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Mystery in Baja : Slaying of Flamboyant U.S. Executive Baffles Authorities

June 25, 1989|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

PLAYA LA MISION, Baja California — It was just after sunset in this seaside village when the flamboyant life of Claude L. Falkenstien Jr. came to an abrupt end.

Shot once through the heart with a 38-caliber bullet, the free-spending Newport Beach advertising executive died on the floor of the vacation home where he had been spending nearly every weekend.

But more than seven months after Falkenstien's death, Mexican police are no closer to determining what happened than they were on the night of Nov. 6, when frantic neighbors summoned them from Rosarito, 20 miles away.

The police were told that Falkenstien had been shot by robbers who broke into the secluded bungalow, confronting the businessman and his frightened girlfriend. The girlfriend's account was supported in part by two neighbors, who said they heard the shots and came running to help. Almost from the beginning, however, investigators had grave doubts.

"There was no robbery," Genaro Valle Lopez, chief of the Mexican State Judicial Police in Rosarito, now says bluntly.

Case Still a Mystery

But despite a detailed investigation, Falkenstien's death remains a mystery whose cast includes a Florida man, who is wanted for allegedly stealing $20,000 worth of exotic birds, and the dead man's girlfriend, whose last known address was in Irvine.

Falkenstien, 58, had been a member of the exclusive Balboa Bay Club. He was always dapper, with a salt-and-pepper beard and fashionable clothes, and often wore heavy gold jewelry. He drove a black Cadillac with vanity license plates reading "FALKIE," and never hesitated to pick up the tab for lunch, friends recalled.

Yet some people sensed another side to Falkenstien. Despite his constant talk of big business deals, he seemed reluctant to disclose details. "He always was kind of secretive, even when he was young," recalled Georgia Seuferling, 78, Falkenstien's mother, who lives in North Kansas City, Mo.

That secretiveness was apparent in Falkenstien's relationship with Patricia Engels, 38, office manager for his direct-mail advertising business, Mass Media Marketing. Falkenstien--three times divorced with no children, according to court records--told the firm's staff that Engels was his daughter, said Holly Dufau, the company's vice president.

By 1987, Engels, whose marriage had ended in divorce, was living with Falkenstien, Seuferling said. While the couple was shopping for a vacation home in Baja California last summer, they met Gary and Patricia Lockwood.

Based on a pair of handwritten statements sent by the Lockwoods to a friend after the shooting and on details provided by police and Falkenstien's neighbors, the couples' relationship unfolded this way:

In July, Falkenstien leased a house managed by the Lockwoods, and by fall, the two couples had become close friends.

By November, Falkenstien was thinking about investing in other vacation homes in the area, and on Nov. 6, a Sunday, the two couples agreed to spend the afternoon scouting properties along the scenic Baja coast.

Lunch at Restaurant

For Falkenstien and Engels, that day began pleasantly. A neighbor spotted the slender, attractive blond and her companion returning arm-in-arm from a morning walk on the beach. The couple met the Lockwoods for lunch at La Fachada, a nearby hotel and restaurant with a stunning view of the Pacific. A hotel photographer captured a smiling Falkenstien and Engels cuddled on a wicker chair.

As the couples drove along the coast, the Lockwoods noticed that something seemed to be troubling Falkenstien.

"I asked him what was wrong," Gary Lockwood wrote in his 44-page statement. "He replied that he had a rough week at work and that his pancreas was acting up."

They returned to Falkenstien's house about 5 p.m., and the Lockwoods stayed for about 15 minutes. Then, as Falkenstien walked the couple to the door, he suddenly grabbed Gary Lockwood's shoulder. "Gary, get us out of here, we aren't safe," Falkenstien said, as recounted in one of the statements.

Neighbors said a string of armed robberies in recent months had terrified many residents of Playa La Mision, a tiny retirement village populated mostly by Americans. Falkenstien had reported his house among those burglarized only two weeks earlier. He had had bars installed on the windows, and Lockwood wired the house with an elaborate alarm system. In addition, Falkenstien had purchased a walkie-talkie and CB radios for his house and for the Lockwoods' home, about a three-minute drive away.

Heard Explosions

Once the Lockwoods were back home, they heard two explosions that sounded like firecrackers, followed by a pause of several seconds, then two or three more pops, they recounted. They said Engels' frantic voice cried through the CB: "Gary, they shot Falk! They shot him, they shot him!"

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