not surprising that he was able to do this," Leroy Orozco, a homicide detective working full time on Comtois' background, said. "His whole life has been criminal. With our justice system, people can continue to commit crimes and beat the system by continuing to get their freedom. There are people out there with worse records than he has."

Roland Norman Comtois was born in Massachusetts, the sixth of seven children of a French Canadian couple. According to court records, Comtois' mother died when he was 3, and he was placed in a succession of orphanages, foster homes and reform schools. As an adult, he would claim he was abused during this period, telling probation officers that he was punished for bed-wetting by being handcuffed and placed in cold showers. He would show scars on his wrists, claiming they were from being handcuffed as a child. Of one orphanage, he would say, "If I should ever run across the old guy who ran that place, I would blow his top off."

Comtois' education ended in the sixth grade and was followed by a Massachusetts record of juvenile delinquency that reached back as far as age 11. As a 17-year-old in 1947, he was convicted of breaking into a West Concord, Mass., lumber company office and received a two-year indeterminate sentence. How much time he served is unclear.

When Comtois was 23, a conviction for assault with intent to commit rape in New Bedford put him in a Massachusetts state prison for two years. A year after his release, he was arrested on a Peeping Tom charge, and his parole was revoked, records show.

In 1956, Comtois left a broken marriage and a daughter to move across the country. He subsequently got a divorce. In the next few years in Los Angeles, he remarried, fathered a son, worked as a truck driver and made enough money to buy a truck and begin a transport business.

But, by 1960, the business was failing, and he returned to crime. According to records, when he needed $3,200 to make repairs on the truck, he planned to rob a bank in Bell. The plan failed and he was convicted of attempted bank robbery.

When freed on bail awaiting sentencing, Comtois returned to his Los Angeles home to find his wife living on county assistance funds. Unable to find work while awaiting prison, he broke into an Alhambra home on an April morning in 1960, but was chased out of the house and slightly injured by a homeowner's bullet. Comtois was charged with burglary and pleaded guilty. "I was desperate for money. . . ," he wrote to a probation officer. "I took this spontaneous action without rational thinking."

Criminal Impulses

The probation officer's August, 1960, evaluation of Comtois concluded, "He appears to have no control over his impulses when things don't go his way, and consequently he resorts to criminal behavior."

On the day his wife gave birth to a daughter, Comtois was sentenced to a year in a federal prison in California on the attempted bank robbery and burglary convictions.

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