Friday, August 10, 2012

Larry Lerch

The complete details of the events that took place on the evening of July 27, 1981 between a young boy and a convicted sex-offender bent on murder will probably never be known, as they are locked inside the sick and perverted mind of a sadistic child-killer. But here are the sad and shocking facts of the case as this writer knows them, details of which have disturbed even the most callous types.
It was a hot, somewhat humid Mon­day evening, and cute seven-year-old Michael Lee Hanset was dressed accord­ingly. No shirt, bare feet, and a pair of pants with worn-out knees. Appropriate attire for an arduous day of playing in the neighborhood park but, unfortu­nately, somewhat alluring to a pervert determined to make young children his prey.
Later that same night Michael was to have gone to the movies with his neighbors, or so his parents thought. But the outing was cancelled at the last minute, and instead Michael was sent home. He was told not to loiter. But Michael didn’t make it home. He made it only as far as a filthy, run-down apartment in southeast Portland, Ore­gon, where something repulsive occur­red that would ultimately leave Michael dead.
When Michael failed to return home right away, naturally his parents had no reason to worry. After all, he had gone to the movies and, with four other children to look after, time passed with little notice from the Hanset boy’s pa­rents.
But before they knew it, 10 o’clock was approaching. Where was Michael? Maybe their neighbors had taken him out for a bite to eat after the movie, or perhaps they had stopped for ice cream at a neighborhood parlor. They were sure he would be home within the hour. But as 11 o’clock approached with still no sign of Michael, they began to worry.
Had all of them been involved in an automobile accident on their way home? Or had Michael become yet another vic­tim of something worse? Michael’s pa­rents tried to put those unmentionable ideas far out of their minds, but as each minute ticked by with still no sign of their son, those distressing thoughts kept creeping hack into their conscious­ness.
It wasn’t long, how­ever, before Michael’s parents learned from their neighbors that Michael had been sent home instead of going to the movies, and that he had left their neighbor’s apartment at approximately 6 p.m.
In a near panic, Michael’s father cal­led the Portland Police Bureau and re­ported his son as missing. Normally a person has to be missing 72 hours or more before a report is filed, but due to the boy’s age and the mysterious cir­cumstances surrounding his possible disappearance, the bureau was more than happy to assist. After all, everyone’s main concern at this point was to find the child alive and, hope­fully, unharmed.
Upon their arrival at the Hanset’s two-story house, located in the 1600 block of Southeast Belmont Street, of­ficers were quickly given details of what had so far occurred. The distraught pa­rents also supplied the cops with a re­cent photo of Michael, and told the offic­ers that their son had left that afternoon barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of blue corduroy pants with the knees worn out.
Not wasting any time. Michael’s pa­rents, along with police officers, began a methodical search of the neighborhood in a frantic attempt to locate the mis­sing boy. Walking through the dark streets of their neighborhood, Michael’s parents stopped frequently to make in­quiries with various residents. But much to their dismay nobody had seen their son, and the distraught parents returned to their home to await any news that might come from the police.
Unfortunately, however, the only word that arrived was the displeasing news that no progress had been made in locat­ing young Michael.
Early the next day police again can­vassed the entire neighborhood in their quest for clues to the boy’s whereabouts, but by midday they had uncovered little useful information.
By day’s end the police had unearthed the horrifying information that Michael was last seen in the company of a slen­der man in Colonel Summers Park, a few blocks from his home. According to the witness the cops had ferreted out, Michael was seen walking through the park at approximately 6:30 p.m. with a man who had shoulder-length brown hair. Unfortunately, little else was known.
With only a vague description of a possible suspect, the cops knew they had their work cut out for them. They ques­tioned and re-questioned neighborhood residents, area store managers and shop owners, even children and adults who used Colonel Summers Park to relax or play in. But, at this point, the efforts of all concerned failed to yield further re­sults.
Back at police headquarters one of the officers ran a routine check on all known sex-offenders in the area, singl­ing out those who had a warped attrac­tion for children. Requesting data on the perpetrators of the most serious of sexual offenses, the computer spit out the name of Calvin Robert Evans, 21. According to the computer, Evans was wanted by the Portland Police Bureau on an outstanding warrant for child sexual abuse.
