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The Identity Thief: A Tale of Murder
Randy Kling found his old flame in a sputtering marriage. He was her out. What she didn’t know was that Kling, a lifelong criminal who’d amassed hundreds of aliases, was also a deadly psychopath
There was something wrong with the baby from the beginning. Randolph Clifton Kling’s head looked too big, and he would bang it on his playpen until it bled. Oxygen deprived at birth and aggressive since kindergarten, he was nonetheless very bright; officials at his elementary school noted he was “far ahead of everybody else in his age range” but that disciplining Kling proved “nearly impossible.” He had tantrums, defecated in public until at least age nine, and urinated on the schoolmates who angered him. Sent to the office, Kling peed on the principal and was expelled. In 1968, when the boy was 11, his mother, Beverly, took him from their tract home in Rialto to Camarillo State Hospital, the notorious mission-style psychiatric institution at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains.
A waitress at an upscale steak house, Beverly was slim and pretty, with a helmet of dark hair. Giving her son’s history to a doctor at Camarillo, she described his father, a highway patrol officer whom she’d recently divorced, as sadistic. Randy tormented his older sister; an older brother had been given up for adoption at birth. Beverly worried to the doctor that she hadn’t given Randy the love and attention he needed due to her difficult marriage.
Helen and Richard Carris lived next door to the Klings. “We observed bruises,” Richard says of Beverly. “We heard noises from in the house. It wasn’t screaming. But it was yelling, agony.” In those days neighbors didn’t interfere. But when Randy was about ten, Richard Carris’s father, who was visiting, spotted the boy hanging by his neck from a rope on the Kling patio and rushed to cut him down. “It frightened my father quite a bit,” Carris says.
Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, Randy Kling was admitted to the Camarillo children’s wing and injected with the heavy-duty tranquilizer thorazine. “To say that Randy has emotional difficulty would be an understatement,” his chart stated. After nine months, doctors sent Kling home, believing Frank Kropacek, Beverly’s boyfriend, to be a good influence: An accountant, he would let the boy help with office chores and taught him to shoot a .22 in the desert. Kropacek lost touch with Kling after Beverly ended their relationship. “I think he just desperately wanted to be like other kids,” says Kropacek, who’s now 75.
Kling wasn’t, of course, and he never would be. A budding psychopath, he grew up to be a career criminal. Identity theft was his specialty, but he didn’t stop there when he came into the lives of the Budfuloskis, a vast and close-knit family living in Simi Valley. Their encounters with Kling would alter them in ways none of them could have imagined.
June 2003 did not begin well for Bill Budfuloski. On Sunday, the first, he was walking the arid grounds of his sheet metal company in Lancaster when he discovered his black-eared mutt, Moo, dead beneath a tree. A bullet had left a hole in the animal’s chest. Michael Rust, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who came to investigate, suggested someone from a nearby housing tract might have become annoyed with the dog’s barking and shot him. Rust believed the bullet wound was from a .22 or a .25 caliber gun, but finding no shell casings, he called Animal Services to haul Moo away without ordering the dog to be examined. The following week Budfuloski noticed a casing near the company’s front gate. He didn’t call Rust, though, since the bullet was gone with Moo. Devastated over losing his dog, he simply put the casing on an office shelf.
A Vietnam vet with a neat mustache and bright blue eyes, Bill stood six feet four, giving him a passing resemblance to Tom Selleck. He’d married Lori Colton in 1988, when he was 38. In their wedding picture Bill smiles beside Lori, a statuesque, brown-eyed 30-year-old with high cheekbones and dark, feathery hair. Ashley was born two years later; their son, Ryan, five years after that.
Bill wanted to do things right in this second marriage: hang out more with family, attend the kids’ games and take them on camping trips. But by 2003, the relationship had become a letdown. Lori worked as a secretary at Lamps Plus, while Bill tried to keep the corporation he’d founded with his father from going under. Budco Fabrication specialized in precision metalworking for aerospace firms and the government, and Bill had seen contracts with big companies such as Teledyne and Monogram wither after 9/11. Credit card debt was mounting. To save on rent he had moved Budco from Chatsworth to Valencia, then Lancaster, where he spent long hours trying to generate new business. To avoid the 140-mile round-trip commute from their stucco-and-clapboard home in Simi Valley, he’d spend most nights in an apartment on the premises. Lori felt neglected.
It didn’t help that Bill had talked her into moving across the street from his ex-wife, Kim, to be near his three children from that marriage—Danny, Christine, and Michael. But Lori also had to contend with the Buds, as Bill’s clan called themselves. His parents had 12 kids and numerous grandchildren, who gathered for picnics, card games, birthday parties, and an annual trip to the Sequoia National Forest. Lori, an only child who still considered herself a little girl, felt like an outsider. “There’s an army of them and only one of me,” she would say. “They treat me horribly. Everyone thinks they’re so nice, but they’re not.” The distaste was mutual. Bill’s younger sister, Jeannie Liss, remembers Lori weeping to get her way with Bill, whether over Pictionary or where to eat dinner. “As long as she was on her pedestal,” says Liss, “everything was great.” By 2003, Bill’s two older children from his first marriage had grown up and moved out of the house across the street, and Bill was home only every couple of weeks. He complained that when he did arrange a visit, Lori and the kids would be gone; she complained that Bill dropped by without warning. Fifteen years in, the couple had all but separated, though neither claimed to want a divorce.
