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Arrest Made in 1972 Rape, Killing

San Pedro man is expected to be charged today; he was an early suspect in other slayings.

September 09, 2003|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Lois Petrie's partly naked body was found in her San Pedro home the day after Christmas in 1972 after she failed to show up for a holiday meal.

Two years later, the nude body of Catherine Medina was discovered behind bushes at the nearby Harbor Lake Recreational Park. Shortly afterward, a construction worker found the disrobed corpse of Anna Felch on San Pedro's Westmont Street.

Each had been strangled and raped.

For three decades, police had little evidence to use to find the killer. Then last month, a 77-year-old ex-taxi driver and street vendor took a sip from a cup of coffee at a San Pedro restaurant just blocks from the murder scenes.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives slipped in and snatched the cup. A DNA sample from saliva on the cup matched fluid samples taken from Petrie's corpse 31 years before, authorities said, prompting the arrest of Adolph Theodore Laudenberg on Friday. He is being held on $1 million bail and prosecutors said they would charge him today with murdering Petrie.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Serial killer victim -- An article in the California section on Sept. 9 stated that the body of Catherine Medina, a victim of a serial killer, was found in 1974 in Harbor Lake Recreational Park. The park has been renamed Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park.

"Delayed justice is a much better alternative to no justice at all," said Det. Rick Jackson, a supervisor for the LAPD's cold case homicide unit. "But there are no winners in this case."

Laudenberg was an early suspect, after a witness told police in 1975 that Laudenberg had admitted the killings. He denied the account.

Then more recently, another witness provided details of a conversation she said she had with Laudenberg in which he implicated himself in four killings, three in the San Pedro area and a fourth in the San Francisco Bay area. Detectives have expanded their investigation to other states where the suspect has lived.

LAPD cold case Dets. Vivian Flores and Richard Bengtson tracked Laudenberg to a trailer home in the 1000 block of West 251 Street. From there, detectives trailed him to one of his favorite haunts, where he ordered the cup of coffee.

"It is another example of where forensic science played a critical role in finally securing some measure of accurate justice," said Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. "In this case, it was one bit of evidence so conclusive, so accurate."

The LAPD cold-case unit has solved nearly a dozen murders since it was formed in November 2001. The seven detectives in the unit have focused on revisiting killings that occurred from 1960 to 1997, looking for evidence such as DNA, fingerprints and ballistics, as well as cases in which suspects were identified but never prosecuted.

Lois Petrie was last seen alive at midnight on Christmas Day at a local bar she liked. Her husband had died two months earlier of cancer. On Dec. 26, Petrie's body was discovered on her bed by her sister. There was no sign of forced entry.

On Aug. 18, 1974, Catherine Medina argued with her husband at a Lomita bar. As they walked home, they argued again, and Medina, 50, flagged down a brown van. Her body was found the next day, but remained unidentified for three weeks until a San Pedro fisherman came across her purse in a crab trap.

Six hours after Anna Felch left the Torch Bar in San Pedro, her body was found -- Sept. 4, 1974 -- on an isolated stretch of Westmont Drive, by construction workers building townhouses. Felch, 54, who had worked at a hot-dog stand and was twice divorced, had been seen arguing with an unidentified man at the bar.

Detectives said the victims' families were relieved but pained by the memories of their lost loved ones.

"Lois Petrie's son was happy," Flores said, and also choked up. "It was an array of emotions."

Born in Lexington, Ky., in 1926, Laudenberg served in the U.S. Navy between 1944 and 1951 and moved to California in 1961. Over the next decade, he was a steelworker, a security guard and a worker at a racetrack and a tobacco warehouse, authorities said he told them in an interview in 1993.

Laudenberg began driving a cab in the late 1960s, a job he held through 1974. He then moved to San Jose, then back to Lexington, and later to New Orleans before returning to San Pedro in 1991.

While in New Orleans, Laudenberg started a business selling walking sticks that he carved out of discarded oak, cedar, manzanita and pine.

Laudenberg, who moved back to Southern California to be closer to his two sons, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, sold the walking sticks in San Pedro.

Laudenberg appeared befuddled when he was taken into custody, police said. He had no criminal record.

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