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Driven by Life's Passions

Competitive Nature, Fine Tastes and Family Motivated Chris Rawlings

March 07, 1999|SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Rawlings was 3 1/2 when he started to ride a bike without training wheels. He was driven to, his mother explained, because his older brother could.

At 7, he began to take an interest in architecture and automobiles. "He'd point to an older building and say, 'Isn't that beautiful?' " his mother, Suzanne, recalled in a recent interview. "Or he'd sit for hours and draw pictures of race cars with his grandpa. It was their dream to design one together."

These two qualities--his competitive nature and taste for fine things--would remain powerful motivators in Rawlings' life. Indeed, in one way or another, they likely led to his death.

Rawlings, 30, was killed last month after he was ejected from the trunk of his Bentley automobile during a fiery crash that occurred as his kidnappers attempted to elude police.

Days later, it was disclosed that Rawlings was suspected by the FBI of running a multimillion-dollar telemarketing scam before he was killed. Los Angeles police homicide detectives are investigating whether Rawlings' business practices may have given someone a motive for murder. But they are "leaning heavily" toward the alternative theory that his gleaming white Bentley or diamond-encrusted Rolex watch attracted some follow-home robbers.

Although never charged with a crime, Rawlings is portrayed in federal court papers as a silver-tongued confidence man who urged underlings at his telemarketing operation to "get straight to the money," when dealing with clients, or "mooches," as they were known.

Ruthless, some have called him. Obsessed with cash, say others. A con man.

Until now, Rawlings' family has been silent on his slaying, deep in grief over the loss of the son, husband and father of three. His father, Stephen, remains in denial, unable to talk about his son's death, even with his wife.

But in an interview with The Times, Rawlings' mother and wife, Barbie, described a loving, committed father whose only obsession was with his family, and whose kind acts and inspiration over the years have resulted in hundreds of condolence letters, one from a man who spent but a few weeks with Rawlings in Marine boot camp.

Suzanne and Barbie Rawlings conceded that Chris seldom talked about his work, but that they did not believe he would knowingly break the law. Even if the worst were true, they said, he did not deserve to die.

Barbie Rawlings, 26, Chris' wife of five years, laughed at the notion that Chris was some kind of big spender or "player."

His life revolved around home, she said, where he wore blue jeans and T-shirts, not silks suits. He would play with his daughters for a couple of hours every evening before their bedtime. Sometimes the game was "hairdresser," in which daddy was the customer and his face was smeared with makeup and barrettes were placed his hair.

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On weekends, he made pancake breakfasts for the family, a tradition passed down from his own father. Entertainment most often consisted of a trip to Blockbuster, where Disney movies were among his favorites. He seldom drank anything harder than Coca-Cola, and was an avid reader of history and philosophy.

Her husband did have a fascination with fancy cars, Barbie Rawlings said. One that she did not share.

Without notice, she said, he would pull up in the driveway with one expensive car or another, most recently the Bentley.

"He would come home and--beep. I'd come out there and I'd be like, 'Oh.' And he would explain to me and show me all the details of things and stand behind the car and say, 'Just look how it curves,' and stuff like that."

Barbie said she found herself at a loss for words at such moments.

"I'd be like, 'Oh, OK . . . well, the kids want to go to Chuck E. Cheese.'

"The car and everything--it was something he appreciated and he liked to be around, but it wasn't him. People on the outside who don't really know him would think that's what he's all about. That's not even 10% of what he was about," she said. "We were really simple people."

With her parents both working for the Cupid's Hot Dogs chain, Barbie Rawlings said she was raised in a middle-class home in Granada Hills, and had never been around money. When she met Chris in 1994 at the now-defunct Pelican's Retreat restaurant in Calabasas, she was driving an old Volkswagen bus that had to be parked on a hill so it would roll down and jump start the engine because the starter was broken. She still shops at Target, she said.

She saw her husband not in terms of his financial success, she said, but in the way he treated people.

For example, when door-to-door salespeople would come to their home, she said Chris would invariably invite them into the house.

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