A Pocket Full of Change
Only the boulder-covered mountains and steep Santa Susana Pass, looming over Simi Valley’s patchwork of housing tracts, hint at the area’s rugged history. The old Butterfield stagecoach used to carry mail between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Devil’s Slide here, so dangerous that horses had to be blindfolded to keep them from getting spooked. One hundred years later, Charles Manson and his benighted followers set up camp at Spahn Ranch in the Devil’s Canyon area of the Simi Hills, not far from where Bill and Lori would settle below the hum of the Ronald Reagan Freeway.
Lori was doing laundry while Ryan, seven at the time, played computer games downstairs. He called out that an instant message had arrived for her. It came from Bmrmn67—nobody she recognized. More IMs dropped clues. Bmrmn67 knew her ring size, 4¼, and that she was a Republican. (“I support George W. 100 percent,” he would write later.) Finally Lori guessed: Randy Kling.
They’d first met in the San Fernando Valley in 1977. He was riding his bicycle on Van Nuys Boulevard one cruise night when he saw Lori, a student at Pierce College, inching along in her Dodge Charger. Her girlfriend in the passenger seat said that a cute guy was looking at them. Tall and buff, he was 21 at the time. Lori and Kling began to date soon after. “He had Karmann Ghias, and that’s all I knew about him,” says Lori, who is dressed in khaki shorts, a black T-shirt, and flip-flops as she sits on a puffy cream leather sofa in her living room.
Kling would take Lori to the beach and push her on park swings. He was good with her parents, too. “The sweetest guy you ever met in your life. An extremely breathtaking human being,” she remembers. “There was nowhere he walked that women’s jaws didn’t drop.” What’s more, he respected Lori when she said no sex before marriage. “I wasn’t some floozy kind of girl. I was a good girl,” she says as a fan whirs in the background on this scorching day. Kling proposed, but Lori said she was too young. After four months, they drifted apart.
It would be 2002 before Randy Kling looked Lori up again. He drove past her house, then, posing as a sheriff’s deputy, called a neighbor to ask questions about her. Internet digging revealed that she was married to Bill Budfuloski, president of Budco Fabrication, which, Kling discovered online, grossed $1.5 million a year. Perhaps for the first time in his life, at 46, Kling was behaving like any other man wondering what might have been. In April 2003, he sent his first IM to Lori.
He seemed like a gift from heaven: He claimed to surf, had good Christian values and $650,000 in ready cash. He’d “made bux” at his own machine shop before turning bounty hunter, Kling told her, and had built an estate on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle: “pain in the ass to have to take the ferry to mainland, but so beautiful there.” Melting Lori’s heart, he mentioned nursing his wife, June, through breast cancer before she went “to be with Jesus.” Somehow Lori didn’t catch on when, in another message, Kling told of June dying after driving her car off a winding road. Authorities delivered her severed hand, one finger bearing the ring he had given her. “I only wish Junie could talk to you from heaven,” he wrote in a different message. “Sometimes, I just live in a daydream world where everything will happen with a story book ending.” His signature: “Corny, romantic, silly me.”
Lori sent Kling an old photo of herself in a strapless gown, hair falling over milky shoulders. She had been a good girl at 19, Lori reminded him, but before long she was discussing how eager she felt to be held by his “masculine hands.” Bill was an “asshole” who treated her like a child, she wrote. Describing Kling to a friend, Lori said, “If I punched in everything I could want…out would pop this person.” He called her “princess” and sent flowers in purple and yellow, the colors of her favorite team, the L.A. Lakers. Lori asked him to go steady. “I swore if I was ever crazy enough to get married again, it would be for money,” she confessed. “Love dies, but money brings creature comforts.” Kling replied, “Then just love me for money, baby. Got a pocket full of change.”
Catch Me if You Can
ctually Kling had a dwindling bank balance of around $50,000 and a seedy cabin, in the San Bernardino Mountains town of Running Springs, that he had inherited from his father. For the time being, however, he was living in a halfway house in El Monte, on supervised release after serving 37 months in prison for mail fraud. It was just the latest in a long string of convictions that began with one for burglary and one for receiving stolen property in 1977, the year he met Lori.
As a teen, Kling had developed a taste for petty theft—tools, bicycles, jumper cables. He amassed a collection of hundreds of filched padlocks, which he liked to throw at passing cars. He also kept a collection of soiled sanitary napkins in his bedroom. There’s no record of his attending school after his release from Camarillo State Hospital, but he did have a juvenile record. “The minor can be darling, intelligent, obedient; however, he is occasionally destructive and completely out of touch with reality,” stated a probation report from those years.
