April 2010

Promises Made

Kari Lenander may have been brutally murdered some 30 years ago, but to one cold-case detective, her file is still very much alive


Tim Marcia, my l.a. Photo by Eric Ray Davidson

Tim Marcia’s cubicle is on the fifth floor of the spanking new Police Administration Building downtown. Marcia is a senior detective in the LAPD’s Cold Case Homicide Unit, and his cramped workspace is a cluttered shrine to a job that is largely administrative: a buzzing BlackBerry here, a ringing phone there, two computers, several foot-high piles of case folders and a rickety organizer marked Things to Do. “I push a lot of paper,” Marcia says.

But look a little closer, and you’ll see something that doesn’t quite fit the profile of a pencil-pushing police bureaucrat: a small headshot of a beautiful girl with long blond hair and perfect white teeth. Her name is Kari Lenander, and she was just 15 when she was raped and strangled, her body dumped in a gutter in South Central on an early July morning in 1980.

When the cold-case unit was formed in 2001, and Marcia was one of just seven detectives who began to wade through more than 9,000 unsolved murders still on the books, Kari’s case was assigned to him. Her picture has been a fixture on his desk ever since. And every day when he arrives at work—usually no later than 6 a.m., “I say hello to her,” Marcia says. “Sometimes I say it out loud. Sometimes it’s just in my head. But I talk to her all the time, just to reassure her I’m still trying to find her killer.”

So when Marcia was promoted to his current position two years ago and his supervising lieutenant told him his new duties would mean cutting back on his caseload, Marcia was adamant: He would keep Kari’s case. The lieutenant understood. “A good homicide detective takes his victims and puts them inside him,” says Marcia. “And they never leave.”

Marcia knew he wanted to be a cop when he was just six years old and his class visited the West L.A. station. He joined the LAPD at 22, starting out as a patrolman—a “uniform” in cop talk—and making detective 10 years later, in 1996, working most of the time in the gang detail until his 2001 assignment to the cold-case unit.

He’s 46 now, a 24-year veteran of the department. Except for the closely cropped hair and mustache that seem to go with his chosen calling, Marcia could be a professional in any number of fields. He’s tall, bespectacled, with a professional demeanor and a self-effacing disposition. He mingles easily—an affable colleague who has earned his stripes, as well as the respect that comes with his position.

Including Marcia, there are now 16 cold-case detectives who work in robbery-homicide, more than double the number five years ago. The cold-case file has grown, too: An estimated 10,500 unsolved murders, starting in 1960 and going through 2004. While all of them are theoretically still open—there’s no statute of limitations when it comes to murder—the detectives mainly focus on the 126 cases with an active lead.

The unit has cracked over 70 cases since its inception. Twelve were Marcia’s. “But no one solves a case alone,” he says. “We all help each other out.”

Unlike a detective’s work on a fresh homicide, where speed is of the essence—“There’s a public—safety issue,” says Marcia, “because the offender is still out on the streets”—the process for cold—case detectives is much slower, more ponderous. “The first step is reviewing the documentation, seeing what you have to work with, analyzing the physical evidence and making a determination from that evidence what can be done with it.”

This process can take years—even for those cases deemed active. So when Marcia is asked if the popular Cold Case television show bears any resemblance to the reality of his job, he chortles at the uncanny speed with which those fictional cases are solved. “Drives me nuts,” he says. “Good show, no question. But it’s entertainment. I only wish it happened that quickly.”

Virtually all cold cases start the same way—with files of material for the detective to absorb in order to understand the nuances of the investigation. According to Marcia, it’s a question not of when but how long it will take each of the investigators to identify with or completely “own” a particular case. For Marcia, that visceral reaction occurred the first time he read through the details of Kari Lenander’s background.

“Our lives basically paralleled each other,” says Marcia, who was the same age and in the same grade as Kari and also grew up on L.A.’s Westside. Kari lived in Brentwood and went to Palisades Charter High, while Marcia grew up in Mar Vista and went to University. “We were hanging out in the same places,” says Marcia. “Westwood. Santa Monica Beach. I hung out at [lifeguard] station 25. The people from Pali hung out at station 26, the next station north. We were 300 yards from each other. There was a likelihood we even saw each other at one of those places.”

On that fateful summer night in 1980, Kari and her best friend, Toni Garfield, were alone at Toni’s Brentwood house, preparing for a sweet-16 party. Her parents were out of town, and the girls—described by Toni as being “pretty wild” for their ages—were drinking tequila. They decided to go dancing in Hollywood and began hitchhiking at the corner of Wilshire and Barrington.

They were picked up by a white male, who told the girls his name was Ken and he was visiting from Canada. Once they got to Hollywood, they stopped at a restaurant to use the bathroom, where Toni realized she’d had way too much to drink. “Kari,” she told police, “was much better at holding her liquor than I was.”

Ken agreed to drive Toni home, and when they arrived at her house, Kari told her friend she was going to stay with Ken and “keep partying.” It was about 10 p.m. when the girls said goodbye outside Toni’s house. Just five hours later, Kari’s body was found under a brightly shining moon, a world away from Brentwood.

Once Marcia got the case, he realized he’d been at a concert with some friends on the night of Kari’s murder. The concert was at the Coliseum, just a short distance from where she’d been found. After spending their adolescence at the edges of each other’s lives, Marcia doesn’t believe it was just a coincidence that he and Kari were in close proximity on that final night of her life. “Just putting all those things together, you know?” he says. “There’s a reason I got this case. That’s the way I feel.”

Marcia doggedly pursued all possible leads. While working with Canadian authorities to track down “Ken,” he also explored the possibility that Kari might have known her killer. But Ken was never found. He’d never even been positively identified by Toni Garfield. And the theory that Kari’s killer was a spurned suitor or stalker didn’t pan out either.

Marcia also tried to find a match for the DNA that was recovered from Kari’s dress and body. Every time his computer pinged, it meant a fresh DNA profile had been recorded by a software system known as CODIS—short for Combined DNA Index System, a national law-enforcement databank for a wide variety of convicted offenders. With more than 1.3 million convicts listed in CODIS, and others being added every day, Marcia’s fervent hope was that one day there would be a ping that meant a match, and Kari’s killer would finally be identified.

Marcia’s first big break in the case came four years ago, when his computer finally pinged—not with a match but with a significant update on the DNA in Kari’s case. “There have been tremendous developments in the science of DNA in the last few years,” he says, “and there was some technology that was developed that can take a DNA profile and determine the race of a suspect.” Marcia had provided a private lab with the DNA from Kari’s case. They ran the test and came back with irrefutable scientific information: “The profile was in the sub-Saharan category, which meant we could confirm that our suspect was African American.”

It was a stunning revelation: Ever since her murder, the focus had been to determine the identity of the mysterious Ken, along with several other persons of interest who were known to Kari. All were Caucasian. The ever-evolving marvel that is modern science had refined the investigation. Marcia was thrilled and energized by the news. “That information limited the direction I needed to go,” he says. “Instead of having one big, whole pie, I got it down to a quarter of the pie.”

But without a definitive DNA match, Marcia was still looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. As often happens in cases like Kari’s, that one day of exciting news was followed by a long, wrenching stretch of no news at all. “The case went stale for a period of years,” says Marcia. “And even though I still said hello to Kari every morning, I hadn’t opened the books on her case for well over a year.”

Then last summer, right around what would have been Kari’s 45th birthday, Marcia had a dream—about Kari. “I can’t remember if she was in it,” he says. “Everything was in shadows. It was kind of vague. All I remember is I was finally getting to talk to a suspect, and a couple of the questions were ones Kari wanted me to ask.” He pauses, his voice catching, the fingers of his right hand trembling. “Why me? She wanted to know, Why me?”

The very next day, Marcia got an email from the California Department of Justice—which had conducted its own investigation on the DNA in Kari’s case—and was given what he describes as “substantial” information pertaining to the killer. Because of its sensitivity, that’s all Marcia will say for now, but it’s clear this latest turn in the case is a major development. “This definitely is information that could lead to the identity of the suspect,” he says.

And the fact that it came in the wake of his dream about Kari? “I don’t really believe in coincidences,” says Marcia. “But I do believe that Kari’s guiding me in some way, and I believe it’s my job to carry the torch for her, for the detectives who originally worked the case and for her family.”

Time is always a factor in unsolved murders. A case runs its course. Detectives come and go. If Marcia chooses, he can retire with a full pension long before his 60th birthday. But when that possibility is mentioned, the eyes behind his glasses narrow ever so slightly, and he sits up a little straighter in his chair. “I have no question I’m going to solve this case,” he says firmly. “I won’t give up. I won’t. I have at least 10 more years to go before I retire, so if you’re out there, I’m going to get you.”

In a little while, Marcia will go home. He just celebrated his 26th wedding anniversary. He’ll kiss his wife, say hi to his 23-year-old son and hug his daughter, who’s just three years older than Kari was when she was killed.

And tomorrow morning, it’ll still be dark outside when he walks through the door to his office. He’ll get to his desk and pause. He’ll either say good morning to Kari out loud, or he’ll just look at that picture and think about her for a moment. And then he’ll sit down and get to work.

TOM MURRAY’s documentary Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon premieres on Showtime on April 6.