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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

The LAPD case file -- the "murder book," in which detectives document every step in an investigation -- indicates that Monsue ran a records search for Ryan using the wrong birth date.

A handwritten note in the file reads: "John Michael Ryan, 1/24/66, No record."

A search using Ryan's correct birth date -- April 24, 1966 -- would have revealed that he had been convicted of robbing a teenager at knifepoint 10 months before Dorka Lisker was killed.

It happened in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant in Ventura County. When the victim asked why he should surrender his $12, Ryan allegedly replied: "I will kill you if you don't."

Apparently unaware of this incident and Ryan's earlier crimes, Monsue wrote him off as a suspect.

Ryan went on his troubled way. In 1986, he followed a woman off a commuter train in San Francisco, grabbed her arm and threatened her with a knife.

"You don't want to make me angry," Ryan said, according to a sworn declaration by the victim.

When the woman broke free, he slashed at her with the knife, causing feathers to fly from her down jacket. Ryan was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to six years in prison.

In 1993, he took a sledgehammer to his stepmother's car in Florida -- and attacked a police officer who responded, biting him on the thumb.

In 1996, back in California, Ryan took his life with a combination of alcohol and heroin. He left a note in which he thanked his roommate, gave instructions for what to do with his belongings, and told a friend that he loved him.

"F ... everybody else" were his parting words.

Ryan's mother, who still lives in Ventura County, spoke with Times reporters on condition that she not be identified. She said she did not want to be publicly associated with her son and his crimes.

She said she has always suspected that Mike killed Dorka Lisker. Once, she said, she confronted him with her suspicions, and he insisted he was innocent.

She did not believe him.

"I think he just got backed up into a corner and needed the money and did what he did.... He was probably on drugs," the mother said. "I feel like I'm stabbing Mike in the back by saying so, but I really believe there may be an innocent man in prison."

A Jailhouse Informant

Bruce Lisker spent the weeks after the murder in Sylmar Juvenile Hall. He was allowed outside his cell for an hour a day, and spent it writing letters to friends. Every day at dinnertime, a nurse gave him a tranquilizer mixed with orange juice. His father's Sunday visits "were my salvation," he wrote years later. The two talked about Bruce's legal defense.

"I let my dad know again that I did not do this," he said.

At a court hearing April 4, 1983, a judge determined that Lisker should be tried as an adult -- but ordered him returned to juvenile hall.

The order went unheeded.

Three days later, sheriff's deputies moved him to the Los Angeles County men's jail. He was placed in a "segregation" area for inmates who would be at risk in the general population: youthful offenders and informants, among others.

Years later, it was revealed that Los Angeles prosecutors had formed a corrupt alliance with jailhouse informants. The snitches would claim their cellmates had confessed to the charges against them. Then they would testify about the confessions in exchange for reductions in their own charges or early release from jail.

Prosecutors had reason to suspect that many of the confessions were bogus, but used them in as many as 250 cases from 1979 to 1988, a grand jury investigation found.

The scandal led to a dramatic reduction in the use of jailhouse informants and a state law requiring that juries be instructed to view their testimony with suspicion. That would come later, however.

Within days of Lisker's arrival in the County Jail, two inmates reported that he had confessed to them. The authorities dismissed them as liars.

Soon after, a third informant came forward.

Robert Donald Hughes, then 29, was a career criminal serving time for burglary, vehicle theft and other offenses. He was also a practiced snitch. In a previous murder case, he had sworn that the accused confessed to him in jail. The man ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

In the spring of 1983, Hughes was transferred to the County Jail from state prison so he could give similar testimony in another murder case.

He wound up in the cell next to Lisker's.

One day, Bruce heard a scraping sound from the other side of the wall. It was Hughes, digging a hole with a metal object.

Lisker said Hughes, speaking through the tiny opening, befriended him by posing as a concerned Christian and offering to help him prove his innocence.

Lisker said he told Hughes all about his case and let him read copies of police reports, pushing the rolled-up documents through the hole in the wall. Hughes contacted police, saying he had information to share.

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