In 1979, when he was 22, Kling took the entrance exam to the U.S. Army and earned an unusually high score. He enlisted under the name “Michael Scott Smith” but went AWOL within months. That same year he was arrested while counterfeiting $100 bills in an Orange County print shop. Sentenced in 1980 under the name “Gary Carter” to three years in San Pedro’s Terminal Island federal prison, he escaped through an exercise yard, jumped a security fence, and swam across the harbor to freedom. He was given more time after being caught mid-burglary in Fort Worth, Texas. But authorities didn’t realize they had the AWOL “Smith” (or Randy Kling, for that matter); it would be 12 years after his desertion before the military caught him and gave him a less-than-honorable discharge for lying. He was using the name “Michael Smith” when he learned sheet metalworking in prison.
Kling was arrested again in 1985. According to a probation report, police officers bearing a search warrant found him hiding in his mother’s Rialto attic. He had seven fake driver’s licenses with him, 17 counterfeit birth certificates, a U.S. passport bearing his photo and an alias, the book Police Technical Manual on Forged, Altered and Counterfeit Checks, and a macaw he had purchased fraudulently. Paroled after two years, Kling was later arrested in connection with the 1991 death of David Henchman, an ex-con with whom he had counterfeited registrations for stolen cars. Henchman’s body, badly beaten and on fire, was found in a Dumpster near the San Bernardino County warehouse where he and Kling had done their counterfeiting together. But sheriffs couldn’t connect him to any evidence they’d recovered at the scene, which included the plastic cap to a road flare that may have been used to ignite the body.
Calling himself “Brad Schaffer,” Kling surfaced in 1993 to land a job at Timmons VW in Long Beach. “He was a good car salesman,” says owner Greg Timmons, who noted “Schaffer’s” facial plastic surgery scars and his dyed brown hair. When a customer offered a $5,000 cash down payment, Kling and the money disappeared out a side door. In the following days a Huntington Beach pilot, Gary Sewall, walked out of the gym to discover his VW Vanagon missing, along with his wallet. “He became me,” Sewall says. “He even renewed my California driver’s license. I’d get bills from Sears and places like that. It was Catch Me If You Can.”
With warrants out for him, Kling leaped from a second-story window that April to evade U.S. marshals and flee to San Luis Obispo, reuniting with a girlfriend he had met before Lori. On Memorial Day weekend of that year, she and Kling were heading up the 101 in bumper-to-bumper traffic when officers in unmarked cars pulled alongside Kling’s Ford Explorer with weapons drawn, ordering him to freeze. He threw the SUV into reverse, smashing into the car behind and ramming another, knocking one driver unconscious and disabling an investigator’s car, before he exited the freeway and went speeding through red lights. Kling lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a church. “I found the Lord through Ford,” he joked afterward. The sentence this time was four years.
Throughout his criminal career Kling was able to keep his sentences to a minimum in part by plea bargaining—pleading guilty to some charges in order to get others dropped. And by serving time under different names, he made his list of priors appear smaller than it was. By 1996, he was out and indulging once more in ID theft and burglary. From 1997 to 2000, he lived in Sacramento and Long Beach with Julie, a preoperative transgender male. They met through a transsexual blog after Kling sent Julie a photo of his penis next to a pistol. Calling himself “Kevin Butler,” he pretended to work for Caltrans. Julie never saw through him.
“He was a master manipulator,” says Jan Birdsall, a retired DMV investigator who spent a year chasing Kling from Los Angeles to San Francisco. His m.o., she learned, was to create an ID, open a bank account, and drop massive numbers of checks. Then he would abandon that license for a new one. He bought names and Social Security numbers off Web sites that sold them illegally, and he pulled attorneys’ personal details from the Martindale-Hubbell law directory. To make his prints unreadable, he burned his fingertips. Between 1999 and 2000, Birdsall put a stop on 70 licenses. “It was me against him, playing cat and mouse,” she says. In her 35-year career she never came across a smarter criminal. Eventually she discovered Kling selling stolen electronics on eBay from a house near Folsom. With a helicopter, a K-9 unit, plus Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials in attendance, he was arrested. “I came into the backyard,” Birdsall remembers. “I said something like, ‘Finally nice to meet you, Mr. Kling.’ He laughed.”
I daydreamed about meeting you someplace and being ‘love at first sight’ like it was…years ago,” Kling said in an e-mail to Lori shortly into their online relationship. In between their responses to each other Kling was bidding on eBay for gun parts and ordering expensive .22 caliber ammunition. The brands of bullets he favored—Lapua and the relatively obscure Aguila—were designed to be used with silencers.
“I saw Bill’s shop on the Internet, 15,000 square feet,” wrote Kling. “Sounds successful @ his business.”
“Well, big, but no profit or so he says,” Lori replied.
In June, a little more than two months after Kling’s first IM, the couple met in Simi Valley and drove to the beach in Ventura in the old Mercedes Kling had bought on eBay. He’d bid on Hawaiian shirts through the site, purchased cell phone service with a Seattle area code, and had been growing out his hair, peroxiding it to fit Lori’s surfer dude ideal. “He looked like Fabio. Right out of Danielle Steel,” Lori tells me, her voice girlish. “When you haven’t had any attention for most of your marriage, like I hadn’t, I was so into all of a sudden being romanced. I was like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Lori wasn’t completely naive. She had asked a friend to investigate Kling. Learning he had passed fraudulent checks, she confronted him. “There was a lot of bad in me during the rough years until I gave my heart to Jesus Christ,” he wrote on an AOL home page that he’d dedicated to his “sweet Lori Ann” and illustrated with a photograph of himself bare chested and muscled. Lori decided that Christians forgive.
