In 1982, a Family Disappeared From Their Valley Home—What Happened to the Salomons?

A writer and former neighbor is still trying to put the pieces together

We found the front door locked and the house dark. Not even the front porch light flickered that warm evening when my mom and I walked five doors over to the home of the Salomons. Another neighbor, who lived behind them in our honeycomb of cul-de-sacs in Northridge, had called us to say that the Salomons’ pool had overflowed and was flooding her yard. Since she didn’t know the family, she hoped we could help. So we phoned them, and when nobody answered, my mom and I headed over.

It was Wednesday, October 13, 1982, and Lassen, our little street, was quiet as usual. We rang the buzzer, then rapped on the door. Silence. Sol Salomon’s burgundy Rolls-Royce preened like a peacock in the driveway; his beat-up white Dodge van, emblazoned with Apollo Fire Extinguishers, hugged the curb. The family’s cocker spaniel, Mishmish, barely stirred as we walked into the backyard, which was soaked. It was a puzzling scene.

With no sign of the Salomons, we went home, and my mom made quick work of her phone book. Elaine Salomon’s cousin Dorene Laffer said she’d swung by their home to drop of some borrowed chairs and was surprised to find nobody there. The two women were like sisters, talking several times a day, but for more than 24 hours, she’d not heard a word. In fact, nobody had. What’s more, Elaine never showed up at the clinic where she worked as a volunteer counselor. Neither of the children—14-year-old Michelle or 9-year-old Mitchell—had been at school.

Though I went to a different school, Michelle and I were always in each other’s pockets. I’d seen her the day before and had planned on spending that evening at a “pants party”—a Tupperware party for clothing—with Michelle, her mother, and her grandmother, Margaret Malarowitz. It would go late, and I’d end up sleeping over. For some unfathomable reason, I had begged off. But Margaret (or Marge to everyone who knew her) hadn’t heard from Elaine either since spending the previous evening with them. As for Sol, the last anyone could remember, he attended a car auction with a business associate the night before.

The next phone call my mother made was to the police.

The Salomon’s former house in Northridge

Photo Courtesy of MIchele Thomas

Within minutes a pair of uniformed officers from the LAPD’s Devonshire Division pulled up to the Salomons’ ranch house, and Marty Laffer, Dorene’s husband, got there soon after. He’d recently resigned as an investigator with the IRS’s criminal division and was unconvinced when, after a cursory look, the officers said they’d found nothing unusual. He urged them to check inside the house. “When [Elaine] goes to the bathroom all her friends and relatives know,” he told them. “There’s two kids involved, and it doesn’t make sense that they would lock up the house and be gone without telling anybody.”

After a patrol sergeant arrived with permission to enter, Marty showed them how to get inside through a bathroom window in the back. The police went in first, followed by Marty and then my mom and me. The doors were locked, but the burglar alarm hadn’t been activated. Marty phoned Dorene from the master bedroom. Everything looked fine, he said, surveying the room; even the bed was made. That’s when Dorene panicked. “Elaine never made the beds,” she told me later. “Something was wrong.”

By midnight, after my mom and I had left, the house was crawling with a dozen cops. On closer inspection, the detectives found that Michelle’s bed had been broken and that her pillowcases, sheets, and bedspread were gone. They also discovered blood droplets on her bedroom wall and mattress. A small patch of carpet had been cut out as well. In 1982 DNA analysis was largely unavailable, but the evidence suggested foul play to the police, who had nonetheless deemed it a missing persons case.

Then a week or so later, a Caltrans worker happened upon a wallet belonging to one of the Salomons alongside the Antelope Valley Freeway, some 15 miles away. A subsequent search turned up another wallet as well as photos and personal documents belonging to the couple. The case was turned over to Major Crimes at Parker Center and reclassified as an active homicide investigation.

It wasn’t long before news of the family’s disappearance blew up. Reporters descended upon our block, knocking on doors. The local news teased out nuggets, leading with the story at 4, 5, 6, and 11. The story made global headlines. What had become of this nice, suburban family that seemed to vanish without a trace?

Those first few weeks, I expected Michelle to knock on my door. The knock that finally came was from a pair of detectives. I was alone after school and showed them into the living room we used only for special occasions. One of the cops produced bloodied sheets and asked if I remembered seeing them in Michelle’s bedroom. A wave of nausea swept over me. “No,” I blurted out, dissolving into tears. That’s when I knew the Salomons were dead.

THE VOID

So began one of the longest and most complicated murder investigations in California history. Spanning ten years, the case would see detectives scrambling across Southern California and London in search of leads. It would spawn three trials and countless legal hearings as it exposed a slew of family secrets and would leave scores of people haunted.

