Former Pasadena activist suspected of two murders still awaits trial 10 years after arrest
By André Coleman 05/21/2014
After a decade behind bars in Orange County, a former Pasadena activist still awaits trial on two murders, one that occurred in 1975, the other committed in 1983.
In fact, when John Laurence Whitaker — also known as John Whitaker Betances — is brought into Superior Court on Aug. 28 for a preliminary hearing at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, it will mark the 98th time Whitaker has been scheduled on the court docket to face a judge in relation to the murders, according to a clerk with the Orange County Superior Court and the court’s Web site.
Whitaker has been charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances and one count of rape. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
Orange County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Farrah Emani told the Pasadena Weekly that the continuances — almost all of them requested by Whitaker’s defense attorneys — could prevent a mistrial when the case eventually goes to trial.
“It is absolutely taking a long time,” Emami acknowledged. “Defendants have a lot of rights. When their attorneys request continuances, they are often granted by the court.”
Ironically, Whitaker’s original lawyer, former county Public Defender Lewis Clapp, has been a Superior Court judge in Orange County for the past two years, elevated to that position by Gov. Jerry Brown. Clapp’s office was responsible for filing most of the motions seeking more time to prepare for Whitaker’s trial.
While acting as Whitaker’s attorney, Clapp claimed his client was a medical student at an undisclosed college and having drinks with doctors at the time that one of the victims, Bodil Rasmussen, was being murdered in 1975. Both Rasmussen, 36, a clerk with the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District, and 26-year-old Patricia Ann Carpenter, whose body was found dumped in Laguna Niguel in 1983, were strangled with nylon stockings. Whitaker lived in the apartment complex where Rasmussen resided.
Clapp did not return calls seeking comment for this story. In a previous interview, Clapp said he needed time to track down potential defense witnesses.
“These continuances have all been agreed upon by both sides because there is so much information involved in this case,” said Clapp. On Jan. 12, 2009, Clapp requested and received the 17th continuance.
“They waited 30 years before they filed this case,” Clapp said about the continuances he had filed up to that point.
“I needed to find out everything I could about my client’s life and collect witnesses,” he said. “Witnesses have told the police who investigated the case that Rasmussen and Whitaker had known each other and socialized. This same witness said she knew Rasmussen and the [other] person she was with.”
Whitaker, according to the Megan’s Law Web site, was convicted in New York in 1987 of raping a girl under the age of 14. After getting out of prison there, he came to California, where he was convicted again, this time for raping a boy under 14. Whitaker came to Pasadena in 1997 after being released from prison on that charge and changed his name to John Whitaker-Betances, authorities have said.
Whitaker’s current public defender, Denise Graggs, did not return phone calls seeking comment on this story.
By way of comparison, the Weekly asked a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office if there were any cold-case murder trials in Los Angeles that had taken this long to get under way. While a definitive answer was not immediately available, no such cases came to mind.
Held without bail at the Harbor Justice Center since 2004, in 2009 Whitaker called the Weekly from jail to proclaim his innocence.
“It’s not going to be the duck shoot they thought it would be,” Whitaker said of the state’s current cases against him. “It’s not going to be like shooting fish in a bucket.”
Memories of Whitaker in Pasadena — particularly how he ingratiated himself with local school officials — are still fresh to those who lived through those times.
Under his assumed name, Whitaker took on the persona of a decorated Vietnam War veteran, often dressing in a camouflage jacket bedecked with medals and a black beret, and became active with local schools. He formed the group Dads Are Doing Something (DADS) and became friends with former Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Percy Clark. Clark eventually became so impressed with Whitaker’s efforts that he gave him an office at district headquarters, a telephone, a computer to work on and a key to the building.
Whitaker also hung out at Pasadena City College and ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the college district’s board of trustees. In 2001, he often made his way into the Weekly office, where he told of his time in a prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam. He once vividly described how he chewed through a guard’s neck in order to escape captivity. Only after a veteran’s group started investigating was it learned that Whitaker was never in the army. After his arrest was it learned that Whitaker had not been subjected to a criminal background check by the PUSD.