Not long after the beach outing, Kling proposed by e-mail and Lori accepted. She began signing “Lori Kling” and called herself “bride in waiting.” In one e-mail, she wrote, “Randy + Lori = Love. Lori – B = Happiness.” But there was a snag: As a Christian, she needed justification to divorce. Her church informed her that domestic abuse qualified. So the timing was fortuitous when Bill showed up on June 22 to take the kids to an air show. The children didn’t want to go, and an argument ensued. Lori called 911, claiming Bill had shoved her on the stairs, making her fall.
Kling paid a Simi Valley law firm a $2,500 retainer, and on July 1, 2003, Lori filed for divorce, estimating Bill’s annual income at $1.5 million. She requested full custody of Ashley and Ryan. Bill was against divorce; he was also against Lori getting sole custody. The court advised the couple to go into mediation, and Bill was ordered into anger management; a custody hearing was set for August 11.
In July, still stunned by Moo’s death in June, Bill told his brother Steve that he thought someone was following him. “I’m worried for my life,” he said before brushing it off, saying, “It’s nothing. It’s just me.” Nevertheless, Steve says, “he started carrying around a baseball bat.”
Bill suspected Lori might have a boyfriend, but he didn’t know that as the summer drew on, Kling was insinuating himself into his role. Kling looked online to buy Ryan surfer-style clothes like his and ordered a vibrator for Lori. Their e-mails grew more intimate. When she mentioned having a stiff neck, he declared he had “a cure for that cute little neck, but it will have to wait until August.”
It was Sunday, August 10, when Kling pulled up to Lori’s house. He had told her he was driving round-trip to Seattle that weekend to pick up belongings. She had a pasta dinner waiting, and for the first time he spent the night. There was no sex. “If anything,” Lori says, “he was overly solicitous and willing to wait for marriage.”
The next morning deputy Michael Rust, who had investigated Moo’s killing, responded to a call from an employee at Budco. At 6:50 the desert heat was beginning its climb toward 102. Inside the factory compound Bill Budfuloski lay partly under a Ford camper truck, his head resting in a pool of dried blood, his legs blackened from exposure to the sun. He had been shot 12 times—in the face, head, neck, and shoulders. Patches, Moo’s companion, guarded the body.
A veteran Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department homicide detective, Richard M. Graves, and his partner, Ed Brown, arrived to assess the scene. Bill was in shorts, not his usual work attire of jeans, T-shirt, and boots, suggesting he had been killed over the weekend. A cell phone hung from his left pocket, and his watch was on his wrist. While Brown collected bullet casings, Graves—who thought they looked like .22 caliber—walked around the tidy workshop, where computers and metalworking tools were kept. A laundry area held folded clothes, and a dryer door was open. In Bill’s sleeping space a TV, videos, and money sat untouched. Family members who converged on Budco told detectives about Bill’s nasty divorce and the custody hearing set for that very afternoon.
During his four or five hours at the site, Graves found scant evidence. He didn’t order blood spatters on the truck to be tested or ask for prints from the doors into the office. Taking the .22 caliber casing that Bill had put on a shelf after Moo was killed, he placed it in an accordion file, where it stayed, unexamined.
Graves called Lori to inform her of Bill’s death. Whoever did this was going straight to hell, she remembers telling Kling. “I had tears running down my cheek, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘They will, don’t worry.’ ” Two days passed before Graves and Brown knocked on Lori’s front door. Reluctant to talk at first, Lori finally emerged from a side door to tell Graves that she’d been busy with the children all weekend. She added that a friend, who was moving down from Washington, had slept on her couch overnight. What she didn’t mention was that her friend, Randy Kling, was in the house.
A Cabin in the Woods
Almost every murder creates a surge of misery and distrust, most intense with immediate survivors, then pressing outward in waves to sweep up friends and acquaintances. “We never thought Lori would pull the trigger, but we thought she might be behind it somehow,” says Jeannie Liss, Bill’s sister, who considered the timing suspicious. When the family learned of Lori’s new boyfriend, she appeared all the more culpable. They told Detective Graves their concerns about Kling. Bill’s brother Steve remembers the detective responding, “He seemed like a really nice guy. I don’t think he had anything to do with it.”
It never occurred to Lori, she says, that people would suspect her. “Anyone that knows me knows I’m so opposite that kind of person,” Lori tells me. It didn’t occur to her to doubt Kling, either. “The murder thing—never did I believe he was capable,” she says. I ask Lori how, at 45, she could have been so gullible. For most women romance would have skidded to a halt after hearing Kling’s tale about receiving his dead wife’s hand. Her family sheltered her, she says. “I was very childlike in my heart because I hadn’t been out in the world. I didn’t know deceit. I didn’t know lies. I was taught to be innocent and everything pure in life.” And Kling felt like a connection to her parents, who had both died years before. “No other man would have made it into this house,” she says. “None.”