As it turned out, the cops pounding the pavement got a break in the case as well, a break that enabled the lawmen to narrow their focus on Evans as a pos­sible suspect in the Hanset boy’s disap­pearance. Detectives turned up a wit­ness who said that Evans was a frequent visitor to Colonel Summers Park, and that he had seen Evans there several times during the summer of 1981.
An all-points bulletin was quickly is­sued for Evans, but detectives working the sex crimes division doubted that he could he found quickly, if at all. The cops had no known address for the suspect, and the Motor Vehicles Division failed to turn up anything useful.
After circulating a photo of Evans throughout the area and achieving no results as to his whereabouts, detectives returned to their witness in an attempt to uncover additional details.
According to Stephen Brookfield, a juvenile counselor at Buckman Half­way House for Boys, located near Col­onel Summers Park, he had seen Evans in the park several times in recent months, but he couldn’t recall specific dates. Brookfield told the cops that he remembered Evans because he issued him a warning to stay out of Buckman House.
The next day detectives talked to an 11-year-old boy who identified Evans as the man who attempted to lure him into his car, possibly a white Cadillac, by promising to give the kid returnable bottles and cans. But in spite of all the information they had obtained in the case, the cops had been unsuccessful in locating their prime suspect, Evans.
Then they hit a snag in the case they were building against Evans when they received word that he was in Oakland, California. The Portland detectives, through the cooperation of Oakland au­thorities, soon uncovered records which revealed that Evans had sold plasma to an Oakland blood bank on July 24th, and that he sold his plasma as many as eight times a month. The cops also learned that Evans had been fitted with glasses by an Oakland optometrist on July 31st.
Although there was ample time for the suspect to travel between Oakland and Portland between July 4th and July 31st, it seemed unlikely that someone as destitute as Evans could afford to make the trip, much less have any de­sire to.
With no new clues to the Hanset boy’s whereabouts, the cops felt they were back at square one. And they had every reason to feel that way since their prime suspect had a nearly air-tight alibi.
In an unexpected turn of events, police received a phone call from a woman that same day who informed them that she may have information regarding the missing boy. She told the police that her brother, 34-year-old Larry Lee Lerch, told her of seeing a young boy’s body in a dumpster outside a southeast Portland fish market. Lerch also reportedly told his sister that the body was inside a white military-style laundry hag which belonged to him.
With this new information indicating murder, Homicide Detectives Kerry Taylor and David Newberg were quickly assigned to the case, and they made a quick cursory check of Lerch’s background. They soon learned that he was an escapee from a Tillamook County forest work camp, which he walked away from in May, 1981, just two months before the Hanset boy’s disap­pearance.
Further investigation revealed that Lerch had been convicted in 1966 in Linn County, Oregon, for forgery, and in 1975, he was convicted for the sexual abuse of a five-year-old boy. It was obvi­ous to Detectives Taylor and Newberg that prison had not rehabilitated Lerch for, in 1979, he was found guilty of first-degree burglary and second-degree assault for pulling a knife on a woman after breaking into her apartment. He had been sentenced to 250 years impris­onment for this latest offense, but was allowed to serve part of his sentence at the Tillamook work camp.
After Detectives Newberg and Taylor notified the Hanset family of the new development, they went to the dumpster near Southeast 9th and Belmont, where officers were standing by, to see if there was, in fact, a body inside. Following a tedious, futile search of the trash container, the detectives went away frustrated and empty-handed. However, after making inquiries, they discovered that the drop-box had been emptied on July 30th and its contents taken to the Rossman Landfill in Ore­gon City, a large dump site that services approximately 250 garbage trucks per day. In the meantime all dumping at the landfill was halted, and preparations were quickly being made to begin a thorough search of the past week’s gar­bage.
Knowing they had no evidence as yet to connect Lerch to the Hanset boy’s disappearance, the detectives went to the suspect’s filthy apartment located in the 1500 block of Southeast Morrison Street, barely one block away from the Hanset residence, and arrested Larry Lee Lerch on charges stemming from his May escape.
During his first interview with the cops, Lerch told Newberg and Taylor that he had been drinking with some “San Salvadorans” on July 27th, the day Michael disappeared. He also said that he had taken several hits of LSD, smoked pot, taken nine or ten Valiums and several other tranquilizers, all on the same day.