“This was a ginormous black eye for the district. We were all shocked that there had not been a background check on this guy,” said Board member Mikala Rahn, who has been volunteering in the district since 1997. “This forced the district to look deeper at everybody. It is odd that he is just sitting in an Orange County jail basically in limbo in the justice system. I don’t understand how it could still be in preliminary hearing stage at this point.”
“I don’t know why the wheels of justice are so swift on some and take some time on others,” said Board member Renatta Cooper. “This is mindboggling. Maybe he is not perceived as a real threat, regardless of the realities. He is an engaging guy. Maybe he is able to do that in court with other people. This is a curious thing to me. I was astounded that no background checks had been done and he was given such carte blanche. Board members have to have their fingerprints done. I was astounded on how far he got in this district without one of the first things that should be done being done — the fingerprints. I think the district got much more careful after this happened.”
In 2004, Whitaker left Pasadena without mentioning his departure to anyone. He traveled to Oregon, where he was arrested after failing to register as a sex offender. Upon further investigation, Whitaker’s DNA matched evidence collected at the Rasmussen and Carpenter murder scenes, according to authorities.
In yet more ironic twists in the case, former Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, a former detective in Santa Monica, was among the officers investigating the Rasmussen murder scene in 1975. And current Pasadena police Chief Phillip Sanchez was working with the Santa Monica Police Department when the cold case was reopened in 2004.
Hugo Schwyzer, a former history and gender studies teacher whose career came to end in 2013 shortly after he hosted a class on “navigating” the Internet porn industry, defended Whitaker, who had taken one of his classes at PCC. After leaving the college, Schwyzer admitted on his blog to having sex with one of his students while on campus, and having a drug dependency.
In 2005, he remembered Whitaker as “a tall, solid, gregarious black man in his 50s, who sat up front, asked interesting questions, and periodically cracked some terrific jokes.” Schwyzer said that Whitaker often came to his office during conference hours where they talked at length on a number of topics.
“I hadn’t seen John since 2002,” Schwyzer wrote. “But I had often thought of him as the epitome of our returning student success stories. I’ve had many older veterans in my classes, and so many of them bring valuable and interesting insights to the courses. John was among my favorites, and the stunning severity of the charges he faces, as well as his long criminal record, has me floored.”
Whitaker, authorities say, was the last person seen with Rasmussen before her body was discovered in a parking lot in 1975. Whitaker, who at the time was 28, was questioned by police, who said he claimed to be a medical student. He was released after questioning and promptly vanished. Eight years later, a man fitting Whitaker’s description showed up in Hollywood and was seen with Carpenter, who was just starting out as a prostitute. Carpenter’s body was found the next day. Like Rasmussen, her pantyhose were tied around her neck.
Prior to the murder, Carpenter had moved in with her older sister, Cynthia, who ran a call-girl service out of her apartment in Hollywood. Patty, a full-figured woman who stood about 5-foot 6-inches tall and weighed 150 pounds, bore a resemblance to Queen Latifah, said her sister.
“After the first time, she didn’t like it because of the danger,” Cynthia told the Weekly about her sister’s first attempts at prostitution. “The second time, she got killed.”
After Carpenter’s body was discovered, police questioned the man Cynthia said gave Carpenter a ride to Hollywood. Several days later, the man, known only as Tony, vanished. At that point, Cynthia, who asked that her last name not be used, lost all hope of finding her sister’s killer.
Whitaker stated that he left California for New York City the day before Carpenter was killed. Authorities from Orange County maintain that skin particles found under Carpenter’s fingernails contained Whitaker’s DNA, and witnesses say they saw the victim with Whitaker hours before she was killed.
Detectives working on the case told Cynthia at the time that her sister didn’t put up a fight with her assailant. But they were mistaken.
“I said the only way she didn’t fight is if she was completely out of it,” Cynthia said. “I found out 23 years later that she did fight and that his skin was under her fingernails. She was no pushover,” she said.