Lori soon found herself wrangling with Bill’s family over Budco. In 1996, Bill had arranged to buy out his father, Harold, in installments. When business slumped, Harold refused payments and thus remained co-owner. Lori, though, had invested $30,000 from an inheritance in Budco equipment, and now she wanted the money back. In late August she contacted a lawyer. Bill’s son Michael—a 30-year-old graphic artist who was as strapping as his father—stepped in to safeguard his grandfather’s assets, asking the Antelope Valley court to appoint him estate administrator. Lori contested the appointment. The court denied her and, in October, sanctioned Michael. “I just wanted my kids’ interests protected,” Lori says.
In her eyes Kling was the perfect father to her children. He played ball with Ryan, painted Ashley’s room lavender, and visited Six Flags Magic Mountain with them. After dinner with a coworker and her husband, the woman pulled Lori aside. “She says, ‘God really wants you to have this man, Lori. You have been through so much,’ ” Lori recalls. “ ‘This is the man you deserve.’ ” But in an e-mail to his ex-girlfriend Julie, Kling’s tolerance for domestic life appeared to be fraying. He called the kids “brats,” musing, “I think it’s time to bail out before I go completely crazy. I miss you and Sacramento.” By January 2004, Kling’s bank balance had dropped to a negative $4,500. His account was closed. And so was Graves’s inquiry into Bill’s murder. According to Jeannie Liss, the detective explained, “The only way we’ll be able to solve this case is if the gun is used elsewhere.”
That same month Kling’s probation officer, Benita Grimm, paid one of her regular visits to his cluttered cabin, which sat up a low rise on a wooded street. Next to his computer she saw names, Social Security numbers, and check order forms. During her first visit the previous May, the place had smelled of fecal matter and urine and Grimm noted a hole in the bathroom where the toilet should have been. This time around she questioned Kling about how he could afford his expensive-looking tropical shirts. He said his wife, Julie, paid his bills. Later, when Grimm called the phone number Kling offered for Julie, she reached a dermatologist’s office. On January 27, Grimm asked her supervisor for permission to search Kling’s computer. The supervisor refused, saying, “Let’s keep digging.”
On February 7, Bill’s birthday, Michael scattered his father’s ashes in the rushing water at Three Rivers, near the family’s favorite camping spot in the Sequoia foothills. Mourning, and unable to shake images of Bill’s murdered body, the family was still coping with legal issues. A letter from the Budfuloskis’ lawyer arrived at Lori’s house on February 21, advising her that Bill had secured $50,000 of Budco’s debts with assets that included their Simi Valley home; the Budfuloskis would absorb that debt, allowing Lori to keep the house provided she gave up all interest in Budco. Lori, however, interpreted the letter to mean the family wanted to take away her home. Unknown to her, Kling, posing as her brother, contacted the lawyer, asking to discuss the matter. The lawyer refused.
Three days later a friend ran into Michael and his wife, Tara, when they were having dinner at Chili’s. The situation had gotten ugly, Michael told him: He thought Lori’s new boyfriend had murdered Bill to get the business. With the Budfuloskis fighting to retain Budco for his grandfather, Michael worried that other members of the family could be in danger.
Father and Son
By the time Simi Valley Police Department detective Jay Carrott arrived at 6:27 the following morning, the cul-de-sac was already cordoned off with crime scene tape. Carrott, who wore wire-rimmed granny glasses and a trim mustache, had risen from the patrol division to homicide in a town known for its low murder rate. Bullet holes dotted Michael and Tara Budfuloski’s garage door, and large shoe prints were visible in the mud near the home of their neighbor, Victoria Sosa. A former police officer, Sosa had heard a commotion at 4:35 that morning and from her bedroom window saw silhouettes of two tall men struggling in the street. One broke away and ran toward the Budfuloski house; the second sprinted from the cul-de-sac. She called the police. At 4:37 two patrol officers arrived and followed footprints in dewy grass until they disappeared. After 20 minutes, finding no one, they left.
Tara slept through all of this. When the front door had slammed, announcing Michael’s usual return from the graveyard shift at his job in downtown L.A., she had stirred but dozed back off. Awakening again a short time later, she went to see why her husband hadn’t come to bed. He sat slumped against the door, blood on his mouth, with bullet wounds in his back, chest, thigh, and side; he’d been shot seven times. At 4:58 Tara called the police, hysterical, and ran screaming through the garage to meet the returning officers. At 5:15 a.m. Michael Budfuloski was pronounced dead.
In the near-freezing early morning, as detectives investigated the scene, Tara sat huddled in the back of her parents’ car under a quilt offered by a neighbor. Carrott had an officer test her hands for gunshot residue. Other detectives, looking for bullets with a metal detector, found two in the garage, along with eight .22 caliber casings plus one live round scattered in the cul-de-sac and driveway. Neighbors hadn’t heard a single shot, raising the notion that the killer had used a silencer.