“I just sobered up this morning,” Lerch told the cops. He also told them that he left the San Salvadorans at his apartment when he went out to buy ad­ditional beer, but when he returned they were gone. He said he felt that “something bad” had occurred in his absence, but would not go into detail. He could not supply the detectives with names of the San Salvadorans. How­ever, Lerch denied killing the boy, but said he looked inside the dumpster in question on July 28th and saw his white laundry bag inside. He said he opened the bag, and “a foot popped out.”
The next day Newberg and Taylor ob­tained Lerch’s permission to conduct a search of his apartment. Not knowing exactly what they were looking for, the filthy state of disarray of the dwelling made their search for evidence all the more difficult. But by the time they were ready to leave, three blond hairs had been vacuumed from Lerch’s living room carpet, and Oregon State Police criminologist Julie Hinkley spotted what appeared to be bloodstains on the kitchen floor. However, the tests proved negative and the stains were quickly identified as fecal.
The cops later went to the Hanset re­sidence where they obtained 27 blond hairs from one of Michael’s jackets, to be used in making a comparison with the hairs found in Lerch’s apartment. After analyzing the hairs, Julie Hinkley told the detectives that the three hairs taken from Lerch’s apartment “were micros­copically similar in all respects” to those obtained from the Michael’s jacket. But she also told the cops that hair analysis is an uncertain science, and she could only say that “the hairs could have been from a common source.”
In the meantime Newberg and Taylor talked to one of the owners of the fish market that uses the drop box where Michael was believed to have been dumped. The owner said that he had smelled what appeared to be a decomposing body coming from the dumpster. When asked how he knew the smell was a decomposing human body, he said he came to know the distinctive odor when he served in the military during the Ko­rean War. He told the detectives that he didn’t investigate further.
In a surprise move during the sus­pect’s second interview with police, Lerch broke down and made an emo­tional confession to strangling Michael Hanset in his kitchen. But after the tale about the San Salvardorans, detectives weren’t sure how much of his confession was true. They had to have corroborating evidence, for without a body to es­tablish that a homicide had in fact been committed, the detectives knew they would have difficulty making the case stand up in court. Knowing their work had really just begun, they pushed Lerch for more details.
“I just got too close,” Lerch said in an interview taped by Newberg and Taylor. “The next thing I knew, my hands were around his neck and I killed him. Now I’m a child-killer.” Lerch also told the cops that while he was in a stoned stupor he held the strangled kid suspended from his left hand for 35 or 40 minutes over the kitchen floor. When asked how he managed to get Michael inside his apartment in the first place, Lerch told the detectives that he lured the boy there by promising to give him bottles that he could cash in at the store. No further details were given at this point.
Had Michael been sexually abused? It seemed likely to the detectives, al­though they had no evidence to prove that he had been. Was the boy naked at the time of death? Again it seemed likely, since traces of human feces were discovered on the kitchen floor of Lerch’s apartment. When the detectives talked to Oregon State Medical Examiner Dr. William Brady, their suspicions were reinforced. They learned that defecation and urination were common in strangulation victims, as the sphincter muscle tends to relax at or near the point of death. Needing still more answers as to the legality of their case, the frustrated detectives turned to Chief Deputy District Attorney Barry Sheldahl for help.
“There is a significant body of law permitting prosecution of homicide cases in the absence of finding a body,” said Sheldahl. “There are not a large number of cases, but we are reviewing those that have been reported in the case law.”
As the obstacles confronting the al­ready frustrated detectives continued to mount, the cops knew that the Oregon City landfill had to be searched. For without a body, they knew it would be all the more difficult to build a case against their suspect. And without cor­roborating evidence that a murder had been committed, they equally knew that a conviction would be impossible.
Early on Saturday morning, August 1st, work crews began uncovering the 200-feet-wide, 40-feet-deep pit that con­tained at least 2,400 tons of garbage and quite possibly the body of Michael Lee Hanset. According to Sgt. Dallas Tag­gart of the Portland Police Bureau, who was in charge of the search operation, approximately 25 Portland police offic­ers, detectives, and reservists would use a grid system marked off by stakes to search through the compacted garbage for the boy’s body until 8 p.m. each day until the body was found. “We don’t like to see this happen to 7-year-old chil­dren,” said Taggart.
