Friday, 10 July 2020

The Barbara LaForge murder: Remnants of the interrupted life

This is the seventh installment in a seven-part series on the unsolved October 2002 murder of Barbara LaForge.


LAKE COUNTY – This past April Barbara LaForge's adopted mother, Christine Jones, began remodeling her Jacksonville, Fla., home. {sidebar id=15}


The house had been a haven for the young Barbara LaForge and her brother, Jack, after they found themselves largely forgotten by their own family.


Jones' daughter, Lisa Hatcher, said as her mother began opening closets and pulling out boxes, she made a discovery – after more than 20 years, diaries LaForge had written as a young woman came out into the light once again, filled with her poetry and her observations on life.


Written decades before her death, the diaries carried no hint of what would someday lead to her death. They did, however, reveal a young woman determined to be guarded about her heartaches and troubles, a trait she would carry into the last moments of her life.


That was exemplified in a poem titled “Me,” written when LaForge was between 18 and 20 years old. (See sidebar.)


FINDING A RESTING PLACE


Five years after her death, Barbara LaForge's story still has no official conclusion which, for those close to her, has translated into a lack of an emotional conclusion as well.


But there are other reasons for that.


For one, none of Barbara LaForge's friends or family – with the exception of her husband, Dan Hamblin – know the location of her final resting place.


According to her 1978 will, LaForge had asked to be cremated and buried near her father, Jack LaForge, at Oaklawn Cemetery in Jacksonville, Fla.


After authorities released her body back to Hamblin, he had her cremated. Hatcher said Chapel of the Lakes Mortuary recently confirmed to her that LaForge's remains had been returned to her husband.


Hamblin, however, has not communicated to LaForge's family where – or if – he laid her to rest.


Nor did he follow LaForge's own last wishes to be reunited with her father. A representative of Oaklawn Cemetery in Jacksonville, Fla., located a block from the St. Johns River, said that LaForge's ashes were not at the cemetery with the remains of Jack LaForge, whose suicide his young daughter witnessed.


Hamblin has not responded to requests for an interview from Lake County News about his wife's murder and the case so far.


ADVOCATING FOR THE VICTIM


During her last visit to Florida in 2001, LaForge told her adopted family that Hamblin had left her to return to his first wife, and also mentioned that her 1978 will – calling for her burial arrangements and splitting her estate between adopted parents, Christine and Gerald Jones, and her brother, Jack LaForge – remained in effect.


Although Hamblin later returned to LaForge, she never retracted her will, according to her family.


Jones and her family felt it important to advocate for LaForge while the murder investigation proceeded, so they went to court in March of 2003 to enforce the 1978 will in light of California law, which normally allows a spouse to inherit assets.


Lisa Hatcher said the family's concerns had mounted because of Hamblin's behavior, which they called “erratic.” That troubling behavior, in their view, included moving his girlfriend, Linda Mafrice, into the house with him shortly after the murder.


“We weren't after any of her property,” said Hatcher.


Court documents report that LaForge's belongings were valued at just over $76,000 at the time of her death; of that, just over $1,000 was in personal effects and $75,000 was the half interest in their home at 5232 Piner Court. The family disputed those amounts which were provided by Hamblin.


The family retained Steve Brookes, who also serves as Lakeport's city attorney, to represent them.


Jones' filings in the dispute over the estate yields the only written reference in a public record to a suspect in the LaForge's case.


In statements included in the court record, Jones said that Hamblin was a suspect in the murder and, until such time as the investigation cleared him, it would be inappropriate to allow him to control the estate of his murdered wife.


Hatcher said her mother eventually decided to stop the fight.


Most of the assets, said Brookes, were community property, and although Jones did have some rights under the old will, community property laws resulted in her having nothing to administer.


Brookes explained that the law says a person cannot benefit from the will of a person whose death they intentionally caused. However, with nothing developing in the investigation to preclude Hamblin from inheriting, Jones relinquished the effort.


“We agreed to be removed once there was no progress in the case,” Brookes said.

 

Jones was removed as executor, which allowed Hamblin to proceed in disbursing his wife's estate. In July of 2005 Hamblin filed papers officially closing the estate's administration.


MORE FAREWELLS


On May 21, 2004, Tom Gilliam, died at age 84, never knowing who killed his beloved stepdaughter. His wife, and Barbara's mother, Donna, had died in January 2002.


Tom Gilliam held two Silver Stars, the Bronze Star for Valor and had been a candidate for the Congressional Medal of Honor, said son, Tommy Gilliam. Yet, it was LaForge's death that caused him to fall apart.


“I think Barbara's death hurt him more deeply than anything else did,” said Gilliam, who said he thought the lack of closure had affected his father the most.


Tommy Gilliam said his father never shared with him who he thought killed LaForge. “I never really did get much from Dad.”


For Tommy Gilliam himself, he's not sure the murder will ever be solved, calling the case “still very wide open.”


After Barbara LaForge died, Tommy Gilliam said his stepsister, Leilani Prueitt, moved into Tom Gilliam's home with him, spending thousands of dollars of his father's money. By the time Tom Gilliam died, his son and the executor of his will said he had altered his will to leave Prueitt $30,000.


LOOSE ENDS AND CURIOUS STORIES


There are many more unanswered questions about the LaForge case. One is the hundreds of thousands of dollars in life insurance policies family said LaForge had on herself, to help pay off her home and benefit her husband in the case of her death.