Learning of Bill’s murder and the Budfuloskis’ suspicions, Carrott assembled a warrant for Lori’s house seeking guns, ammunition, shoes, maps, diaries, clothing, and cleaning supplies. Lori let them in. The lawyer’s settlement letter lay on the kitchen table next to Kling’s eyeglasses, but the team didn’t uncover any links to the crime scene. The night before Michael was killed, Kling had left on a bounty hunting job, Lori told police. She still didn’t doubt her fiancé. She blamed Bill. “CSI-oriented” colleagues at work—“very worldly people,” Lori says—convinced her that her husband must have been involved in crime. “It was my theory that this was a money-laundering or drug thingy. If every story I had been told was true and they go after the males, it just made sense.”
The following day Carrott directed detectives to canvass Lori’s neighborhood. They watched Kling drive up, park in front of Lori’s house, and leave his car to retrieve evidence, Carrott guessed, while Lori was at work. He wore his habitual Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants. Officers approached, saying they needed to pat him down. Kling bolted along the street and around a corner, with the officers in pursuit, but shortly after, he stopped and casually walked back to the police, who cuffed and searched him. Kling requested a lawyer.
Meanwhile a police dog led his handlers around the same corner and stuck his nose in a planter. The shepherd had found Kling’s wallet, which contained a forged driver’s license in the name of an Alabama lawyer. The same name was on credit cards in one of Kling’s cars, along with a book about building firearm silencers.
Snow lay on the ground at the Running Springs cabin on February 26 as Carrott, accompanied by a team of detectives and a firearms expert, conducted a search. They came across computers, floppy disks, .22 ammunition, a series of photos that had been cut out of driver’s licenses, and blank check stock. That same day police returned to search Lori’s home again. She was a hoarder, but officers didn’t find forensic evidence connecting Kling to either murder among the rat feces and bags of trash. They did find more evidence of identity theft that helped Carrott, with the assistance of Benita Grimm and the DMV, to uncover 104 aliases and 17 past financial felonies linked to Kling. Locked up in the Ventura County Jail, Lori Budfuloski’s fiancé was facing charges that included identity theft and forgery.
Grieving families despair over the sluggishness of justice. The Budfuloskis, no different in that respect, finally believed they had an ally in Jay Carrott. Yet with a dearth of direct evidence, any murder charges, let alone a trial, promised to be a long time coming. “There was no reason to arrest him for murder,” Carrott says of Kling. “We kept an open mind. We were looking at everything.”
A crucial break arrived in July, after winter snow had melted in Running Springs. Carrott watched as a detective grabbed a ladder and climbed onto the cabin roof to look for expended bullets that resembled those at the crime scenes. Instead he found a pair of size 13 New Balance sneakers. They were a match to the shoe prints at the scene of Michael’s murder.
Kling had waited on the cul-de-sac to ambush Michael, authorities theorized. He had then driven to San Bernardino for the early-morning urine test stipulated by his probation. From there he had driven back to Running Springs, where he began deleting computer evidence, and then returned to Simi Valley to keep an appointment with Lori’s lawyer, telling him, with her permission, that she was rejecting the Budfuloskis’ settlement offer.
Detectives had seized Lori’s computer. An early examination uncovered her “Randy + Lori = Love. Lori – B = Happiness” e-mail to Kling, along with Kling’s comment that her neck rub would have to wait until August, the month Bill died. It would emerge that when a nurse at Ashley Budfuloski’s private school expressed sympathy over Bill’s death, Lori had said, “He deserved it” and “The bastard laid in the sun. Baked in the sun all weekend.”
To prove to Carrott that she wasn’t involved and that her fiancé was innocent, Lori agreed to record her phone calls with Kling, locked up as he faced ID theft charges. “Lori was in there trying to show us that the love of her life was not this fiendish killer,” Carrott says. “As this past started coming out at her, she was floored.” During months of calls, Lori wept copiously: “What have you gotten me into, Randy?” His voice velvety and reassuring, Kling protested his innocence: “Oh no, my dear. I loved you,” he said. “The police are lying. They planted evidence.”
To test Kling’s story about being on the road to Seattle when Bill was killed, Carrott made the drive himself. A weekend round-trip proved impossible, and records showed Kling’s cell phone signals bouncing off towers near Budco on the Saturday morning Bill died. Carrott came to believe that Kling surprised Bill doing his laundry, murdered him, then continued up the Grapevine toward Sacramento, renting a U-Haul under a false name and meeting Julie at a storage unit, where she had been keeping some of his belongings. After spending the night at a Motel 6, he drove back to Lori’s. Early computer evidence showed Kling had researched five Las Vegas gun shops, so Carrott and his sergeant drove to Las Vegas. In the fifth store, in the last of 26 record books, Kling stared out from a Nevada driver’s license bearing an alias. He had bought a Ruger there in September 2003.
