VAN NUYS — A dead body found in a trash bin was identified by the coroner's office Thursday as a Van Nuys woman reported missing earlier this week.
The body of Roberta LaBrie, 36, was discovered in a large box that was dumped into a garbage bin early Wednesday morning. Later that day police arrested Lawrence Johnson of Van Nuys in connection with her death. Johnson and LaBrie had been dating for two months before her death.
A security guard observed Johnson as he dumped a large box in a construction site trash bin in an alleyway beside his Oxnard Street apartment building, police said. When the guard inspected the box he found LaBrie's body inside, police said.
Coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said the body had decomposed.
Although an autopsy has not yet been completed, LAPD Det. Stephen Fisk said there was evidence that LaBrie was strangled.
"We have not found a weapon," Fisk said. "She was probably strangled by physical force of the hands or arm."
The woman's 16-year-old daughter, Alisha LaBrie, last saw her mother Sunday evening. "The last thing she said to me was: 'I'll see you tomorrow. . . . I love you,' " the girl said Thursday.
"My mother told me she was going over to Larry's to spend the night," she said. Alisha, who lives with her grandmother, called Johnson's apartment at 4 a.m. Monday morning because Alisha's 5-month-old son would not stop crying.
"I told [Johnson] I wanted to speak to my mother because I needed help with my baby," Alisha said. "He told me my mother was sleeping and whatever I needed could wait until the morning."
She called at 7 a.m. and was again rebuffed by Johnson, who told her that he and her mother were eating and LaBrie could not come to the phone, Alisha said. "I told him to have her call me when they got done," she said.
Half an hour later, Alisha called Johnson again and was told that her mother was in the shower and he was leaving for work. Monday afternoon, her suspicions roused, Alisha went to Johnson's apartment to investigate.
Johnson was apparently home from work and met Alisha at the front gate of his apartment building. Usually Johnson would invite Alisha up to his second-floor apartment, where he frequently gave her guitar lessons, she said. Alisha said she thought it strange that he barred her from going into his home.
"He told me that the last time he saw my mother was when she took him to work," Alisha said. "That's when I knew something was wrong. I said, 'This morning you told me she was in the shower and you were leaving for work--now you're telling me she took you to work.'
"I asked him if he cared that my mother was missing, and he said, 'Not really. She's a big girl, she can take care of herself.' "
Alisha filed a missing-person report with police Monday evening.
Roberta LaBrie was a single mother who took care of other people's children, baby-sitting as many as a dozen at a time. She had planned to get a child-care license, Alisha said.
"My mother didn't deserve this," Alisha said. "She didn't have any money to spoil anybody, but she had lots of love to give. He [Johnson] took away the only thing in my life. . . . I hate him."
Johnson was being held at the Van Nuys Jail without bail. Det. Fisk said murder charges will probably be filed against Johnson today.