For a time, my mom—never even a social drinker—took to draining goblets of red wine in the evenings. Occasionally I’d hear her on the phone, cracking an awkward punch line in search of a joke: “On our street whole families up and disappear.” But by and large my terrified parents’ response was to not talk about what transpired. Life gradually returned to its usual rhythms on Lassen Street, though I rarely ventured to the Salomons’ end of the block. Other families cycled in and out of their house. I grew up, went abroad, and moved to New York. I became a journalist with assignments that continued to spin me around the globe. Then tragedy struck again when my dad was killed in a car accident on his way home from work. My mom eventually remarried. One of the last of the original occupants of Lassen, she too moved away.

But as much as I attempted to bury the story, I remained tormented, wondering what happened to the Salomons, to my friend Michelle. For years, nightmares filled the space of answers. It was always the same: I found myself standing outside the Salomons’ kitchen window. The family, four fuzzy shapes, bobbed like the image in a fun-house mirror. I banged on the window. “Where have you been?” I screamed out. “What happened?” The Salomons remained oblivious to me. I’d wake drenched in sweat. I told no one.

I was in Tokyo working for Time when my dad died, and about a year later I found myself sitting in a therapist’s chair across from Central Park. There to talk about my delayed grief over his death and my complicated relationship with him, I surprised myself, stammering, “I’ve been having these dreams—nightmares really.” It was the first time in years I had mentioned Michelle or what happened. Memories and feelings tumbled out. The nightmares never returned, but the visit also shook something loose in my subconscious. I knew that what I needed was closure—both as someone who lived through the family’s murder and as a reporter. The Salomons had become an LAPD statistic, but for me it was always the coldest case. Soon I would come to the realization that I needed to try looking into what happened myself. I didn’t like what I found.

THE GOOD LIFE

Elaine and Sol first met at a bar in Hollywood. It was 1971. She was a 28-year-old divorcée with a four-year-old daughter, Michelle. Sol was 24. An Israeli immigrant, he had landed in Los Angeles a year earlier, driving a taxi and selling encyclopedias before setting up a business refilling fire extinguishers. After they married and had Mitch, they moved out of their Reseda condo and down the street from me.

Michelle and I fell into an easy friendship. When she wasn’t in my bedroom, listening to music, we were in hers, reading magazines on her giant pink princess canopy bed. We had sleepovers, hung out at Northridge Fashion Center, the beach, Knott’s Berry Farm. We stood in line for hours to buy tickets for E.T. When her parents went out, Michelle unlocked their cable box, and we watched R-rated movies.

It didn’t seem to matter to us that, other than being Jewish girls in the same grade and on the same street, we had little in common. I got lost in books; she was boy crazy. My parents were married; hers were divorced. My dad was a stockbroker; her biological father had given up his parental rights to her. Sol never tried to adopt her, and she never took his last name.

Burly and gruff, Sol stood more than six feet tall, wore a dark brown hairpiece, and despite carrying a good 50 extra pounds around, often went shirtless, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. Elaine had big, wide-set brown eyes and pale skin, with dyed pineapple blond hair. She cut a glamorous figure, and the couple seemed constantly surrounded by friends and family.

The Salomons had a taste for the good life. Greek statuary surrounded their large swimming pool. There always seemed to be new toys—a large-screen TV, VCRs, and clothes—at their home; even a baby grand piano showed up, although nobody played it. Then there was the parade of cars: the canary yellow Continental Mark V, a midnight blue Mercedes-Benz, the burgundy Rolls-Royce. During occasional mother-daughter lunches, Elaine took Michelle and me out in the Rolls to dine on the top floor of the Bonaventure Hotel downtown.

On October 20, a week after the Salomon family was reported missing, Daryl Gates, L.A.’s pugnacious police chief, held a press conference in which he characterized the investigation as “difficult and perplexing” and as one that could “prove to be very important.” He described the blood in Michelle’s bedroom. When asked how much, Gates responded that it was “more blood than I would want to lose.” He added that LAPD detectives had already been “aware of” Sol, but he refused to go into detail. There were suggestions of ties to the Israeli mafia.

An ad hoc band of Israeli nationals, it was thought to be involved in insurance and credit card fraud, drug trafficking, extortion, and other illegal activities in several states. By 1979 the U.S. Justice Department assembled a task force of federal, state, and local agencies to investigate potential Israeli organized crime. In October of that year, homicide detectives in Los Angeles connected a group that called itself the “Israeli mafia” to the murder of a married Israeli couple involved in an apparent cocaine deal gone bad. Lured to the Bonaventure Hotel, the two were killed and dismembered, their body parts stuffed into plastic garbage bags and scattered across the San Fernando Valley. (By the mid-’90s “Israeli mafia” remained an informal designation, but the group’s activities apparently expanded to include a global ecstasy-smuggling business, with Los Angeles as its base of operations.)

Other rumors surfaced: that Sol was an Israeli intelligence agent, a drug dealer, or maybe a gun runner, and the family was on the lam for one of his unknowable offenses. It wasn’t all speculation. I recall an afternoon when my dad blasted through our front door, rattled after Sol showed him several Uzis that he was selling. While my dad refused to discuss the matter at home, the district attorney got wind of this episode and subpoenaed him, a detail my uncle—my dad’s brother—recently confirmed.

