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Murder Mystery Follows Him Home

Former pop singer is accused by Philippine authorities of killing wife, but judge refuses to extradite him.

November 20, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

TRACY, Calif. — When Roger Lawrence Strunk moved from the San Joaquin Valley decades ago, he left a hometown bursting with pride. As a teenager in 1959, he had scored a hit single, "If I Had a Girl." Next came a string of low-budget Hollywood movies. He then married one of the Philippines' most beloved actresses and built a life with her there.

Now, this town's native son is back in its warm embrace under darker circumstances.

Strunk, 63, is wanted in the Philippines on suspicion of arranging the murder of his wife of 22 years -- film and television icon Nida Blanca. The 2001 stabbing death of the legendary Blanca -- likened to a Philippine blend of Carol Burnett and Shirley MacLaine -- devastated the nation. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has pledged that the government will not rest until Strunk is brought to justice.

But the case has been frayed from the start, its plot twists more outrageous than those of a soap opera. A man's confession implicating Strunk was followed by a tearful recantation on national television. A former soldier who claimed he was solicited to murder the actress was himself killed. Mystery accomplices were charged but never materialized.

Then, last week, the Philippines lost an attempt to have Strunk extradited when a U.S. magistrate ruled that the evidence against him was "so inconsistent and conflicting" that it failed to meet the standard of probable cause. Strunk was freed from Sacramento County Jail, where he had been held since federal marshals arrested him last May as he sat with his sister on the front porch of their childhood home.

Strunk has denied any involvement in the death of his wife.

The Philippine government, meanwhile, has vowed to collect fresh evidence and file another extradition petition. Diplomatic tensions are running high: Several Philippine legislators have called for the extradition treaty with the United States to be overhauled or scrapped altogether, saying the Strunk case is evidence that it is one-sided and unfair.

Even as the international scandal swirls around him, Strunk is trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life. And this town of 70,000 about an hour east of San Francisco is coming through with loyalty and love.

"I have a box with hundreds of cards and letters of support," a grateful Strunk said Wednesday as he sat in bathrobe and slippers at his Tracy home. "It's like I've come full circle."

Strunk's family moved to Tracy from Fresno when he was a toddler. His mother was an elementary school teacher who wrote and played music for her church. His father worked on the railroad and sang opera.

Strunk and his sisters, Sharry and Tammy, were musically talented. Tammy was homecoming queen. Roger -- who would later adopt the stage name Rod Lauren -- was popular and religious, said Sharry Strunk, now 60. He also had the combined good looks of Elvis Presley and James Dean.

While Strunk was studying at Fresno State University, his bandleader in a lounge act sent Strunk's recordings to record labels. It was August 1959. Presley was in the Army and RCA Victor was looking for another heart-throb, Strunk recalled. A producer called and an audition sealed the deal.

By Thanksgiving, Strunk appeared live on the Perry Como TV show. A Bob Hope Christmas special and the Ed Sullivan show followed, Strunk recalled.

"It put Tracy on the map," laughed Strunk, whose deep baritone voice is still mellifluous. "I was their golden boy."

Strunk released other records, then moved to the screen, landing his first film role in "The Crawling Hand," a cult classic that he concedes was "the worst film I ever did."

It was while filming John Derek's "Once Before I Die" in the Philippines that he met Blanca. The two would later marry in the United States -- first in 1979, then again in 1981 after Blanca realized that her divorce from her first husband had not been legally binding. Local Filipinos piled into the tiny Las Vegas chapel to see their idol. By then, Strunk's professional career was on the decline, and the couple moved to the Philippines.

"He really loved her. She was the best thing that happened in his life," said Patricia Kenyon-Dore, a close friend who has known Strunk since they were teenagers.

Blanca was already a national icon when the pair wed. Over the course of her career, she appeared in more than 160 Philippine films. Her TV sitcom, "John and Marsha," about a wife from a wealthy family who marries a poor man for love, ran for 17 years.

Strunk stepped into a life of celebrity, saying he attended four presidential inaugurals, singing at birthday parties for Ferdinand Marcos and dancing with Imelda Marcos. He also pursued his own projects, bringing professional darts to the Philippines.

On Nov. 7, 2001, Blanca was found stabbed to death in the back seat of her car at her Manila offices.

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