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Digging begins in San Marino

Investigators use dogs, radar and high-tech gear as they search for buried bodies in a quiet, affluent suburb.

August 30, 2008|Richard Winton and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

"CSI" came to San Marino on Friday.

Dozens of investigators armed with shovels, cadaver-sniffing dogs, ground-penetrating radar and other high-tech tools descended on a corner of the mansion-studded community not used to such intense police activity.

San Marino has been thrust into a starring role in a bizarre case involving a Boston man with numerous aliases, a body found in the backyard of a house and a long-forgotten missing persons case.

Authorities on Friday went to a Lorain Road house looking for buried bodies and other evidence. A young couple who lived at the home vanished in 1985 and, nine years later, the remains of an unidentified man were found buried in the backyard.

The cold case generated new interest this month after the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department named a Boston man, Clark Rockefeller, as a person of interest in the disappearance and suspected deaths of the couple, Jonathan and Linda Sohus.

As the case made national headlines over the last few weeks, San Marino residents have gotten caught up in the mystery. But their amusement turned to dismay Friday amid a sea of yellow police tape, roadblocks and the thunder of news helicopters.

"Our china was shaking," said one resident of the upscale neighborhood who declined to give her name.

Three neighborhood mothers paused during their morning walk to chat at West Drive and Sherwood Road, within sight of the police tape. They had awakened to the sound of helicopters, suspected it was police out at the house on Lorain Road again and stopped by to take a look.

They were unhappy to see Lorain Road closed and police patrolling the street. Some neighbors had posted "No Parking" signs on their lawns. Garbage trucks circled, unable to enter the area, and drivers stopped to ask what to do.

"The whole San Marino Police Department is out here," said Terry Welder, 47.

"This is a major thoroughfare," said Marla Felber, 44, an architect, adding that nearby elementary and middle schools dismiss students at 2:30 p.m. "This is going to be pandemonium."

"I feel sorry for the family" that lives in the house, she said. "They didn't buy into that."

Shelley Enger, 44, who was walking two dogs, still lives in the nearby house where she grew up. When she heard the helicopters Friday morning, she headed outside with binoculars to investigate. "I think it's sad nobody figured it out before," Enger said.

Sheriff's officials said they know the investigation is causing headaches but said the work is necessary to determine whether the couple was murdered and buried under the house in 1985.

"They're understandably frustrated," Steve Whitmore, a Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman, said of neighbors. "We're going to do our best to be thorough and meticulous and then get out of here."

He said investigators chose to begin their search on a Friday before a holiday weekend so they would not interfere with weekday traffic. Owners of the Spanish-style stucco home where the Sohuses once lived "are being extraordinarily patient," he said.

Investigators last staged a massive excavation in the yard in 1994 after new residents uncovered bones while digging a backyard swimming pool. The bones, later identified as those of a small-framed man, had been separated into three parts and wrapped in plastic.

Investigators also discovered a bloodstain in a guest house on the property. While the remains have not been formally identified, detectives suspect they are those of Jonathan Sohus.

On Friday, officials took photos of the grounds, had the dogs search for possible clues and used ground-penetrating radar. The first round of radar checks came up with some "anomalies," Whitmore said, prompting officials to dig up parts of the property and remove some concrete near the pool. Whitmore declined to say if they found anything. The work will continue for several days.

Rockefeller, who is being investigated by law enforcement agencies on two coasts, the FBI and German authorities, came to the attention of Los Angeles authorities when he was arrested earlier this month in Boston on charges of kidnapping his young daughter.

His attorney, Stephen Hrones, has acknowledged that he is the same man who used the name Christopher Chichester when he lived in the Sohuses' guest house but said his client had nothing to do with their disappearance.

Some longtime residents said they feel a little too close to the case.

"There's a lot of folks who still remember" Chichester, said Martha Shanks, a loan officer whose husband grew up in the area and graduated from San Marino High School. "People have been talking. I think people would like to see it resolved."

San Marino, which was long known as the refuge for Los Angeles' old-money elites, isn't used to the media attention the Rockefeller case has brought the town.

"Young reporters are turning up at Rotary Club meetings," said Emile Bayle, president-elect of the San Marino Rotary and a former City Council member.

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