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The Man Who Almost Got Away

The murder clues were there from the start, but it wasn't until a second murder occurred--a decade later--that Kenneth Dean Hunt, 'the guy next door,' was charged.

May 15, 2001|TWILA DECKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kenneth Dean Hunt is no criminal mastermind.

He was a handyman, the guy next door, a man with a record of sex crimes and aggressive outbursts. Yet, Hunt, 34, nearly managed to escape justice after raping and killing two women in his neighborhood. His crimes, a decade apart, were decidedly imperfect, but he managed to avoid detection: The first time, a tip pointing in his direction didn't register with police; the second time, investigators didn't realize a murder had occurred.

If there had not been a key break in the second case--the result of a county health department employee making sure paperwork was in order before a cremation--both killings would still be unsolved. And Hunt, found guilty of the crimes last month, might still be free.

The victim in the first murder, committed 13 years ago, was Myra Davis, a 71-year-old Hollywood actress, often cast as the quintessential grandmother in TV commercials. She was raped and strangled with her underwear in her West Los Angeles home. Hunt, then 22, was her handyman and neighbor. He eluded suspicion despite a haunting tip from Davis' granddaughter to police: "Check the guy next door." Instead, the LAPD detective on the case focused on Davis' grandson, who was never charged.

Then, 2 1/2 years ago, just a few miles from Davis' home, Jean Orloff, a spunky 60-year-old with a soft spot for Mick Jagger and the Chicago Cubs, was found naked and dead in her apartment. Hunt had worked as a handyman for her, too. A coroner's investigator and a Los Angeles police sergeant determined Orloff, a smoker, had died of a heart attack even though her loved ones and a fire captain suspected something more sinister.

Orloff's body was shipped to a mortuary for cremation. A second coroner's investigator, summoned to the mortuary to complete Orloff's death certificate, determined that Orloff had not died of natural causes, as his colleague had surmised but, rather, had been strangled and raped.

Ultimately, a tip from a relative to Hunt's parole officer linked him to the killings. On March 15, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury convicted Hunt of the rapes and murders. The jury deadlocked, 11-1, over whether to recommend the death penalty, and a second jury will be asked next month to decide that question.

The families of the victims say they want Hunt put to death. And they are trying to come to terms with how close he came to getting away with murder--not just once, but twice.

Lois Bachrach, Orloff's sister, was there when investigators misread the cause of her death. "I find it appalling that so many mistakes can be made and no one has ever had to explain themselves," Bachrach said. "It is merely a stroke of luck that Kenneth Hunt is not still walking the streets today."

Scott Carrier, a spokesman for the county coroner's office, insists that such miscalls by his office are rare and defends the actions of the initial investigator. Carrier said it was easy to mistake Orloff for a heart-attack victim given her age, her smoking habit and the fact that she was being treated for an irregular heartbeat. He also said that severe bruising around Orloff's neck, discovered at the mortuary, would have been less apparent at the crime scene.

The problem with a wrong call, even if caught later, is lasting: At a crime scene, evidence is collected; at the scene of a natural death, it is destroyed.

A Certain Case of Murder

Unlike the Orloff case, when Myra Davis' body was found in 1988, there was no question she had been murdered.

Davis, a widow, had lived in her home on South Beverly Drive in West Los Angeles for nearly 40 years when Kenneth Hunt moved in next door. She was an actress who began her career as a Hollywood stand-in for Janet Leigh, and in her later years was cast in commercials, hawking everything from Country Time Lemonade to Grandma's Homestyle Cookies. Davis and her husband had moved into their home after falling in love at MGM studios, where he also worked as a stand-in.

She worked in such classics as Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, "Psycho" and in "Bye, Bye, Birdie." Stand-ins sit on the set between takes while the film crew adjusts the lighting and cameras for the next scene.

"Back then, they had to look like the star," said her granddaughter, Sherry Davis, 44, who is also a stand-in and actress. "She had to cut her hair like Janet Leigh and keep it the same color as hers." Davis said her grandmother was active until her death, driving to auditions regularly and getting a lot of work.

The problems, her granddaughter said, began shortly after Adrianne Rosenfeldt, a manicurist, bought the house next door. As many as eight people lived there at one point, and "they were always arguing and fighting," Davis said.

Hunt moved in after marrying Rosenfeldt's daughter, Eileen. At the time, Hunt was a clean-cut, 22-year-old handyman who answered to the name of "Sonny." He had a troubled past, although Myra Davis was unaware of it.

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