Marty Laffer knew that Sol was no saint, but he thought allegations about ties to any Israeli mafia were “bullshit.” According to him, the extent of Sol’s misdeeds didn’t go beyond some apartment buildings he owned in Van Nuys and leveraged in an insurance scam. After the family disappeared, Marty kept Sol’s business afloat for a short period and filed his taxes. Standing with me in a North Hollywood storage locker last fall, pulling out reams of files on the investigation he had packed away, he joked, “It was probably the first honest return Sol ever filed.”

Marty and Dorene Laffer with Elaine and Sol

Photo Courtesy of Marty and Dorene Laffer

AWAKENING

At first I began poking around the case only in small doses. It took time before I was able to confront things head-on. There had, of course, been neighborhood chatter and snippets of conversation between my parents that I’d picked up as a kid. As an adult, I collected old news articles about the investigation, only to file them away. When I recalled the inconvenient detail that I was supposed to be with Michelle at her house the night her family disappeared, I sidelined myself. A turning point for me came in 2007. That winter, I returned to L.A. while on book leave from Businessweek for a few months. It was the longest stretch I’d been “home” in a long time. Back in the Valley, I kept bumping into memories, stirring up that old, creepy feeling. Almost without thinking, I went online and found the phone number of Michelle’s grandmother, Marge Malarowitz. “Um, hello,” I sputtered, introducing myself. “This is awkward, I’m sorry. I don’t know if you remember me. I was a friend of Michelle’s…”

“You were the little girl down the street,” she interrupted without missing a beat, all those years collapsing into seconds.

“I wondered if you might speak with me?” I began. And then after what seemed like an eternally long pause, I blurted out, “I want to know what happened. Can we talk?”

Marge agreed to meet with me along with Dorene Laffer, her niece, for lunch. At 91, Marge was frozen in time. She had the same yellow cotton candy updo. She wore white slacks and a floral-print blouse. Despite her advanced age, she remained sharp as our three-hour conversation moved from the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset to her studio apartment behind the Whisky a Go Go. The room was filled with photos of Elaine, Michelle, and Mitch, but none of Sol. Marge theorized how the family was murdered over a bad business deal. “Michelle fought like hell,” she told me, pulling out a photograph of her. “Michelle never smiled. She was very unhappy.” Marge hissed, “I hate Sol. I blame him,” then cataloged his sins: He traveled to Europe without Elaine, slept with prostitutes, had stopped bathing regularly, and got involved in all sorts of unsavory activities. There were stacks of cash hidden behind picture frames and who knows what else, she claimed.

Veering between grief and anger, Marge described a family living down the street that I didn’t recognize. It was certainly not the family she described to the Los Angeles Times when she said that the couple was happily married and that Sol gave his wife “everything she wanted.”

The truth as she now unspooled it was that Elaine was miserable. Marge revealed that her daughter had been having an affair and wanted desperately to leave Sol. Not long before she disappeared, Elaine unburdened herself to her mother, only to have Marge tick off all the reasons leaving was a bad idea, not least of which was that Elaine’s boyfriend didn’t have two nickels to rub together. “I told her to stay. ‘You have a beautiful home, you don’t have to work, you go out with your friends and have whatever you want. Stay with Sol,’” she said to me, consumed with guilt.

Marge was a woman who seemed to constantly weigh the balance between money and compromise, until one compromise too many had been made.

She remembered the tens of thousands of dollars she spent on the psychics and crackpots who turned up at her door—anyone who offered even the remotest shred of hope. (“She kept saying, ‘Oh yes, I’m going to keep giving them everything because I just want to find my children,’ ” Dorene recalled later.) Marge turned incandescent when describing how Hollywood courted her for the movie rights to the saga. “Angela Lansbury was going to play me,” she said. But she darkened again as she recounted how her dreams of Hollywood justice and a pot of money evaporated when the case ground to a halt.

I sat there, my teenage self and my adult journalist self inhabiting the same space like a nesting doll. The conversation unnerved me. At the end of it, Marge fixed her eyes on me and said, “Honey, I want to help you. I don’t want to sound greedy, but what’s in it for me? I live on a fixed income.”

I expected a Jewish grandmother, stoic with grief. Instead I met with something of a damaged hustler. Hoping our meeting might close the door on this horrific episode, I had opened another.

MR. MOTOR

Margie died four years later, in 2011, and my digging remained gradual. It was like therapy with few of the benefits, and so years slid by before I built any momentum piecing together court documents, newsclips, and interviews. It was messy, and one of the things I learned early on was that you can’t tell Sol Salomon’s story without telling Harvey Rader’s.

