Nearly a year after he led authorities to her shallow grave in Angeles National Forest, photographer Charles Rathbun was convicted Friday of sexually assaulting and strangling model Linda Sobek during a photo shoot on a dry lake bed.
As he sat almost motionless in a hushed Torrance courtroom, a nine-man, three-woman jury found the 39-year-old guilty of first-degree murder and of sodomizing Sobek, 27, of Hermosa Beach. Although prosecutors decided months ago that it would be hard to win a death penalty for Rathbun because he had no felony convictions and had led searchers to Sobek's body, the verdicts mean that Rathbun will face a no-parole life sentence when he returns to court Dec. 16.
"All right!" Sobek's mother, Elaine, shouted as the first verdict, on the murder charge, was read.
At the same moment, Rathbun's mother, Ann, murmured "Oh, God," and bowed her head. Her husband, Horace, cupping his left hand to his ear, was silent.
The conviction of Rathbun capped a wrenching five-week trial in which prosecutors portrayed the lanky, blond defendant as a sadistic predator who murdered Sobek to conceal the fact that he had sodomized her, possibly with his .45-caliber revolver.
Although Rathbun testified, sometimes in tears, that he had accidentally asphyxiated the former Los Angeles Raiderette last November, Deputy Dist. Attys. Steve Kay and Mary-Jean Bowman presented more than 40 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits in what they described as a macabre tale of sexual perversion and remorseless murder.
Paradoxically, the jurors who convicted Rathbun after six hours of deliberations said that while they believed his actions were monstrous, they could not say for sure--based on the evidence--he was a monster who set out to savage Sobek.
"We don't believe he went out there to rape and murder her," said a 37-year-old juror from Redondo Beach, who declined to give his name. "But somewhere along the line, something snapped."
Juror Don Hoffman, 63, said: "It was hard for me to believe a human being could do that."
For the jurors, perhaps. But not for authorities, who once described Rathbun as a serial killer--a notion some still believe.
"The jury did a great job with half the evidence they could have had," said Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Robinson. "There's a lot more to him than they know."
In a hearing that preceded Rathbun's trial, prosecutors were blocked from presenting any of his original confession to police because detectives ignored his repeated requests for an attorney. Likewise, a judge ruled in May that authorities could not introduce the testimony of four women who claimed that they were sexually assaulted or nearly strangled by Rathbun, who was acquitted of rape 17 years ago in Ohio.
Even without that evidence, prosecutors presented what jurors described as more than enough proof that Sobek was brutalized and that Rathbun lied about his fateful encounter with her.
"It just seemed he was lying on the stand about everything," said juror Greg Mars, a 35-year-old employee at Cal State Long Beach. "He changed his story too many times."
After his arrest Nov. 22, a weeping Rathbun told detectives that he had accidentally struck and killed Sobek with a vehicle that he was assigned to photograph while practicing driving stunts on the El Mirage dry lake bed near Palmdale. In a panic, he claimed, he buried her body off a dirt road in Angeles National Forest.
But during 2 1/2 days of testimony that outraged Sobek's family and friends, Rathbun offered a different story, claiming that he accidentally asphyxiated the model during an argument that escalated into a fight in the back seat of the vehicle. Before Sobek's death, he testified, he and the model drank tequila and engaged in consensual sex. In his defense, he offered double-exposed photographs of a nude woman's torso that he said was Sobek's.
With a parade of criminalists and other witnesses to rebut Rathbun's story, however, prosecutors insisted that the photographer's version of events could not explain away Sobek's numerous injuries or his own consciousness of guilt in burying her body and lying to authorities.
The senior deputy coroner who performed the autopsy on Sobek testified that her injuries were the result of strangulation, not accidental asphyxiation.
"He killed her," prosecutor Kay said in an emotional, four-hour summation Wednesday. "[And] the motive for killing her was to avoid detection."
When the first guilty verdict was announced, the 6-foot-3 Rathbun sat almost motionless in his chair, staring straight ahead and arching his back slightly at the word "guilty."
"I was afraid this would happen," attorney Mark Werksman said he was told by Rathbun.
Sobek's family and friends, who had maintained a painful, weeks-long vigil in Superior Court Judge Donald F. Pitt's courtroom, broke into tears at the verdicts, hugging one another or simply joining hands.