Through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Carrott also learned that in 1997, under a different alias, Kling purchased a Ruger Mark II, a Smith & Wesson, and two Glock semiautomatics. No guns were recovered in the Budfuloski murders (Kling would later tell a psychologist that he destroyed his weapons), but ballistics tests on casings from Bill’s and Moo’s killings showed them to belong to Lapua and Aguila bullets, fired by the same .22 caliber handgun. Michael was murdered with a different .22, believed to be the Ruger from Las Vegas. Long striations on the bullets recovered from both men indicated they could have been shot from guns equipped with a silencer. Had investigators tested the shell casing from Bill’s office sooner, they may have been able to trace it to its vendor, which might have led to Kling.
One thing that puzzled Carrott was Kling’s past: If he was capable of a double murder at age 46, wasn’t it possible that he could have killed before? Sifting through Kling’s lengthy record for other signs of violent crimes, the detective homed in on the unsolved murder of David Henchman, the counterfeiter whose body was on fire when authorities found it. San Bernardino sheriffs were in possession of the cap to the road flare that was likely used to ignite the body. When Carrott had it tested, it came up a partial match for Kling’s DNA.
Since the detective work leading to Randolph Kling had been carried out by Simi Valley officers, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office agreed that the case should be tried in Ventura. A year after Michael’s murder, Kling pleaded guilty to ID theft and related charges. Sentenced to four years and eight months, he was transported to Wasco State Prison in Kern County. In December 2005, he was returned to Ventura and indicted in the Budfuloski case by a Ventura County grand jury. Still, hard evidence linking the murders to Kling remained flimsy. His public defender, Cynthia Ellington, and her associate, Melanie Miles, were contending that Lori Budfuloski was behind the crimes; hoping to prove it, they asked to examine all the computer data.
Online identity theft had barely been recognized when, in 2001, former undercover detective Joseph Cipollini joined the Southern California High Tech Task Force. The agency—a combined effort of L.A., Ventura, and Orange counties led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—had been formed the year before to combat the growing problem of cyber crime. For eight months after he was called in by Kling’s prosecutor, Cipollini toggled between computers in his Camarillo office. On the screen to his left he compiled his report and time lines. On two other forensic models he worked to reconstruct Kling’s and Lori’s computer searches and the dates of their e-mails.
Kling turned out to be an early adapter to computer crime. One of Cipollini’s initial finds was a driver’s license template dating to 1996 that Kling had stored on a floppy disk. And although he may have believed he was deleting computer evidence at his Running Springs cabin, Cipollini was able to retrace Kling’s movements through headers and footers, data patterns and dates, re-creating images and documents from raw code. What had been the gaps in Kling’s murder plot began to take form. On the morning Michael died, Cipollini discovered, Kling had checked online from the cabin for police press releases about the killing. He had last seen Michael heading toward his house, and he didn’t know whether his victim had survived to identify him. There were no reports.
Kling’s computer showed that he had bid on eBay for materials to make silencers for Ruger pistols before he even contacted Lori. He had searched repeatedly for driving directions to Budco. And Cipollini found that on Lori’s computer, during hours when she was at work, someone would log on to fetish sites like Yummyshemales or those showing images of hanging women—which appealed to Kling—then search for guns, silencers, ammunition, and size 13 sneakers. “What it ended up doing is get rid of the skepticism about Lori’s involvement,” Cipollini says.
Kling had researched death penalty cases, among them one that had to do with a man charged with the mass murder of a family. In addition, he had found a photograph of Tara Budfuloski online as well as the home address of his probation officer, Benita Grimm. Using Yahoo maps, he searched the route to Michael Budfuloski’s house. On PeopleFindUSA he located Bill’s elderly parents, Harold and Dorothy Budfuloski, then checked sheriff’s substations in the mountain area where the couple lived. “It’s almost like looking inside a killer’s head as you’re doing this and seeing what he’s planning,” Cipollini says. Cipollini’s final written report—2,300 pages long, with about 2,700 links to relevant Web pages, some of which he had rebuilt—would be presented in massive binders to the jury.
The 99th Percentile
The trial, which began in February 2009, lasted four months, and the defense tried to blame Lori. “She finally found the courage and right timing to have her husband killed,” Ellington, one of Kling’s public defenders, said in her opening statement. But from Cipollini’s investigation the picture that clearly developed was of Kling manipulating Lori, playing to her dreams and to the likes and dislikes she confided. To keep details straight, Kling had even saved onto disk the life story he had presented to her.
Preparing jurors for Lori’s testimony, the prosecutor, Cheryl Temple, described her as “somebody that you will probably think is one of the most self-absorbed people you’ve ever met…needy and insecure, who did not and really could not fit in with the Budfuloski family.” During her two days on the stand, Lori explained that her “Lori – B = Happiness” e-mail meant nothing more than that she wanted a divorce. Lori maintained that Bill was verbally abusive but admitted that he never physically abused her. Temple later told the court that Lori had manufactured her story of domestic abuse. Outside of court, however, Lori insists that Bill was abusive and may have been on drugs the day of the air show incident: “His eyes looked weird.” (“Drugs? Bill? He would never even drink,” his brother Steve says. “To think it, it’s like Winnie the Pooh being a gang member.”)
