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Ex-deputy held in death of wife in '91

Sheriff's detectives had never ruled out one of their own in the woman's disappearance. A fresh look at the case led them back to him.

October 24, 2006|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

It's been 15 years since the estranged wife of former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. John Racz inexplicably vanished while on the way to a Santa Clarita Valley fast-food restaurant.

After her abandoned car was found by detectives at an airport FlyAway lot in Van Nuys, Racz told authorities that his wife, Ann Mineko Racz, 42, had taken off on a long trip.

Sheriff's investigators had other suspicions, however.

The couple, who had three children, were in the midst of a divorce. Two psychics led detectives and search volunteers to a dusty canyon where they searched six sites for remains or clothing of the victim, described as 5 feet 3, 110 pounds, with black-and-gray hair.

The case went cold and seemed destined to remain unsolved.

But detectives never gave up on finding the killer. On Monday, authorities announced an arrest that brings a new twist to the murder mystery.

On Saturday, sheriff's investigators and U.S. Customs Service officials arrested John Racz, 60, as he stepped off a flight from Thailand that had arrived at 8:30 a.m. at Los Angeles International Airport.

Racz, who retired from the Sheriff's Department 20 years ago, was booked at Los Angeles County Jail on suspicion of homicide. He was being held on $1-million bail.

Attorney Darryl Mounger, who had represented Racz in the past, could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Authorities declined to provide details of their investigation other than to say that Det. Delores Scott began taking a fresh look at the case two years ago.

"We attempted to eliminate him [Racz] as a suspect, which we would do in any case involving the death of a spouse," said Capt. Ray Peavy, who ordered the case reopened. "We never were able to eliminate him as a suspect. In fact, the harder we looked at the case and the more information we gained, the better he looked as a suspect."

Peavy acknowledged that detectives still have more work to do in building their case, noting that Ann Racz's body has never been found and that the case against her husband is largely circumstantial. John Racz is scheduled to be arraigned today in a San Fernando courtroom.

Sheriff Lee Baca commended his investigators for pushing forward on the case, even when the suspect was a member of the department's family.

"In this case, it appears that the evidence has led us to one of our own," Baca said. "Murder under any condition is unacceptable. That a former deputy sheriff would be a suspect is unfathomable."

Ann Racz's baffling disappearance garnered significant media coverage -- especially as months went by without any leads.

John Racz lived in Valencia with her and their children until marital problems caused his wife to file for divorce after 19 years.

Then, on April 22, 1991, four days after she took the children and moved into a condominium a mile away, Ann Racz disappeared.

Friends and family members immediately believed she was a victim of foul play, describing her as a meticulous woman who lived for her children and always planned ahead.

Ann Racz was so organized, they said, she would pre-address mailing labels before taking a trip so that she could conveniently send postcards to friends back home.

On the day she vanished, John Racz told his wife that he wanted to see the children and offered her $25,000 "to take a vacation," according to investigators.

Ann Racz then took her then 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to their old house, where they played video games. Racz left to get her daughter a hamburger. She was never heard from again.

Her car was discovered at a Van Nuys shuttle service parking lot where travelers can travel to Los Angeles International Airport.

Sheriff's detectives at the time said they considered her husband a suspect. But his attorney strongly denied that Racz had anything to do with her disappearance, and accused one of the original detectives in the case of having a personal crusade against his client.

In 1992, crews dug in search of skeletal remains or bits of clothing at six sites around Soledad Canyon and Spring Canyon roads. The searchers were led to the area by two self-proclaimed psychics.

Back then, officials said they could never build a case against Racz. Peavy said that has now changed.

"They will eventually hear this case and decide whether we have enough evidence to convict," he said. "But we know two things: She's dead and he killed her."

andrew.blankstein @latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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