Friday, 10 July 2020

The Barbara LaForge murder: The day that changed everything

This is the second installment of a series on the unsolved October 2002 murder of Barbara LaForge.


LAKEPORT – It was about 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2002, when a customer going to Barbara LaForge's Wild Wood Frame Shop on Main Street to pick up an order found the business locked. Inside one of the shop's front windows a small dog could be seen, her leash trailing from her collar. {sidebar id=14}


The man went next door to a pizza restaurant run by Michael Stafford. Together, the two men began calling Gail Salituri – the artist whose gallery shared space with LaForge's frame shop – to find out where LaForge was.


The front door of the business was locked, but Stafford found the back door of the shop standing open, according to a previous police report. He looked inside and saw LaForge slumped down on the floor against a table, facing the back of the gallery.


A terrified Stafford called Salituri, screaming that he had found LaForge. Salituri told him to call 911, which she did also. The 911 operator tried to keep Salituri calm, telling her not to leave her home to go to the gallery but to stay put.


Retired Lakeport Police Chief Tom Engstrom said in an interview with Lake County News that when he arrived at the gallery between 11 a.m. and noon his police officers were on scene along with paramedics who were trying to resuscitate LaForge.


His first responsibility, he said, was to try to save LaForge's life.


Yet he wasn't sure she could be saved.


“I am convinced that Barbara was dead when I got there and the paramedics were working on her,” he said.


But he knew LaForge, as did most of his department. She had framed their department photograph; she wasn't just a stranger.


“There's a friend lying on the floor and nobody wants to make that call to say, 'Hey guys, quit working on her,'” Engstrom said. “We wanted to do everything we could to save her life. And so I was the one that gave them consent, they wanted to transport her and I said, 'By all means, do it,' even though I felt that she was probably dead the whole time that we were there, but they continued to try to work on her all the way out to the hospital and she was eventually pronounced dead there.”


Doctors at Sutter Lakeside gave LaForge atropine and epinephrine, drugs used to try to restart the heart from cardiac arrest, according to LaForge's probate documents. They also used a defibrillator to shock her heart, and performed pericardiocentesis, a technique that inserts a needle into the sac surrounding the heart to remove excess fluid.


None of the measures worked.


LaForge was declared dead at 1 p.m. in the Sutter Lakeside Emergency Room, according to her death certificate. The document states the cause of her death as "pending an investigation."


At 1:18 p.m., a Sutter Lakeside employee contacted the Lake County Sheriff's Office to report a death, according to sheriff's logs. A coroner's report was taken.


As of the fifth anniversary of her death, the results of her autopsy remain sealed, part of the documents protected in the police investigation.


Engstrom, however, stated publicly after the autopsy that LaForge had been shot four times, with at least one of the bullets striking her in the heart.


THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS


Engstrom said as soon as the emergency personnel took LaForge to the hospital that afternoon, police sealed the gallery.


From an investigative standpoint, Engstrom said the presence of so many people in the gallery had essentially “contaminated” the crime scene even before the investigation began.


In an effort to try to separate evidence from any disturbance, Engstrom said an officer was assigned to write down the names of everyone who came in – including Engstrom's. Police also had tried to keep activity confined in one space.


Later that night, crime scene investigators with the state Department of Justice arrived. Engstrom said they worked through the night, scouring the gallery for evidence.


In the weeks before the murder, police had investigated a series of commercial burglaries in downtown Lakeport. But Engstrom said he didn't believe the murder was connected, largely because there were no signs of forced entry and nothing in the gallery was stolen.


Engstrom said a task force of Lakeport Police detectives, then-Chief Deputy District Attorney Jon Hopkins and District Attorney's Office investigators met on a daily basis in the weeks immediately following the murder. The group included many investigators with homicide experience.


All told, about 12 people were working on the case at one point, said Engstrom, interviewing more than 200 individuals and sending investigators to Southern California to follow up on leads.


Leading the investigation from the Lakeport Police side was Dale Stoebe, a trained investigator who did not have any actual homicide experience, said Engstrom. That was because the last two murders in Lakeport were murder-suicides which quickly resolved themselves.


Brad Rasmussen, then a sergeant who has since been promoted to lieutenant, has been with the case since the beginning. Engstrom called Rasmussen an "excellent investigator" in whom he had a lot of confidence.


