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Transient Is Arrested in Slayings of 2

Man, 27, is suspected of beheading a 91-year-old screenwriter and then stabbing his Hollywood neighbor. Photo tipped off a security guard.

June 15, 2004|Regine Labossiere, Andrew Blankstein and Nikki Usher | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles police on Monday arrested a transient suspected of cutting off the head of a 91-year-old screenwriter and fatally stabbing his Hollywood neighbor over the weekend.

A security guard recognized Kevin Lee Graff, 27, outside Paramount Studios after his photograph was shown at a televised news conference. Graff was apprehended as he sat on a wall under a row of ficus trees near Melrose Avenue. He had a Bible and a small can of Mace, officers said.

Graff was booked on suspicion of murder in the stabbing deaths of Robert Lees, one of the first screenwriters to be blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, and Dr. Morley Engelson, 69, an internist.

Eldon Bagstad, a landlord at a Huntington Beach apartment where Graff sometimes stayed with a girlfriend, said Graff would talk about surfing. "He seemed like a perfectly normal guy," Bagstad said, "but he was always in a rush."

Graff was arrested last year in Orange County for failing to pay a fine for a carpool violation and has a half-dozen minor criminal violations, according to police and court records. Investigators said Graff appeared to be a methamphetamine user.

LAPD investigators believe Graff beheaded Lees, the co-writer of such comedy classics as "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" as well as the TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

After attempting to clean himself of blood at Lees' house, investigators allege, Graff carried the head over a back fence to Engelson's home on Stanley Avenue, between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.

The suspect then fatally stabbed the doctor, likely using kitchen knives from the victims' homes, police said. Engelson had been on the telephone making airline reservations for a business trip to San Jose.

LAPD detectives described the conditions of the bodies as among the most gruesome they had seen. Police said they had no motive for the slayings.

Graff's arrest came within minutes of Police Chief William J. Bratton's appeal for help. Guards at Paramount Studios had turned away a man at the main visitors' gate about the time of the 12:30 p.m. news conference.

Paramount guard Isaac Macias said "something didn't feel right" about the man, who had asked for a female employee. Macias called his boss, and security supervisor Craig Phillips used video cameras to follow the man as he walked slowly along Melrose. About the same time, Graff's photo was displayed from the news conference.

"I turned to the camera on my monitor. I said, 'That's him! That's him!' " Phillips said.

Told of the suspect's capture just as the news conference was ending, Bratton said: "Based on what I saw in those homes yesterday -- and if this individual is the one we're looking for and we can tie him into this crime really quickly -- its a great relief for all Angelenos."

Police detectives said Graff was linked to the crimes through fingerprints. They allege Graff first attacked Lees in his home in the 1600 block of Courtney Avenue between 1 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sunday. By late morning, they allege, Graff scaled a back fence to Engelson's home, taking Lees' head with him.

Engelson was on the phone with a Southwest Airlines ticket agent when his attacker entered, police said. The agent reported hearing a commotion before the line went dead.

The agent's supervisor called 911 about 11 a.m. Police found Engelson's body and an unidentified head. The killer had taken Engelson's car, a Mercedes-Benz sedan. The car was later found about two miles away.

When Engelson's wife of five years, Valerie, returned to the neighborhood after picking up relatives, police directed her to the Hollywood station, where, hours later she said, she was told of her husband's death.

Lees' body wasn't found until about 4 p.m., when his girlfriend of two decades, Helen Colton, went to his home to pick him up for an evening event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.

"I saw the newspaper from the morning still on the front porch, and immediately I knew something was wrong," said Colton, 86, who lives on the same block.

She found Lees' body, covered by blankets, on the floor of his bedroom. Only his legs, she said, were showing.

Colton called police, who asked her to see if Lees was breathing. She returned to the bedroom, she said, and lifted the covers.

"It was unreal, but I couldn't believe it," she said of the headless body. "I was befuddled for a moment.... It was like a movie, not real life."

The two victims lived in an upscale Hollywood neighborhood of Spanish stucco, English- and Craftsman-style homes. David De Salvo, a resident for 20 years said that until Sunday, burglaries had been the worst crimes in the neighborhood.

The deaths horrified family, neighbors and friends.

Lees "was still driving his car, going out to restaurants, still doing things," said his next-door neighbor, Helen Klein.

"I used to worry about him tripping on my garden rake when he was out for a walk," she said, "not about him getting murdered."

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