As the day wore on, officers wielding pitchforks and utilizing tracking dogs continued searching through mounds of debris and garbage in temperatures upwards of 107 degrees, all to no avail.
“I doubt very much they’ll find it,” said one searcher, an employee of the landfill who volunteered his time to help look for the boy’s body. “No one yet has ever found anything they came here to look for.” However, police didn’t share those feelings and appeared more optimistic.
“I think we’ve got a good chance of finding the body,” said Detective New­berg. “We’re 99 percent sure it’s here,” he said, stating that police have re­ceived secondary information that con­firmed what they’d already been told. Newberg refused to elaborate.
Surrounded by a sickening stench that permeated the atmosphere around the dump, made more intense than usual because of the scorching sun, searchers continued checking every sack that appeared large enough to hold a child’s body. But it was nowhere to be found. Even the tracking dogs failed to pick up the boy’s scent, possibly con­fused by the smell of the garbage.
Meanwhile, on August 6th, police de­tectives and state criminologists re­turned to Lerch’s apartment for yet another search. It was during that par­ticular search that they discovered a spot of blood on the living room carpet. They cut out the piece of carpet and sent it to the Oregon State Police crime labs for analysis.
Since neither the cops, the crime lab technicians, nor even Michael’s parents knew what the missing boy’s blood type was, samples were obtained from Michael’s parents. By studying the characteristics of their blood, criminologist Julie Hinkley determined what type of blood Michael most likely had. Her findings matched the characteristics of the blood taken from Lerch’s carpet, and it was determined that the blood was most likely that of Michael Hanset.
Also taken in the August 6th search was the tile from the kitchen floor which police earlier believed contained a bloodstain that turned out to be fecal. Although tests proved the stain to be fecal, the cops seriously doubted that they could prove it was caused by feces from Michael Hanset.
Detectives Newberg and Taylor re­turned to re-question the tenants of the building in which Lerch resided. Al­though the detectives left empty-handed, they learned from the state medical examiner that choking would prevent a person from crying out. So it stood to reason why nobody reported hearing anything suspicious, but the detectives were understandably irri­tated that they couldn’t produce a wit­ness who saw Lerch and the boy to­gether.
Meanwhile, back at the Oregon City landfill, a dozen police officers con­tinued to sift through the massive heaps of debris and garbage. In addition to searching for the body of Michael Hanset, they were looking for material be­lieved to have been inside the Dumpster at the time it was emptied, including fish heads from the nearby fish market as well as a broken television set. Many volunteers believed they were getting close to the garbage dumped there on July 28th.
By Friday, August 7th, searchers were understandably becoming more frustrated and disheartened as flies swarmed their sweating bodies while they picked and shoveled through the stinking garbage. Still, no man was yet ready to give up the effort.
“If the smell doesn’t get to you, or the heat or the tediousness of sifting, then the flies will,” grumbled one reserve de­puty. “But I got kids of my own, and I think it will be better for all concerned if we can find him.”
“We’re getting through Thursday’s (the day Michael disappeared) garbage now, and we’ll continue to search Saturday if we have to,” said Sgt. Tag­gart. “We have enough information to indicate the body is here, and we want to find it.”
However, after five miserable days of searching through tons of garbage in 100-plus degree temperatures and find­ing no sign of Michael’s body, the search was reluctantly called off. As a result of not finding the boy’s body, detectives seriously wondered if Lerch deliber­ately steered them in the wrong direc­tion.
On Wednesday, August 12th, police obtained a search warrant so they could obtain samples of Lerch’s head and pubic hair, blood, and saliva, to be used in making comparisons of samples taken from the suspect’s apartment. But the comparison tests proved nega­tive, indicating that the hair and blood taken from the apartment were not that of the suspect but were, probably, that of the Hanset boy.
