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COLUMN ONE : Murder or Natural Causes? : Four years after Crystal Spencer's death, her case remains a mystery. Following the trail leads to rumors, theories and mishandled evidence.


The death of Crystal Spencer has evolved into a bizarre mystery--a tangled web of rumors and botched evidence, lawsuits and personal obsession.

Nearly four years ago, the 29-year-old topless dancer was found dead in her disheveled Burbank apartment. She was half-nude, her body decomposed beyond recognition. Her telephone was off the hook.

Whether she was murdered, or merely died of a sudden illness, is a lingering question. Authorities labeled the cause of death "undetermined," leaving angry, tormented loved ones to cling to theories: Spencer was killed by the Japanese mafia. Spencer was an FBI informant murdered by strip-club hoodlums. Spencer was strangled by a ruthless suitor.

The case has taken on a "Twilight Zone" quality, as if fate intended some sleight of hand. On the night of her death, the couple downstairs heard what they later described as muffled shrieks and screams, the apparent cries of someone "being tortured." But they never called police.

Glaring discrepancies marred the autopsy. Spencer--listed in one medical document as 5-foot-1, 107 pounds--was charted by the Los Angeles County coroner's office at 5-foot-7, 140. Her identity was established only by fingerprinting, after the fingertips had been surgically cut from the body. No X-rays or dental records were compared before cremation.

Two lawsuits are pending--one brought by Spencer's mother against the coroner's office, the other by boyfriend Anton Kline against Burbank police, seeking access to the department's files. Kline, 41, bitterly assails authorities who have attributed the exaggerated autopsy measurements to clerical error. He insists that pathologists examined the wrong body.

Almost single-handedly, Kline has kept the case alive--appearing on television, speaking before Los Angeles County supervisors, yelling, questioning, hatching theories, writing hundreds of outraged letters, all in a zealous crusade for answers. Yet those answers may never come. For the bottom line in a saga of shadowy clues and missing pieces is one apparent truth: In an upscale suburban neighborhood, at a time of ever-advancing techniques in forensic science, Spencer became that rare case of someone who slipped through the cracks, who died leaving only a trail of question marks.

"Believe me, I'd love nothing more than to have somebody make a ruling as to the cause of death on this," said Burbank Detective Kevin T. Krafft, who says he has spent more hours on the Spencer case than on any other in 19 years of law enforcement. "In this instance, the coroner's office was not able . . . to say that it was, or was not, a homicide. We don't know why she died."

Of the roughly 18,000 deaths investigated each year in Los Angeles, about 40 or 50 fall into that same dark void, said coroner's spokesman Bob Dambacher. A number are people discovered in the desert, or on remote roadsides, dead for weeks. "We do autopsies and work-ups of blood and urine," Dambacher said. "We do a lot of things, and sometimes we just cannot tell why somebody died."

Spencer's case is especially unsettling--a grim commentary on a hard-edged society in which screams go unheeded; a pointed example of how government bureaucracies sometimes fail, leaving a legacy of anguish and heartbreak.

The trail of clues is complicated by the uneven circumstances of Spencer's life in May, 1988, the time of her death. A stubborn, outgoing woman, she was given to moments of great hyperbole and was deft at orchestrating job opportunities and relationships, Kline said. She talked incessantly on the phone, left it off the hook regularly and lived in moderate disorder, he said. Frequently, she borrowed money from friends, yet she kept caches of five-, 10- and 20-dollar bills stuffed in her couch and in tissue boxes.

In and out at all hours, Spencer seemed to lead a "double life" devoted to dreams of acting and nights spent dancing topless, Kline said. Her acting credits were modest--two television commercials. Yet, like so many other young women, she longed for a chance at stardom and was enrolled in drama classes and a comedy workshop, Kline said.

To support herself, Spencer danced at the Wild Goose, a topless club near Los Angeles International Airport, performing two, three, even four nights a week. Her wages--about $40 a night--were nominal compared to the $150-a-night, or more, that she made in tips.

Just before her death, Spencer was preparing for three months' work as a nightclub "hostess girl" in Japan, a trip she feared, according to a former waitress friend. Yet she was determined to go.

"I feel stuck. I'm going to get unstuck!" Spencer wrote in a journal entry. "God guide me. . . . Get me out of the Wild Goose . . . by the end of May."

Kline last saw her, he said, on Wednesday, May 4.

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