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New Light on a Distant Verdict

The evidence seemed overwhelming 20 years ago when Bruce Lisker was convicted of killing his mother in a fit of rage. Was justice served?

May 22, 2005|Scott Glover and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

On a drizzly day in March, Phillip Rabichow stood outside a beige ranch house in Sherman Oaks with a tape measure in his hand and an anxious look on his face.

Twenty-two years earlier, almost to the day, a woman named Dorka Lisker had been killed in that house. Her 17-year-old son, Bruce, was charged with the murder. He had a drug problem and a history of fighting with his mother.

Rabichow, then a deputy district attorney, convinced a jury that Bruce was guilty. As the years rolled by and Lisker reached middle age in prison, Rabichow rarely gave the case a second thought.

But in recent months, new information had shaken his faith in the fairness of the verdict: A bloody footprint found at the scene did not match Lisker's shoes. A mysterious phone call made around the time of the murder raised further questions.

Rabichow, 61 and retired, was having trouble sleeping. He replayed the trial in his head obsessively, trying to reassure himself that he had not put an innocent man away for life.

In his distress, he clung to one element of his case, a piece of evidence he still believed was irrefutable proof of Lisker's guilt. But to be sure about it, he would have to visit the crime scene.

"This is the critical issue of the case," Rabichow said before entering the house. "If I was wrong about this, I would not be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt."

'She's Been Stabbed!'

"Help me, please! I need an ambulance right now.... Hurry!"

It was 11:26 a.m. on March 10, 1983.

"My mom -- she's been stabbed!" Bruce Lisker cried into the phone. "She's been stabbed!"

When police and paramedics arrived at the three-bedroom house on Huston Street, they found Dorka, 66, lying on the floor near the front entryway. Her face was bloody, and she had been stabbed in the back. Her skull had been crushed, her right ear nearly severed and her right arm broken.

As the paramedics worked, Bruce paced back and forth, screaming at them to take his mother to the hospital. He was high on methamphetamine, and his hands were covered with blood.

He became so agitated that two police officers put him in the back of a patrol car, handcuffed, so he wouldn't interfere.

"Do you believe in God?" a tearful Lisker asked one of the officers. "Will you pray for my mother?"

Baseball and Trail Bikes

Dorka Zeman, a blond beauty of Czech descent, married Bob Lisker in 1946. They had been dating for about a year when another couple at a New Year's Eve party in Hollywood playfully dared them to tie the knot.

A little tipsy, they accepted the challenge and drove through the night to Tijuana, where they were wed the next morning. He was 19; she was 29.

Dorka soon became pregnant, but had a miscarriage. The couple kept trying to have a child but eventually gave up and poured their energies into their careers -- his as a lawyer, hers as a film cutter for Technicolor.

In 1964, one of Bob's clients asked for help with a delicate matter. Her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. The family wanted to put the baby up for adoption.

Lisker said he and his wife would take the child. The baby was 3 days old when they brought him home in June 1965. They named him Bruce.

Dorka, then 49, was not "particularly enthusiastic," her husband recalled years later. "But once the baby got home, she was delighted." She quit her job to become a full-time mother.

Their Sherman Oaks neighborhood was a child's paradise, with wide-open spaces for flying model airplanes, playing baseball and riding trail bikes. Bruce splashed in the family's backyard pool, dressed up as a tiger for Halloween and went on Boy Scout camp-outs.

In a faded snapshot from 1973, a grinning, blond-haired Bruce, then 8, displays a Little League trophy he won with the San Fernando Valley Pirates.

Before long, Bruce's poor grades and rambunctious behavior began to cause friction between him and his mother.

"I was basically the class clown, and I got in a lot of trouble for that," he would later explain. "I was always a real skinny kind of kid that everybody used to overlook, and I wanted to be heard."

By his own account, he began drinking and smoking marijuana at 10 or 11. By 13, he was experimenting with cocaine and LSD. He stole from his parents to support his habit.

His disputes with his mother escalated into "semi-hysterical scenarios" in which the two of them would scramble around the house screaming at each other, according to a report by the California Youth Authority.

While their arguments raged, Bob Lisker would often sit watching television with the family dog in his lap.

"Usually, at some point in this mother-son contest, either Bruce or his mother would solicit Mr. Lisker's involvement, psychologically forcing him to be the judge in a 'courtroom' game," the Youth Authority report said.

The Liskers sent the boy to a group home for troubled children near Susanville in the Sierra Nevada. He spent eighth and ninth grades there.

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