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Cafeteria Heiress' Death Ruled a Homicide

August 09, 2006|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

Glendale police Tuesday confirmed that the death last week of Clifton's Cafeteria heiress and philanthropist Jean Clinton Roeschlaub was a homicide.

Detectives released few details but said they had decided to treat her death as a homicide after the Los Angeles County coroner completed an autopsy, the results of which have been sealed. Roeschlaub, 83, was found inside her 16th-floor penthouse Aug. 2.

"Based on the findings by the coroner ... we are treating this as a murder investigation," Glendale Police spokesman John Balian said.

Police said Roeschlaub's killing was not a random crime because the assailant could gain access to her home at Monterey Island Condominiums only by being let in by Roeschlaub or building officials.

Family members said police told them that Roeschlaub was found face down in her nightclothes.

Brother Donald Clinton, 79, co-owner of the family's landmark downtown Los Angeles cafeteria, said his wife had talked to Roeschlaub about noon Aug. 1. She was found dead the next day by the staff at the condominium complex, who went to check on her at the request of her son, Bruce C. Davis.

Condominium staff said Roeschlaub's door did not appear to have been tampered with and the hallway to her home, which connects to the homes of a handful of other tenants, also appeared normal.

Roeschlaub's body, which family members were not allowed to see, was released to a mortuary Tuesday, said Donald Clinton, who lives in Hollywood. Neither he nor other family members know how Roeschlaub was killed, he said.

Last week, he said, police asked him if his sister had any enemies, but he could not think of any.

Roeschlaub's parents, Clifford and Nelda Clinton, founded Clifton's Cafeteria in 1931 on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles. Clifford combined part of his first and last names and called the place Clifton's. More locations followed as the chain expanded from the 1950s to the 1980s, with locations from Laguna Hills to Century City.

The family restaurants became symbols of stability and generosity to their patrons, who were served whether they had 10 cents or $10 in their pockets.

"It's just unbelievable, the human feeling that they had toward their clients or anyone," said Ray Johnson, 80, owner of Arnold's Family Restaurant in Long Beach and a longtime friend of Roeschlaub. "They just felt that nothing was out of the realm of their helping people, not only with food, but any way they could.

"It was, and is, a family place to eat," Johnson said.

Roeschlaub and her brothers bought out their parents in 1949. Her late brother, Edmond, who died in 1992, sold his share to Roeschlaub and Donald Clinton in 1965.

When Roeschlaub's first husband, David J. Davis II, died in 1963, Roeschlaub found her hands full as a mother of three and co-owner, vice president and director of Clifton's Restaurants Inc., a multimillion-dollar chain. At one time, she was in charge of 500 employees, who came to respect the elegant, sharply dressed silver-haired beauty as a warm but sometimes demanding perfectionist.

"She was strict because she held a standard for the very best. She wanted the best food and the best service that we could render," Donald Clinton said.

Roeschlaub also purchased food for five cafeterias and tasted every one of the cafeteria's 2,500 recipes, which can still be found on yellowing -- but used -- sheets of paper, crammed in boxes throughout the remaining four-story cafeteria at 7th Street and Broadway.

"I've eaten my way around these restaurants [for] 35 years," Roeschlaub said in a 1980s Los Angeles Times interview. "Quite often, I just take a handful of spoons and just taste. Quality is very important, and the only way to keep control is to get out there and taste your own food on a regular basis."

Following her father's advice -- "you owe something back to the community which is giving you a living" -- Roeschlaub served for more than 20 years as the chief board member of the Assistance League of Southern California, staging balls and fundraisers.

She was the only woman on the Glendale Federal Savings board of directors, Donald Clinton said, and held offices in the Family Service Auxiliary, Children's Service League, Las Floristas, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Volunteer Bureau of Los Angeles and local and national positions with the Stephens College Alumnae Assn.

Said Roeschlaub in 1980: "Eating follows volunteering as my second favorite relaxation."

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