Although Judge Rebecca Riley had declared the evidence “thin,” she instructed the jurors to consider whether Lori was an accomplice. In April 2009, they found Kling guilty of murdering Bill and Michael, of lying in wait for Michael, of weapons charges, and of animal cruelty. They deadlocked over the charge of murder for financial gain. Lori, they decided, was Kling’s perfect target and not his partner in murder. “There was never a shred of evidence,” Temple says today.
The jury deadlocked again over the penalty. One juror—holding out for life without the possibility of parole—was dismissed for refusing to deliberate. An alternate was instated, and the next day the unanimous recommendation came in: death. But Ellington and Miles argued that their client’s mental illness should mitigate against a lethal injection. An investigator working for the defense had discovered that Kling’s late older brother—who’d been adopted into an emotionally healthy family—had suffered mental problems similar to Kling’s, had scrapes with the law, and was institutionalized at Napa State mental hospital at around the age Kling entered Camarillo.
Not until 2010, seven years after Bill Budfuloski’s murder, was Kling sentenced. At the hearing before Judge Riley, Miles pleaded for life without the possibility of parole: “I’m asking the court to show Mr. Kling that mercy and compassion that somehow he never learned along his rocky path,” she said.
There might have been sympathy in the courtroom for the baby who banged his head or the child who tried to hang himself. But the defense expert, Rahn Minagawa, and the prosecution’s Kris Mohandie—both forensic psychologists—deemed Kling a severe psychopath. Based on his disregard for others’ rights, his lying, and his lack of remorse, he ranked, according to Mohandie, in the 99th percentile of the prison population: “At the top of the apex, if you will.” The woman who prosecuted him considered him among the most sinister and intelligent criminals California has seen. “True psychopaths are rare,” says Temple. “Randy Kling is one.”
Lori wasn’t present on the day of the sentencing hearing, but members of the Budfuloski family filled two rows in the standing-room-only courtroom. Ashley Budfuloski wept. She was 19 now, the age her mother had been when she caught the attention of Randy Kling on Van Nuys Boulevard. Kling—dressed in black trousers, somber gray tie, and checkered jacket—appeared sallow and impassive as Judge Riley imposed the sentence of death.
Like all capital punishment cases in California, Kling’s is on automatic appeal. It has not yet been assigned to an attorney, and he’s unlikely to be executed anyway, given the mounting opposition to capital punishment and that, at 55, he’s likely to die of old age during the drawn-out appellate process.
After it was over, Jay Carrott found himself haunted by a moment during the trial. Negotiating his sentence for the Folsom crimes, Kling had agreed to make a DMV training video in which he described his methods for outwitting the department. To demonstrate, he slurred his words so he would appear disabled. Watching, the jury laughed, and Kling chuckled, too. Immediately the courtroom quieted. “He slipped and let the mask slide off for a second, and you got a glimpse of pure evil,” Carrott says. “It wasn’t just Randy joking on a tape about how he played the DMV. It was how he created his identities that he used to go out and destroy lives.”
Detectives had found the letter among the rubble of computer parts, welding equipment, metal shavings, and diet supplements in Kling’s Running Springs cabin. Addressing someone named Paul and written by Kling in 2002, authorities believe, it read: “Today marks the 25th year of my arrest. It’s been a long strange trip…. There’s the thought of a wasted life. Missing what otherwise could have been.” He enclosed “a brief essay” in which he philosophized: “Like many other people, I have let my life slip away with too many regrets about what has been left undone.”
Whether Kling, who declined to be interviewed for this story, actually felt what he was saying is anybody’s guess. During the trial, Cheryl Temple asked Rahn Minagawa, “Do you suppose he could con you?” Minagawa replied, “Well, I suppose he could con anyone.” Minagawa also said that toward the end, Kling was growing bored with Lori. But of course, Kling is unknowable, perhaps even to himself. He had spent his adulthood inhabiting other people’s profiles, and by killing Bill Budfuloski and assuming his role as husband and father, he committed the most flagrant identity theft of his career.
Before Kling’s conviction, the Budfuloskis started whenever the phone rang, wondering whether it would bring news of another tragedy. Michael’s wife, Tara, unable to stay in the town where she had grown up with him, fled the state, as did his mother, Kim, and his sister, Christine. Since no one could face Lori, Ashley and Ryan lost not just their father and their half-brother, but their entire extended family.
Lori says her life is shattered. “I suffer every day,” she tells me, sitting on the couch that belonged to Kling. “I don’t ever leave my house most of the time.” I ask her if she felt any guilt for bringing Kling into the house. “No,” she says. “The horrible feeling that I felt was that two men are dead, and everybody’s hurting from it, but everybody wants to use me as the pincushion. I’m the one…yet nobody wants to look at if Bill had been a husband, this couldn’t have happened.” She blames the Budfuloski family for not telling Bill to put God back in his life. “Bill made his choices, and sadly he suffered the ultimate consequence for it.” She pauses, then continues. “He didn’t, of course, ask to be killed. There’s only one guilty party here.”
Louise Farr’s last feature for Los Angeles was “The War Within,” about a murder at Camp Pendleton.
ALSO: Read executive editor Matthew Segal's Q&A with Louise Farr about this feature
This feature was originally published in the June 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine