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A CASE OF DOUBT

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

An Unexpected Visitor

Bob Lisker had lost his wife. Now he might lose his son too. He wanted desperately to believe Bruce's story. But he had no answer to an obvious question: If Bruce hadn't done it, who had?

Then the elder Lisker remembered a conversation with his wife the night before she was killed. Dorka told him she'd had an unexpected visitor that day, a friend of Bruce's from the apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard. His name was Mike Ryan. He was looking to earn money doing chores. She turned him down.

John Michael Ryan, then 17, had been in and out of foster homes, mental institutions and juvenile hall. He had a rap sheet dating to age 11, with convictions for theft, trespassing and assault with a deadly weapon. A court-appointed psychologist once described him as "impulsive and selfish, operating entirely on his own feelings ... unpredictable."

Bruce had met Ryan at a drug-counseling meeting in 1982. Ryan was living on the streets. Bruce offered to let him sleep on his couch in return for half the rent.

Their friendship revolved around getting drunk, smoking dope and listening to the Doors, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. To earn spending money, they occasionally did odd jobs at the Lisker home.

The two soon had a falling-out over Ryan's failure to pay his share of the rent. Bruce kicked him out in January 1983 and Ryan left for Mississippi, where his father lived.

After Dorka's murder, Bruce and his father told Monsue about Ryan's troubled past and his visit to the house the day before the killing.

Monsue tracked down the teenager in Gulfport, Miss. He was in juvenile hall again, this time for trying to break into a woman's apartment.

At Monsue's request, Mississippi authorities took a brief statement from Ryan as to his whereabouts on the day of the killing. Ryan said he had checked into a Hollywood motel that morning.

Monsue went to the motel, the Hollywood Tropics on Sunset Boulevard. Registration records showed that Ryan had not checked in until that afternoon.

His curiosity piqued, the detective boarded a plane for Mississippi. On May 4, 1983, he questioned Ryan at a youth detention facility in Harrison County, Miss.

With a tape recorder running, Ryan described in a monotone how he'd taken a bus from Gulfport to Los Angeles, arriving March 6, four days before the murder. He said he'd returned to California to join the Job Corps in Sacramento. He never made it that far.

His first stop in Los Angeles was the apartment complex on Sepulveda, where he ran into Bruce. The two shared a joint. Ryan had nowhere to stay and wanted to sleep on Bruce's couch. But he was reluctant to ask, he said, because of their earlier dispute over the rent.

Ryan's mother lived in Ventura County, but he couldn't stay with her, either. He and his stepfather didn't get along. So for the next few days, he had wandered aimlessly around his old Valley neighborhood, surviving on potato chips, cigarettes and soda. He slept in carports and in a makeshift campsite in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Ryan confirmed that he had knocked on Dorka Lisker's door March 9. He wanted to use the phone and do some chores, he said. Ryan told Monsue that she invited him in and gave him a drink of water. They chatted for about 20 minutes. She had no work for him to do, Ryan said, so he left.

Asked where he was the next morning, Ryan again claimed to have checked into the motel at 11 a.m.

"Well, that's bull ... ," Monsue is heard saying on the tape. "I went to the motel. You checked in at 3 o'clock in the afternoon."

"Then it was somewhere around 3," Ryan replied. "I don't remember."

Ryan volunteered that he had stabbed someone that morning -- not Dorka Lisker, but an unidentified "black guy."

The man pulled a stiletto, Ryan said, and tried to steal his drugs and money. Ryan said he drew his own knife and stabbed the man in the shoulder.

Monsue wondered aloud why the teenager was so eager to place himself in Hollywood, 12 miles from the crime scene, right around the time Dorka was killed. Why had he lied about his check-in time? And why had he boarded a bus and headed back to Mississippi the morning after the murder?

Monsue challenged Ryan on his finances. The teenager claimed to have left Mississippi with just $52. Yet what he had described spending on food, drugs, cigarettes, bus fare and the $21-a-night motel room added up to more than that.

"Something is not jibing here," Monsue said.

Ryan said he hadn't been thinking much about his brief visit to California or the murder -- " 'cause I didn't do it."

"You better be thinking a whole bunch about it," Monsue replied. "Because your ass is gonna be back in California in jail unless I can get some straight answers out of you."

Monsue never got those answers. In fact, he quickly lost interest in Ryan, at least in part because of a mistaken belief that the youth had no criminal record.

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