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Screenwriter and advocate for the rights of victims

OBITUARIES : Robert Warnes Leach, 1914 - 2008

April 23, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Robert Warnes Leach, a screenwriter who became a leading advocate for victims' rights after his stepdaughter was murdered in 1983 in Malibu, has died. He was 93.

Leach died March 30 at South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach from complications related to respiratory and kidney ailments, said his wife, Marcella.

He was the longtime president of Justice for Homicide Victims, an early victims' rights group he co-founded in 1984 with Ellen Griffin Dunne, mother of murdered actress Dominique Dunne. Based in Malibu, the nonprofit organization supports victims' families and fights for tougher law enforcement and stricter sentencing.

Only a few people have made as much of a difference in victims' rights as Leach did, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley told The Times last week.

"Bob gave his heart and soul to the cause," Cooley said, "and did a lot to raise awareness as he led a core group in the overall victims' rights movement."

After Leach's stepdaughter, Marsalee Nicholas -- then a 21-year-old senior at UC Santa Barbara -- was killed with a shotgun by an ex-boyfriend, Ellen Griffin Dunne reached out to her family.

"She comforted us, then told us how her daughter was strangled by an ex-boyfriend, and he only got manslaughter," Marcella Leach recalled. "She said, 'Let's get something going where we can fight and change things.' And that's what we did."

The organization lists Dunne as its founder because "she wrote the checks, but Bob worked constantly to get the group going," said Marcella Leach, who is executive director of Justice for Homicide Victims.

In 2005, the Los Angeles County Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys gave him its first Robert Leach Award, which recognizes leadership in victims' rights.

He was born Dec. 16, 1914, in Dupree, S.D., to businessman Robert H. Leach and his wife, the former Edna Warnes.

After earning a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1938 at the University of Missouri, Leach became an editor for United Press in Los Angeles.

During World War II, he served more than four years in the Navy, mainly on battleships in the Pacific.

In San Francisco after the war, he met Navy seaman and future film producer Ray Stark, who asked Leach if he had any war stories that might make a good movie, Leach later told his family.

Stark sold Leach's screenplay treatment about a submarine in 1946, which helped Leach land at 20th Century Fox as a junior writer.

Over the next 17 years, he worked as a production assistant at MGM and a story editor and writer in television.

Among his TV credits are the 1950s series "The Adventures of Jim Bowie" and the CBS show "Men Into Space." He also wrote episodes of "Perry Mason" and the early 1960s show "The Littlest Hobo," his wife said.

After collapsing on the set of the ABC series "The Islanders" in the early 1960s, Leach turned to teaching journalism and screenwriting at UCLA.

When he married Marcella in the late 1960s, she had two young children. Her oldest, Newport Coast resident Henry T. Nicholas II, credited his stepfather with nurturing his passion for science, The Times reported in 2000. Leach's stepson went on to co-found Broadcom, a manufacturer of communication chips, and became a billionaire.

On Tuesday, Broadcom reached a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regarding charges of illegal backdating of stock options.

Nicholas entered an alcohol rehabilitation program last week, a decision prompted by self-reflection after Leach's death, according to a statement by Nicholas' lawyer.

Kerry Michael Conley, who shot Leach's stepdaughter, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison. He died in December in Soledad State Prison.

Fighting for victims' rights remained nearly a full-time job for Leach until he entered the hospital in 2005.

"Leach uses his own pain -- and his daughter's promise -- to rebut those who would say three strikes cost too much," reporter Stephanie Simon wrote in The Times in 1996, referring to the state law that extends incarceration for habitual offenders.

"Who knows how much her death cost society?" Leach said then of his stepdaughter's murder. "Not to mention our own personal anguish."

In addition to his wife, of Malibu, and stepson, Leach is survived by three grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to Justice for Homicide Victims, Box 2845, Malibu, CA 90265.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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