Later, Det. Norm Taylor, also with the department since the murder, was rotated into the lead investigator position in 2004, according to Kevin Burke, who succeeded Engstrom as police chief.


HITTING DEAD ENDS


The evidence gathered from the gallery was taken by crime scene investigators and sent to a Department of Justice crime lab in Santa Rosa, where ballistics and fingerprint testing was conducted, according to original police statements.


But nearly a year later DNA evidence that should have been sent for testing at a Sacramento crime lab was still sitting in Santa Rosa. The evidence was finally sent to Sacramento, with results arriving back at about the time of the first anniversary of the murder.


Yet, to the frustration of police, the tests yielded no conclusive evidence.


"I was so comfortable with getting the state crime lab people up here, I just couldn't believe we didn't get anything out of that," said Engstrom.


He said he expected some piece of evidence – including fingerprints – to be found. "It just didn't happen."


Another piece of evidence believed to be crucial, a shoe print that didn't match those of rescue or police personnel in the gallery that day, didn't match any prints from the "persons of interest" in the case, said Engstrom.


Still, police didn't stop trying, said Engstrom. "We looked into every lead that came along," including those that seemed far-fetched. They ruled out no possibilities, and continued actively investigating the murder.


One of the items never recovered, said Engstrom, was the .22-caliber murder weapon.


Engstrom said dive teams searched certain areas of Clear Lake where they thought the gun might have been thrown. Search dogs scoured areas on the Hopland Grade; that search, Engstrom said, yielded a toy gun.


Engstrom said they also called on the help of psychics, some of whom donated their services.


One of the psychics was a dog psychic, said Engstrom, since the only witness outside of LaForge and her killer was LaForge's beloved whippet, Carmen.


The dog psychic had police send her a picture of Carmen, said Engstrom. "She claimed that she did not know anything about this case and she came up with some very interesting things that were very close to what we were getting from other people."


He added, "At that point in time I was willing to try anything."


They also used regular psychics, one of whom came and walked through the gallery with police, Engstrom explained.


"They confirmed a lot of our suspicions,” he said. “They were coming up with some of the same things that we had thought about, but you can't convict anybody on that. We were hoping that maybe, you know, it might point us in the right direction."


They also had veteran homicide investigator Carl Stein review the case, said Engstrom.


Retired from the sheriff's office and working part-time for Clearlake Police, Stein had more homicide experience than any investigator in the county, said Engstrom. At the time when he reviewed the case, Stein had more than 40 years of law enforcement experience.


"He thought that our guys had done a very good job," said Engstrom. "He had a couple of ideas they might want to follow up on."


Engstrom also secured a $50,000 reward from the governor's office – which remains in effect indefinitely – for information leading to a conviction in LaForge's murder.


Some leads initially resulted from the reward offer, said Engstrom, but none of the information brought forward proved conclusive.


As time went on the task force investigators met less frequently, going from daily to weekly meetings, then less frequently than that.


"We never got that one piece of evidence or that one piece of testimony that we could have gotten charges filed against somebody with," said Engstrom.


"We had a lot of circumstantial stuff and a lot of speculation, but never that concrete piece of evidence that we needed to get a complaint filed and to proceed with a trial or an arrest," he added.


MOVING ON


Engstrom had vowed publicly that he would not retire until the case was solved and prosecuted.


Yet, in early 2005 his plans changed suddenly, not as a result of the case, which he had fully intended to see to its conclusion, he said, but as a result of an issue with an employee.


"I had just had enough. I was tired," he said. "I had a disciplinary action that I took before I retired that broke my heart. In a small department, you're like family, you know each other's spouses and children. I did what had to be done but I never wanted to do it again."


In May 2005, Engstrom stepped down after 11 years as Lakeport's police chief, and 25 years as a small town police chief around California. That length of service is believed to be one of the longest in the state.


Engstrom said he has had no official part in the investigation since his retirement, but he likes and respects Kevin Burke, the new chief hired in February 2006. He said he has felt that it's important to stay out of Burke's way and let him lead his department.


"They've got good people working there," he said.


He said in his 37 total years of law enforcement experience, this is the only unsolved murder he's had. Not solving the case, he said, is the one true regret he has in his career.


"I think about it every day, every time I go down Main Street, which is at least five times a week," he said. "When I pass that shop I think about it."


In part three: Barbara LaForge's story.


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


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