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Mar Vista neighbors still recall 1975 rape and murder

Residents on Meier Street were shocked when Alice Lewis was found dead in her home. In September, police caught up with the alleged killer, who was 16 when the crime was committed.

December 03, 2009|By Robert Faturechi
  • SUSPECT: Dennis Vasquez in a Venice High School yearbook photo. He was 16 at the time of the murder.
SUSPECT: Dennis Vasquez in a Venice High School yearbook photo. He was 16… (LAPD )

More than 30 years had passed and the feelings of shock were still fresh in the quiet Mar Vista neighborhood where Alice Lewis, 80, was raped and murdered in her home.

"It was always something in the back of your mind," said Cicely Overman, 67, who still lives two doors down. "Who did this? Who did such an awful thing? How could you rape and kill an old woman like that, a helpless person like that?"

For decades, police had no suspect in the 1975 slaying. But in August, DNA evidence left at the scene was matched with that of Dennis Vasquez, a 50-year-old convenience store clerk living in Historic South-Central. Police were able to swab his DNA after a routine traffic stop because he had several outstanding arrest warrants.

For longtime residents, Vasquez's arrest brought some degree of closure to a chilling neighborhood murder mystery. But it also brought more questions, given that the suspect would have been just 16 at the time of the crime.

Safe area

The Mar Vista neighborhood where Lewis lived in 1975 was a quiet one. Residents felt safe and few locked their doors.

Children played on the tidy lawns outside a row of upper-middle-class homes occupied mostly by families and newlyweds. Locals strolled in the cool ocean breeze, greeting neighbors by name.

"Just your basic 'Leave It to Beaver' kind of neighborhood," said Det. Tim Marcia of the Los Angeles Police Department's cold-case unit.

Despite how close-knit the neighborhood was, very few residents on Meier Street knew Lewis, who lived alone in a one-story home. Her husband was friendly and congenial with local kids, but after he died, the woman they called "Ms. Lewis" became a homebody.

One neighbor would stop by from time to time to deliver fresh baked cookies. Lewis' son and two grandchildren visited too. A home-care nurse came by weekly to read her stories and help her bathe.

But on her last visit, she found broken glass blanketing the floor, police said. The window of the back door had been smashed in. The nurse called out to Lewis. She found Lewis' body in the hallway outside her bedroom. There were signs that she had been raped and suffocated.

Authorities suspected a local, someone who would have known that she lived alone and knew she would be home: Nighttime attackers usually expect to be confronted, police said. The attack shook neighbors, some of whom still live there. Overman lived just two houses down from Lewis. On her way to a poker game with friends in Gardena, she thought she saw the killer leave. She told police.

As one of the few singles in the neighborhood, Overman was worried that the man she thought she witnessed leaving Lewis' home would come back for her. She spent at least one night after the slaying at a friend's place.

"I was young. I didn't know Ms. Lewis," Overman said. "I didn't think about this woman being murdered. I was just scared. I think everybody was."

For years, the case weighed on detectives in the LAPD's cold-case unit, which is responsible for unsolved murders.

But in August, Marcia got an e-mail from the state's DNA database with news of the match.

"When the e-mail comes in, and it's an old report number, I get a little excited because I know it's one of our murders," Marcia said. "You go 'OK, we got one.' "

The man whom police now suspect killed Lewis was a local teen who attended nearby Venice High School. In an old yearbook, Vasquez is pictured with a wide smile, his curls parted down the middle, flowing almost shoulder-length to both sides.

After high school, Vasquez seems to have had trouble setting his life on track. He had a number of wives and girlfriends and frequent run-ins with the law, police said. They said that he had held a job as a night manager at Domino's Pizza for a period, but that Vasquez was basically a career criminal, with arrests for muggings in the '70s, a narcotics arrest in the '80s and a reduced kidnapping charge in the '90s.

But none of Vasquez's convictions approached the viciousness of the rape-murder police allege he committed as a teenager.

Marcia said that disconnect can be explained in one of two ways. When youths commit crimes as brutal as the Lewis slaying, they may continue to commit similar crimes that simply go undetected. But what's more likely, Marcia said, is that the brutality of the crime will shock a young person's nature. "They won't be able to believe they did something so heinous, and they'll become very reclusive in society," Marcia said.

Vasquez was in a South-Central motel room in mid-September with his girlfriend when Marcia and another detective from the cold-case unit arrived. His hair was short and graying.

Months before, he had been stopped by police because his license plate didn't match the make and model of his car.

The detectives found Vasquez in his small room, bare with little more than a television, a bed and a hot plate. His girlfriend sat on the bed, confused.

"We need to talk," Marcia recalled saying.

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