Retired Police Chief Tom Engstrom said there were “at least a couple hundred thousand dollars” in life insurance policies, which the companies were refusing to pay out until the investigation was concluded.


LaForge's family in Jacksonville said there may have been as much as $400,000 in life insurance policies on LaForge, payable at her death.


In September 2005, two months after the official closure of LaForge's probate, Hamblin refinanced their home at 5232 Piner Court, with Linda Mafrice – who had become involved with Hamblin before LaForge's death – added as a co-borrower. The loan amount was $277,500.


That loan proved too much for the couple. This past April, the home that LaForge had loved was foreclosed on and Mafrice and Hamblin were forced to move. The home now sits empty, with a for sale sign out front.


RETIRED CHIEF OFFERS THEORY


Five years later, Engstrom, now retired from Lakeport Police says his perspective on the murder and who was responsible has not changed.


“I still believe it was not a random act of violence,” he said. “I think she was singled out. I think she was singled out by someone who knew her, by someone who knew what her schedule was, who was waiting for her.”


Engstrom also remains convinced that LaForge's murder was not connected to a series of commercial burglaries in the Lakeport in the previous weeks, and that the timing was merely coincidental.


“There weren't any signs of forced entry into the place and it seemed more to me that somebody was waiting inside for her rather than someone confront her outside and have her unlock the door,” he said. “It just seemed more like they were already in the place when she got there. I never was convinced that there was any kind of a robbery or a burglary that she walked in on. I just think someone was laying in wait for her.”


Engstrom said he felt it was well planned, and that only a small number of people had motive. “To me it seemed like there was small core of people that might have been responsible in concert or independently.”


He said he and his department took the case personally, a sentiment his successor, Lakeport Police Chief Kevin, told Lake County News he also shares.


“They tell you when you're in the police academy that you can't take it personally but in a small town it's hard not to take it personally," said Engstrom.


Engstrom said he and his department felt they owed to LaForge, her family and friends, and the community to bring the case to a close.


“I've asked myself many, many times what else we could have done,” he said, adding that he believes they did everything within their power yet still failed to get all the pieces they needed.


He said Lakeport hasn't had a murder since LaForge's. “That's why it's so devastating. It just doesn't happen everyday.”


As much as Engstrom wanted to stay to solve the murder, he said he has a lot of faith in Burke and his department.


Engstrom particularly praised Lt. Brad Rasmussen, 38, who has been with the department for 18 years.


“He's as honest as they come,” said Engstrom. “I nicknamed him one time 'Bulldog' because he's just so tenacious. He just stays after something; he won't give up. I always thought, if somebody's gonna solve this case, it's going to be Brad because he just won't quit until he gets it solved.”


A FRIEND'S NIGHTMARE


One of the people haunted most by LaForge's death is Gail Salituri, an artist whose gallery shared space with LaForge's frame shop. The two women worked together for nearly five years before LaForge was found in the shop, fatally shot.


“There has not been a day that has passed in the last five years when I have not thought about Barbara LaForge and this very unfortunate and gut-wrenching unsolved murder,” said Salituri.


“There are not enough descriptive words in the English language for me to be able to begin to

convey the all-consuming grief, frustration, anger and disbelief that this murder has brought to my psyche and our community. It has been a nightmare you can't awaken from and a question that holds few answers.”


She continued, “A life was stolen in a moment and a murderer walked free. It is quite disturbing that this occurred in such a small town as Lakeport.


“People often ask me if I know who did this, and to this day, I do not know. One can only speculate.


“Although I have not given up hope that this murder is solved, five years is a long time to remain patient. I continue to pray justice is one day served for Barbara.”


Salituri added, “Certainly I can empathize and relate to all victims of violent crimes at this time. How could I not?


SEEKING THE END OF THE STORY


She had taken a walkabout in Australia's outback, traveled alone to Spain, been abandoned by her mother, saw her biological father commit suicide, been placed in an orphanage when a young teenager, yet found love and acceptance in an adopted family.


Yet Barbara LaForge still had her smile and her optimism, she deeply loved her husband, was thoughtful and genuine to friends, family and strangers.


“She realized you can get over anything,” said Hatcher.


Family members remember her wicked sense of humor – Monty Python's Holy Grail was her favorite movie – her continual writing and drawing.


“She was one of a kind,” said Hatcher.


Hatcher and sister, Janeen Hawkins, both say LaForge was wonderful with children and wanted to be a mother, but her husband had children in his previous marriages and didn't want more.


Barbara LaForge's life was far from ordinary, and it reads like a novel. Right up to its violent end.


And, as it turns out, beyond.


Because Barbara LaForge's death has become the stuff of a mystery novel, an unanswered question amidst the fabric of Lakeport's everyday life. It is a frightening, unsolved crime, leaving many to wonder if her murderer still walks casually among them, wrapped so far in anonymity.


“I definitely do not feel like it's unsolvable,” Hatcher said of her sister's murder.


Her friends and loved ones continue to advocate for her, making sure she's not forgotten.


The frame shop remains open, owned by Salituri but run by her family members as part of the gallery.


“Barbara loved this place,” said Salituri, who keeps a picture of she and LaForge on the counter.


“Everybody wants an answer to this one,” said Engstrom. “Barbara will not be forgotten. That's for sure."


Solving the case, added Christine Jones, LaForge's adopted mother, “will put a dot at the send of the sentence.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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