After reviewing the evidence in the case, Oregon State Medical Examiner Dr. William Brady signed a death cer­tificate for Michael Lee Hanset, his de­cision to do so based primarily on state­ments given to the district attorney’s office by several people involved in the investigation including affidavits signed by Detectives Kerry Taylor and David Newberg. In making his decision to sign the death certificate, Dr. Brady also took into account the physical evi­dence analyzed at the Oregon State Police crime labs by Trooper Julie Hinkley. Dr. Brady listed July 27th as the date of death, one day after Lerch’s 34th birthday. Lerch was finally in­dicted by a Multnomah County grand jury for the murder of Michael Hanset on September 3rd.
At his September 4th arraignment, Lerch pleaded not guilty to the charges of slaying the seven-year-old boy. Tak­ing an oath of indigency in the court­room of Circuit Judge Philip Abraham, Lerch was given a court-appointed at­torney to represent him in his defense. Portland attorney Steve Houze was as­signed the case, and the trial was scheduled to begin on November 3rd in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Phillip Roth with Chief Deputy District Attor­ney Barry Sheldahl prosecuting. How­ever, the defense was granted a delay until April 19, 1982.
During pre-trial motions heard in early April, Judge Roth ruled in favor of contentions made by defense attorney Houze that certain physical evidence the state intended to present against Lerch was inadmissible because the de­fendant’s constitutional protections against unreasonable search and sei­zure had been violated by police.
On July 31st Lerch had given his con­sent to police to have his apartment searched, before he confessed to mur­dering the Hanset boy. However, evi­dence was seized from his apartment on three separate occasions, all without the benefit of a search warrant. Judge Roth ruled that evidence taken during the first search was admissible because of Lerch’s consent. However, Roth ruled the second and third searches illegal be­cause by that time police had narrowed their focus on Lerch as a suspect, and that this “change of circumstances” re­voked the voluntary consent initially given.
The rulings were indeed a major set­back in the case for the prosecution, for now they would not be allowed to intro­duce evidence of the fecal stains found on the kitchen tile. But Roth did rule that statements given to police by Lerch were voluntarily made, and as a result those statements could be presented to a jury. Also in the state’s favor was a rul­ing Roth made allowing Detective Taylor to testify about seeing the stain on August 1st, and to make certain re­ferences about the evidence obtained.
But yet another setback for the state came about when defense attorney Houze called upon blood expert Brian Wraxall, a former Scotland Yard serologist who now works for the Serological Institute in Oakland, California. According to Wraxall the state crime laboratory was in error when Mrs. Hanset’s blood was tested, and he further stated that the spot of blood found on Lerch’s carpet couldn’t possibly have come from the Hanset boy. That distressing news was later confirmed by the crime lab, and the state now had one less piece of vital evi­dence it needed to present in its case against Lerch. But Prosecutor Sheldahl told the judge that the state would pro­ceed just the same.
Finally, on Monday, April 19th, Lerch’s trial opened in a packed court­room before Judge Roth. As Steve Houze made his opening statements, the defendant sat passively listening.
“Michael Hanset is missing,” said Houze. “A missing child is a terrible thing — terrible for the family, terrible for the community. But at the conclu­sion of this case, you will not be able to say anything more than Michael Hanset is, in fact, missing.”
“The evidence will take you through a nightmare for the Hanset family,” countered Prosecutor Sheldahl. Step- by-step the prosecutor led the jury through the details of the Hanset boy’s disappearance and the midnight search through the streets of southeast Port­land. He told the jury how Lerch al­legedly lured the boy from Colonel Summers Park to his apartment with the promise of giving him empty beer bottles to cash in. But from the look on the jurors’ faces, it was Lerch’s confes­sion which had the most profound effect on the twelve people who would decide whether he would be set free or not.
“He simply got too close to the child in the apartment,” Sheldahl told the jury. “The next thing he knew, his hand was around the boy’s neck and he strangled him, holding him up with his left hand for 35 to 40 minutes. He said he was sorry for what he had done, but that he couldn’t bring the child back. And he said, ‘Now I’m a child-killer.’ “
All-in-all, the prosecution called 29 witnesses to corroborate evidence in the state’s case against Lerch. But Lerch’s attorney presented a strong defense for his client by calling several expert wit­nesses to testify in rebuttal. One such witness was Dr. William Montagna, re­tired director of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center and author of more than 400 papers and 30 books on hair and skin.