A thuggish John Belushi look-alike, Rader grew up on the streets of London. He’d been convicted of more than a dozen crimes in England, including armed robbery, and had gone to prison nine times. In 1980, two years after landing in the U.S., he had been involved in the infamous New Year’s Eve arson that razed the garish Sunset Boulevard mansion of the Saudi sheik Mohammed al-Fassi, fronted by nude garden statuary that had been painted to look more lifelike. The fire served as cover for an elaborate insurance fraud scheme and the theft of the sheik’s artworks, which Rader fenced. He received immunity in exchange for testifying against his cronies, among them a Hollywood plastic surgeon.

Rader was the owner of Mr. Motor, a European car repair shop in Reseda. Sol was said to buy used cars at auction that Rader then fixed up and resold, according to various accounts. It was with Rader that Sol attended a car auction in Rosemead the night he disappeared. Dorene Laffer told me that Sol and Rader had a nasty falling out two years earlier and that she was shocked when Elaine informed her they were in business together. Dorene went on to tell me that the day after the police arrived at the Salomons’, she came to the house and found Sol’s brother on the phone with Rader. She asked to speak to him, hoping he might have an idea of the family’s whereabouts; Rader told her the family was probably on vacation. “They wouldn’t have gone on vacation without telling me,” she said. Besides, the family’s luggage and Elaine’s hair dryer were still in the house. According to Dorene, Rader allegedly asked her, “Do you know where the guns are?” When, surprised, she responded, “What guns?” he told her, “Never mind.”

Rader quickly became a person of interest to the LAPD. Not only was he the last person believed to have seen Sol alive but quite possibly Elaine, too. About 11:30 p.m. on the night in question, Elaine was on the phone with her best friend, Barbara Levy, when she said to her, “I’ve got to answer the door. Harvey is at the door.”

Police questioned Rader on October 14, the same day Dorene said she spoke with him. Asked about the scratches on his hands, he explained that he’d gotten them working on cars. Rader denied being in business with Sol but said in his statement to the police that the two did go to the auction, leaving from Mr. Motor together. He said that afterward he dropped Sol of at an Israeli restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, then went on his own to the Salomons’ house to deposit Sol’s van, leaving the keys in their mailbox, and picked up their Mercedes to take for repairs. Rader claimed that he declined Sol’s offer to meet two “hookers” in Hollywood at 10 p.m. and noted that Sol frequented the strip clubs on Sepulveda Boulevard and Israeli restaurants on Ventura. According to the report, Rader also claimed that Sol had been selling Uzis, revolvers, and automatic handguns to other Israelis and that he was manufacturing silencers and transporting the weapons in his work vans.

But Rader’s story was filled with inconsistencies. The Israeli restaurant was closed that evening, and the car auction ended at 5 p.m., putting his time line out of whack. What’s more, Rader gave conflicting versions about picking up the keys to the Salomons’ Mercedes. In one he got them from Elaine; in another he grabbed them out of their mailbox.

As the investigation lurched forward, the police discovered that Rader had ties to three other unsolved missing-persons cases. Seven months before the Salomons vanished, British expats Peter and Joan Davis disappeared. The couple bought and sold luxury cars with Rader. According to reports, Rader told the police that Peter Davis was involved in fencing stolen jewelry and guns. When the police arrived at the Davises’ house in Granada Hills, the couple’s dinner was still cooking on the stove; their luggage, a valuable painting reportedly by Gainsborough, and their pet Akita were gone. Their Thunderbird was abandoned in a Los Angeles International Airport parking lot. This, the police would learn, was two months after a Burbank businessman named Ron Adeeb told relatives he was going to see a man about cars and vanished. The man was later determined to be Rader. Adeeb’s car was found in an LAX parking lot as well.

LAPD detectives believed that all parties had been murdered, and Rader was the prime suspect. But they lacked three significant elements to prove his guilt: a motive, witnesses, and the bodies.

THE BIG BREAK

For a year the Salomon case hit dead end after dead end. Despite the unmistakable signs that the worst had come to pass, Marge refused to give up hope. The Laffers established a trust fund to help bankroll a reward. They placed ads in Mexican newspapers, offering $10,000 for information leading to the Salomons’ return. Marge made public appeals. “Please, please, dear God, don’t harm them,” she cried out during a press conference. “I’ll do anything in my power. Don’t harm them. Don’t hurt them. Release them—we’ll give you anything you want.”

The family wasn’t just desperate; it was frustrated, convinced that the police had made critical blunders. Marty called the homicide detectives “clowns.” He described one instance to me in which the cops trampled through the Salomons’ house while it was still a crime scene and helped themselves to food in the pantry. Marty wrote to police chief Gates and incoming California Attorney General John Van de Kamp about missed leads and potential witnesses who’d gone unquestioned. Two months later, Gates wrote to assure Marty that “detectives acted properly in their efforts to solve the disappearances” but that “due to the confidential nature of this investigation,” the LAPD was unable to address his specific concerns.

At 70, Marty continues to work as a forensic accountant and has testified at numerous trials over the years as an expert witness. Last November I sat in his office near Wilshire and Beverly as he and Dorene enumerated their grievances with the investigation. For one thing, the police asked them to go to Mr. Motor to see if the Salomons’ Mercedes was there and bring it to the CSI unit. Still incredulous 35 years later, Dorene told me she believed the family had been stuffed in the trunk that night and she insisted the police didn’t inspect it for evidence. The Laffers said the police never ran a check on the car, which would have revealed that it had been stolen. There was something else: More than a year after the Salomons disappeared, the Laffers prepared to sell the family’s house and found massive bloodstains under the children’s beds—evidence they said the police managed to miss.

In 1983 Marge Malarowitz hired the last of a revolving door of private investigators, Joe Sampson. Born in London, Sampson believed he had a line on Rader and his world. He contended the police had lost precious time conducting a missing-persons investigation before connecting the Salomons, the Davises, and Adeeb to Rader, and he argued that the LAPD had squandered numerous leads, including Rader’s cousin Ashley Paulle.

A taxi driver back in his native England, Paulle worked as Rader’s right-hand man. He lived next door to the Davises in Granada Hills and was said to have worked for the couple in the past, repairing their cars. When detectives first questioned him in connection with their disappearance, he said that he’d driven Peter Davis home from a car auction the night he went missing. But the police initially viewed Paulle as a non-starter, and he returned to London, driving cabs again. Convinced that Paulle knew more than he let on, Sampson flew to London several times to try to persuade him to talk about Rader. But Paulle remained silent each time, apparently in fear of his cousin.

He finally caved and spoke to Sampson when, at the P.I.’s urging, a woman who identified herself as a relative of Elaine’s told Paulle that a group of California-based Israelis planned to hurt him and his family in retaliation for the Salomons’ murders. Sampson, who died in 2004, recounted to the Los Angeles Times the moment Paulle broke, saying, “The first words out of his mouth, so help me God, were, ‘Joe, you’re right. Harvey’s a psycho.’ ” With Sampson in tow, Paulle told Scotland Yard detectives that Rader murdered the Davises and the Salomons. Scotland Yard relayed his accounts to the LAPD, which wanted a formal statement. But Paulle refused to cooperate further unless he was granted immunity from prosecution for the murders. After telephone negotiations, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office drafted the deal, and Paulle agreed to come to Los Angeles under Scotland Yard escort, provide statements to the LAPD, and help locate the bodies. Landing in Los Angeles on November 13, 1983, Paulle was placed under armed guard and put up at the New Otani Hotel downtown.

“Obviously he was scared to death Harvey would know what he was doing,” Larry Bird told me. The LAPD’s lead detective on the case, Bird had also flown to London multiple times for the investigation. Initially his focus was Rader and working with Scotland Yard, but he wound up speaking with Paulle as well. Bird retired in 1994 after 26 years on the force. He’s 70 today and lives in Alabama, and while he needed refreshing on some of the details of the case when I called him, he still believed that Harvey Rader murdered the Salomons and disposed of their bodies.

In his conversation with me, Bird made sure to point out that it was only after flying to Los Angeles and speaking to the LAPD that Paulle implicated himself, saying that he not only helped bury the bodies but also was present during the murders. In addition, he claimed that Rader confessed to killing Adeeb. “[Paulle] had not admitted he was at the crime scene” when he spoke to authorities in London, Bird told me, “only that he had knowledge of it. When he came back to California and he was confronted, that’s when he admitted that he was there.”

The way Paulle told it, Sol sat in Rader’s Mr. Motor office the night of October 12, 1982. With him were another car dealer named Jerry Baxter and two Italian men, whose names Paulle couldn’t remember. When Sol demanded Rader repay him $20,000, Rader shot him in the head and stuffed him in the trunk of a Rolls-Royce. Rader, Paulle, and the Italians then drove to the Salomons’ home, where, according to Paulle, Rader jumped Elaine and slammed her head onto the marble bar, crushing her skull. He beat Mitch to death with a baseball bat and strangled Michelle. Paulle said that Rader and the men came out of the house carrying three bodies wrapped in sheets and placed them in the trunk of the family’s Mercedes. Rader went back later that night, returning with trash bags and his promissory note to Sol.

Paulle was apparently accustomed to Rader dispatching people. In his telling, Rader planned to steal artwork from the Davises, and Paulle accompanied him to the couple’s home under the pretext of buying one of their cars. As Paulle chatted up Peter Davis, Rader shot him in the head. Paulle said that he ran into Joan as he fled the scene and then saw her body the next day. They supposedly dumped the corpses off Interstate 5 on the way to Bakersfield.

Bird told me it strained credulity to think Paulle happened to be present when Rader killed multiple people on different occasions. (“Yeah, he denied ever killing anybody. He was just there, and then he helped dispose of the bodies.”) But in a frustratingly circumstantial case, Paulle was all the police had connecting Rader to the murders.

On November 14, 1983, Paulle was supposed to lead investigators to the Salomons’ remains in Acton, near Antelope Valley, but all they found was a tattered green quilt. “We went out to the desert area, and he was trying to show us different areas where he thought the bodies were buried, but nothing worked out,” Bird recalled. “He was lying, or he didn’t really want us to find the bodies because he thought if we’d never find them, nobody could be prosecuted.” The following day a search for the Davises’ bodies off the highway on the way to Bakersfield also yielded nothing. Police administered four polygraph tests to Paulle. He failed them all.

Investigators suspected that Rader had dumped the Salomons’ bodies into one of the numerous mine shafts dotting the area. “If I remember,” Bird said, “Harvey told somebody he knew about mine shafts being a great place to bury bodies. But Ashley never took us to the mine shafts. He only took us to areas where he thought there would be shallow graves.”

As we spoke, Bird bristled, recounting this brutal homicide case that got away. “I’m still, to this day, convinced that Harvey planted that evidence out there off of Highway 14 on purpose and took the bodies in the opposite direction,” he said, referring to the discovery early on of Sol and Elaine’s wallets and papers. “I mean, it’s just something I think happened. He’s a smart guy, cunning. But I had no evidence to prove that.”

Four days after Paulle arrived in Los Angeles, police arrested Harvey Rader for the murders of the Salomon family, holding him without bail. “I knew, just the way he handled himself, he was a con man,” Bird told me, saying that Rader looked like he came straight off the screen of an old British crime movie. “He fit the mold right down to the teeth.”

Announcing Rader’s arrest at a press conference, Daryl Gates cautioned, “There is some admittedly very, very slim evidence corroborating the statements by Paulle.” Indeed, their star witness confessed he’d made up the Italians and that Baxter, the auto dealer, was not involved. On November 21, 1983, Harvey Rader was released because of “insufficient legally admissible evidence,” according to the district attorney’s office. The next day Paulle’s immunity was revoked, and he was placed under arrest, charged with the murders of Joan and Peter Davis and the Salomon family. The D.A. believed that Paulle was more involved in the murders than he admitted. In addition to getting him to testify against Rader, they figured they could prosecute him, maintaining that he had violated the immunity agreement by lying to them about his alleged part in the murders.

RADER RETURNS

It was a bad miscalculation. Not long after Paulle was arrested, a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge held a closed hearing in which she ordered Paulle’s statements to be thrown out, concluding that the immunity deal was poorly worded and that Paulle had been “coerced into compromising himself.” The D.A. lost his appeal of the decision. Paulle got on a plane to England, and although Sampson flew to the United Kingdom and pleaded with him to come back and testify, he refused.

To try to make more sense of how Paulle went from being a dead end to a star witness to a liar and then a murder suspect, I called Paulle’s court-appointed lawyer. Now retired, Leslie H. Abramson had become something of a celebrity defending Erik Menendez, who was accused with his brother, Lyle, of murdering their parents in 1989. “I just don’t gossip about my previous cases,” she snapped, referring me to her co-counsel, San Diego attorney Charles Sevilla. He declined to talk, noting that he hadn’t spoken to his client in years and that the case remained open. Ronald Coen, the deputy district attorney who led the prosecution and drafted Paulle’s immunity agreement, wouldn’t speak either. He is a Superior Court judge now, and a spokeswoman explained that sitting judges can’t discuss open cases.

For years all court documents pertaining to Paulle were under seal. Although later unsealed, most of the documents were either missing or not publicly available. But I was able to obtain a copy of the appellate court’s opinion, which helped clarify matters: It included transcript excerpts from Paulle’s polygraph interviews. At numerous junctures he expressed confusion about his rights and the potential ramifications of his statements, sounding as if he was in a gritty cop farce. “Am I right in trouble? For what I’ve told you today?” he asked at one point. Lacking legal representation, he asked, “Do I need a lawyer?” And he expressed abject fear of Rader. Even a layman could see how the Municipal Court judge came to the conclusion that Paulle had been strong-armed. While she found him “deceptive” and believed he “lied from the outset,” she said that under the law she had to let him go.

After Paulle’s departure the case seemed to gather dust, but then in December 1986, Rader was deported to the U.K. for failing to disclose on his immigration application that he had been convicted of 17 criminal offenses. He re-entered the U.S. three months later with a false passport. Shortly after, on May 13, 1987, detectives ripped up part of the parking lot behind where Mr. Motor used to be, looking for bodies. They found nothing, but authorities arrested Rader later that year for passport fraud. He was convicted and sentenced to nearly three years in a federal prison.

Rader would likely be deported again after his release, which meant the clock was ticking for Marge Malarowitz and the Laffers to press their case. The family appeared to have an ally in Lonnie Felker, the deputy district attorney who had taken over the case. “We’re never going to quit,” he told the Los Angeles Times in January 1988, adding, “We know who did it. Everything points to Harvey Rader.”

But eight months later, the D.A. still had little to go on. “The evidence simply will not permit a jury or court to find him guilty,” Gil Garcetti, chief deputy district attorney, told the Times. What they needed, he said, was new evidence or for Ashley Paulle to volunteer to come back to the States and testify against Rader. That wasn’t going to happen.

In August, with Rader nearing the end of his sentence for passport fraud, the LAPD made an unexpected move: It asked the state attorney general’s office to prosecute him for murder, and the office agreed. By way of explanation, Bird told the Times that they’d found “additional evidence,” although he declined to disclose what it was.

THE TRIAL

Rader faced the death penalty when his trial began May 6, 1989. Mark Lessem, a deputy public defender, represented him. I met with Lessem, now semiretired, at the Studio City office where his son also works as a public defender. He was reluctant at first about discussing the case; the press coverage at the time struck him as sensational and prejudicial. Lessem noted that Rader “wasn’t the only suspect in the case,” alluding to Sol’s circle of associates, and that the evidence against him wouldn’t have sat for six years without charges being filed unless the case was weak.

For one thing, he told me, his own investigators sprayed luminol in Rader’s Mr. Motor office and didn’t find a trace of blood. The prosecutor presented evidence that a woman saw Rader’s car near Acton at the time of the Salomons’ disappearance, but Lessem introduced someone who said Rader was at an auction then and nowhere near the desert. While the D.A. said the motive for murdering the Salomons was robbery, Lessem told me that police found $5,000 in Sol’s home-office safe. (Other reports said the amount was $2,500 and that jewelry had also remained untouched.) “So obviously robbery wasn’t a motive,” Lessem said. Further, he found a prostitute who’d allegedly been with Sol that night, suggesting that Rader might not have been the last person to see him on October 12. And he insisted to me that Sol and Rader were not in business together.

It riled Lessem that the police didn’t explore Sol’s business activities and instead remained focused on Rader. According to him, Sol claimed to make $15,000 a year, which seemed impossibly low for someone living in that house in that neighborhood with those cars. “He was a drug dealer,” Lessem insisted to me, “and I don’t think there was any question of that.”

After three weeks of deliberations, the jury foreman sent a note to the judge on August 28, 1989, declaring, “It is apparent we cannot come to a total agreement.” Three more days of deliberations passed, but the jury of six men and six women remained deadlocked, 11 to 1, for conviction. The judge declared a mistrial. Marge burst into tears. Outside Los Angeles County Superior Court in downtown L.A., she told reporters, “I don’t think justice was done in this case.” She added, “I’ll never stop. I’m going to see that justice will be done.”

THE TRIALS TO COME

By then I was long gone. On visits home, I’d notice how the small-town feel of the Valley was trickling away. L.A. was in the thick of the crack epidemic and heading into some of its darkest years, with the Rodney King riots and the Northridge quake a few years down the road. Yet the Salomons and their case remained frozen in time. To the extent that I followed the trial, which wasn’t much, or talked about it with anybody, the focus was always on Harvey Rader.

His second trial opened in the same courthouse on January 4, 1990, and ended one day later in a mistrial, owing to what the judge deemed a conflict of interest. It turned out that Lessem’s office was representing the prosecution’s key witness—an auto detailer who was to testify that he saw bloodstains in a car Rader had driven after the Salomons’ disappearance—in a drunk driving case. Lessem was barred from representing Rader.

Joel Isaacson and Carl Jones took over the defense for Rader’s third trial. Jonesdied in 2006, but I met with Isaacson last winter at Canter’s Deli. Unlike Lessem, who hewed the line, Isaacson, a showman, liked to push it. For a period, he defended Lyle Menendez as well as Andrew Luster, the Max Factor heir convicted of multiple rapes, and Paul Harper, a police officer embroiled in the LAPD Rampart scandal. Isaacson was recommended to Rader by accused mass murderer “Fat Fred” Knight, with whom the British expat shared a cellblock. Isaacson had successfully defended Knight, one of three gang members charged in the killing of five teenagers, dubbed the 54th Street Massacre. “What a verdict that was,” Isaacson trilled between bites of his fruit cup.

Isaacson told me that he and Jones met Rader in the Men’s Central Jail, where he’d been held without bail since completing his sentence for passport fraud. “He acted as if we were lucky to represent him,” Isaacson said, recalling how Rader produced a stack of business cards from other lawyers who’d come by. Where some attorneys insisted to him the case was simple, Isaacson and Jones weren’t so sure. “I’m afraid for you. You’re in big, big trouble,” Jones said to Rader. “It was terrible,” Isaacson recalled as we sat in our pleather booth. “Twelve people looked at the case and 11 said, ‘You’re guilty.’ It can’t get any worse except 12 to none.”

The pair used a multi-pronged strategy. “Every single bit of circumstantial evidence that they had that implicated him, we had to explain it away as an innocent happening,” Isaacson remembered. “Certain things were a given. Everybody knew that Harvey and the deceased man were in business together. So it wasn’t like he was picked out at random.” It was but one of many points where Isaacson’s approach departed from Lessem’s.

