While critical of how police conducted their investigation, a Municipal Court judge ruled Monday that authorities can use key evidence collected just before photographer Charles Rathbun led them to the body of a Hermosa Beach model he is accused of killing.
Ruling that police did not initially honor Rathbun's request for an attorney, Torrance Judge Benjamin Aranda nevertheless paved the way for prosecutors to offer the most detailed account yet of how homicide investigators located the body of Linda Sobek, 24. His decision also allows them to introduce crucial coroner's testimony about the body, including that the former Raiders cheerleader was sexually assaulted before she was asphyxiated.
"I think it shows that Linda Sobek was the victim of a brutal sexual attack," Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Kay said after an often-intense first day in the preliminary hearing of Rathbun. The 38-year-old Hollywood man has pleaded not guilty to charges that he murdered Sobek.
The court proceedings, scheduled to continue today, began with a battle between the district attorney's office and Rathbun's attorney, Mark Werksman, over evidence allegedly linking the photographer to the murder of Sobek, whose body was recovered Nov. 25 in a shallow grave in the Angeles National Forest.
Citing the reports of two homicide investigators and the transcript of their recorded 75-minute interview with Rathbun, Werksman alleged that authorities repeatedly violated Rathbun's constitutional rights to legal counsel by ignoring his 12 requests for an attorney.
Werksman further argued that detectives with the Hermosa Beach Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department coerced an obviously distraught Rathbun--not long after his suicide attempt at the Hermosa Beach jail--into potentially incriminating statements.
Perhaps most significantly, Werksman claimed that even when Rathbun was allowed to speak to an attorney, it was again under duress with the men meeting at a remote park ranger station. Meanwhile, investigators waited outside with a helicopter nearby for Rathbun to lead them to the body.
"Frankly," Werksman told reporters later in the day, "I'm surprised that in this day and age police officers would be so ignorant of the fundamental rights of a suspect in custody."
While Kay acknowledged that detectives did not abide by routine Miranda procedures, he claimed their inaction on Rathbun's request for an attorney was permitted under a so-called "Rescue Doctrine" exemption because they were urgently attempting to determine if Sobek could be found alive.
But the judge, citing numerous cases in California and elsewhere, said the investigators' initial actions were inappropriate.
"It is clear the defendant did not receive his Miranda rights," Aranda told the court, later adding that "the police psychological pressure on the defendant [was] obvious."
Further, Aranda said, the investigators' own declarations and the fact that Sobek had been missing for a week at the time of Rathbun's statements offered no evidence "that they had a reason to believe she might still be alive."
But while throwing out any statements made by Rathbun during preliminary interrogations, Aranda ruled that prosecutors could use evidence collected by police as he was helping them find the body--after he had conferred with attorney James Nichols at the ranger station.
Praising Aranda's ruling, Kay told reporters it allows authorities to press their case against Rathbun--who faces the death penalty if convicted.
Clearly relieved that the judge allowed pivotal evidence to be introduced, Kay refused to second-guess detectives' actions.
"I'll tell you, the two officers . . . did what any parent would want them to do if their daughter was missing," Kay said. "So I'm not going to criticize them. I know the judge wasn't pleased with the procedures."
After Aranda's ruling, Kay called six of 13 witnesses he says will prove Rathbun murdered Sobek, despite the photographer's claim that he accidentally killed her by hitting her with a sport utility vehicle during a photo shoot in a dry lake bed.
The witnesses testified how photos of Sobek, pages from her daybook and a loan agreement for Rathbun to use the sport utility vehicle were recovered from a trash bin in the forest. There also was testimony that the vehicle was returned with no obvious damage.
Model Amy Marie Weber, who said she had worked several times with Rathbun, said the photographer reacted angrily in 1994 when she mentioned Sobek as someone who might be available for photo sessions with vehicles. The photographer had worked with Sobek before and said he never wanted to work with her again, Weber said.
But on cross-examination, Weber acknowledged that she never asked Rathbun to explain his anger and continued to work with him, even allowing him to house-sit at her home while she was on vacation.
The most detailed testimony came from Dr. James Ribe, a senior deputy coroner who said his autopsy of Sobek showed she was sodomized with a foreign object and asphyxiated--either by strangling, a chokehold or the use of some device. Ribe testified that her legs had been bound and that a struggle had left her with numerous injuries, including a tear on her right ear consistent with having jewelry ripped away.
Earlier, Sobek's mother identified photos recovered in the forest as those of her daughter and recalled how she had spoken to Linda by phone only hours before the disappearance.
The call, to finalize plans for a barbecue, lasted only a couple of minutes, Elaine Sobek testified.
"She was in a hurry . . . because she had to go on a modeling job that morning. She said she would call me back that night," Elaine Sobek recalled. "But she didn't."