Dr. Montagna belabored the point concerning the three hairs vacuumed from Lerch’s living room rug and the 27 hairs taken from Michael’s jacket that were supposedly “microscopically indis­tinguishable from each other.”
“‘Indistinguishable from’ implies identification,” said Montagna. “If I’m diligent enough I can match anything I want to,” he said mockingly. But he fi­nally agreed with state’s witness Julie Hinkley, who contended that the hairs could have come from a common source. “But then so could have any hair with­out unique characteristics,” he quib­bled.
In an attempt to divert suspicion away from his client, Houze insinuated that Lerch lied when making his confes­sion to police. Houze also attempted to leave the jury with the impression that Calvin Robert Evans could have been involved in the Hanset boy’s disappear­ance even though Evans has insisted that he was not in Portland at all last year.
Despite Evans insistence that he was in Oakland, Houze called 12-year-old Larry Lonneman to testify that on July 29, 1981, as he was walking to a store, he was approached by a man he later identified as Evans. According to the boy, Evans allegedly drove alongside him and tried to persuade him to get inside his car. The boy said he ran to the store instead.
In a counter-move, however, Pro­secutor Sheldahl introduced records which showed that Evans had sold plasma to the Oakland Plasma Center five times in July. According to the re­cords, his last plasma sale occurred on July 24th. Additionally, Sheldahl pro­duced a witness who testified that Evans had purchased a pair of eyeglas­ses in Oakland on July 31st, the day police arrested Lerch. Sheldahl went one step further by calling Evans to the stand. It should be pointed out here that Evans has acknowledged knowing Michael Hanset because he had met the boy at the park previously.
“Did you like Michael Hanset?” Shel­dahl asked.
“Yes, sir,” Evans replied.
“Did you ever hurt Michael Hanset?” asked the prosecutor.
“No, sir,” responded the witness, who also testified that he moved to the San Francisco Bay area in November 1980, and had not returned to Portland until Lerch’s trial.
According to defense witness Mark Richards, a Portland musician and neighbor to the Hanset family, Michael was at his house between 7:30 and 8:30 on the evening of July 28th, testimony that conflicted with Lerch’s confession that he strangled the boy about 6 p.m. But Sheldahl called Michael’s mother to testify that she went to the Richards’ home between 7 and 8 p.m. only to find that Richards and his family were not at home.
“All that the state has proved is that Michael Hanset is missing,” said Lerch’s attorney in closing arguments to the jury. “There is no body in that landfill. To ask you to believe there is is just speculation, and you can’t base a verdict on speculation.”
Judge Roth charged the jury with their obligations, telling them that all twelve jurors would have to agree to convict Lerch of murder. If Lerch was to be acquitted, ten jurors would have to agree that the state had not proven its case.
After deliberating nearly 10 hours, the members of the jury were sequestered overnight in a downtown hotel. How­ever, the next day, May 1, 1982, the jury found Larry Lee Lerch guilty of murder­ing Michael Lee Hanset after deliberat­ing almost 18 hours in what many people described as one of the most dif­ficult cases to be tried in Multnomah County in years.
“In my 18 years on the bench,” said Judge Roth, “I have probably heard over 25 murder trials. This has been the out­standing trial of the many I have pres­ided over.”
After waiving his rights to a pre-sentence investigation, Lerch was sen­tenced by Judge Roth to life imprison­ment and ordered that he not become eligible for parole until he served at least ten years. The judge further stated that he would write a letter to the parole board asking that Lerch never be re­leased. Defense attorney Houze said he would appeal the conviction.
Editor’s Note:
The names Calvin Robert Evans, Larry Lonneman, Stephen Brookfield, and Mark Richards are fictitious and were used because there is no reason for public interest in their true identities.

1 comment:

  1. Many things are missing in this article but nothing that would change it. My older sister and I went searching for our brother that night. And the following days at the park with the officers asking adults and kids if they had seen him. Our mother had to go into the court room alone because our father couldn't handle it. It was a very bad time for our entire family. News crews would follow us to school, I hated them for a long time for that, but now as an adult I understand things could have been much worse. We were so lucky to have Mr Sheldahl to help us. And I will never be able to tell the people who searched for my brothers body in the dump how much I appreciate what they did.

    ReplyDelete