But the lawyers introduced a bigger question mark during the two-month trial. Investigators working for the pair tracked down the juror who held out during the first trial, and she told them she wasn’t convinced the Salomons were even dead. This became the central plan of attack in their case: to raise the possibility with jurors that the Salomons were still alive (in 1985 a court declared them legally dead by homicide based in large part on the sealed statements made by Ashley Paulle). A pharmacist, a gas station attendant, and a Carpinteria Police Department dispatcher all testified that they’d seen members of the family after they had been reported missing. (Lessem told me he didn’t find the witnesses credible.) During his closing argument, which stretched more than three hours, Isaacson produced a map from his daughter’s encyclopedia and put flags all over it, asking, “Where are the Salomons?”

Rader never took the stand.

The jury deliberated for just two days. Bird, despite being off work with the flu, traveled to the court to be present when the verdict was read. Rader was so nervous that Isaacson had to hold him up. When the judge declared, “Not guilty,” Rader collapsed, hitting his head on the table. “The reality is, everybody was shocked, including Mr. Rader, who fainted when they said, ‘Not guilty,’ ” Isaacson told me. “That’s how much chance he thought he had.”

“He is a killer!” Marge shouted in the courtroom. “What kind of system of justice is this? Where is the justice in the world? They make criminals of victims and victims of criminals.” Marty Laffer was there, too, and shared the courthouse elevator with members of the jury before the verdict was delivered. “They couldn’t look me in the eye,” he said. “I knew we lost the case. It was a terrible feeling.” Afterward he went to the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, changed into his jogging clothes, and ran all the way to the beach and back. By the time he was done, his feet were bloody. Dorene couldn’t take it after the trial. Everywhere she looked reminded her of places she’d been with Elaine. A year after the trial, she and Marty moved out of the Valley. Marge remained haunted for her remaining days: Without the bodies, she was never able to hold a proper funeral according to Jewish tradition.

Deputy D.A. Lonnie Felker retired in 2008, but there was more than a hint of resignation in his voice when he discussed the trial with me late last year. “A lot of things could have been but just weren’t,” he said. “It is what it is. I can’t comment on how it would’ve gone if we had this or that evidence.” Without Paulle’s testimony, he said, the case “stood or fell on just what we had.”

Wondering why the D.A.’s office proceeded despite admitting it had a weak hand, I read back to him his quotes from the Los Angeles Times in 1988, about how “everything points to Harvey Rader.” He became by turns annoyed and restless. “You know something,” he cracked, “that comment doesn’t mean I made the comment. I tried him, it looked like he was guilty.… I never prosecuted a case where I didn’t think the person was guilty.”

WITHOUT A TRACE

After so many years of simply assuming that Harvey Rader was guilty for the murder of my best friend and her family, I found myself facing a question I never thought I would: What if Rader didn’t do it? I pored over his rap sheet from England. From 1962 until 1977 he was either in jail or just being released. His crimes ranged from robbery to assault to the shooting of a delivery van driver in the arm during a robbery, but his record in the States, as far as I could tell, remained clean after the third trial. Did his past suggest his criminal behavior would escalate to multiple, calculated homicides? “Look, Harvey’s no angel, but he wouldn’t harm a child,” was Lessem’s take.

I put the question to Dorene and Marty Laffer one afternoon in his office. An uncomfortable quiet settled on the room. Marty laughed. “Maybe the world is flat,” he said. “If somebody confessed to these killings other than Harvey Rader, I would never believe him. All of the evidence pointed to Rader.…There’s no question in my mind that there is proof to an absolute certainty that Rader did it. Who else was with him? I don’t know. Was Ashley Paulle involved? I don’t know. But Rader was there. Rader was the one that did it.”

I asked the same thing of detective Bird. He told me that if he ran into Rader today he’d say, “You got away with murder.” Bird believed the talk of Israeli mafia and guns and dope was just a smoke screen. “It’s pretty ironic that we have seven dead people and with all seven dead people, Harvey was the last one to have anything to do with any of them.”

The only people left to ask were Paulle and Rader. I couldn’t find either, so I asked Isaacson to contact Rader on my behalf. Within ten minutes Isaacson’s name popped up again on my phone. My body clenched at the prospect of speaking with, let alone sitting down with, Rader, but I needn’t have worried. Isaacson told me the two numbers he had for him were out of service and he had no other avenues to reach him. It looked as though Rader had vanished, just like the family he was accused of murdering.

Every few years sheriff’s search-and-rescue teams fan out across the dusty desert hills of Acton, practicing mine rescues, dropping down 100-foot—sometimes even 1,000-foot— shafts that produced copper and gold in the late 1800s until they dried up and were sealed of. Once in a while, they focus their searches on trying to find the remains of my friend Michelle and the rest of the Salomons.


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