Murderer caught by his own efforts to throw off investigators
03/21/2016 2:13 pm PDT
They were the picture of true love, Lyle and Lesley Herring went everywhere and did everything together. That is until the day one of them disappeared.
Lesley Herring, 44, worked a desk job at a home security company in Los Angeles. Her husband of 11 years, 56-year-old Lyle Herring, was a college recruiter at California State University, Northridge.
The couple lived in an upscale condominium near Hollywood; to all appearances it is a normal lifestyle. Until the day when both of them mysteriously disappear into thin air in February 2009.
Right away, Lesley's family is alarmed. Simply picking up and leaving town without a word to anyone is not her style. Police are notified and begin the hunt for the couple, but have little to go on.
"The house looked very clean, very nice, except a couple of things that we noticed offhand," said Hollywood LAPD detective Chris Gable presses ahead. "There was some spilled candle wax on the kitchen counter, a pretty good amount, as if a candle had spilled over, and what we'd already learned about Lesley is that's not the kind of thing she'd leave out on the counter, so that was a little unusual."
Almost two weeks after the disappearance of the couple, police get a break in the case. Lyle is stopped in his car by police as he crosses the Mexican border into the United States.
"We put an alert on his vehicle and on his driver's license, so we went down there to speak to him at the border," said Gable.
"They had plans to go to Rosarito for Valentine's Day, so he went down, and the reason he was in Mexico, according to Lyle, was to go down to search for her because that's where they had planned to go," said Gable.
Lyle later tells police he owed money to some shady characters who caught up with him and cut off his dreadlocks as punishment.
"I worked the gang unit for several years and I've never ever heard of some gang members holding someone down to shave their head and shave their goatee off, so that was a first," said Det. Gable.
But police have no reason to keep Lyle detained and he goes back to his day job. And detectives go to work too, slowly connecting the dots, searching for Lesley and for any evidence of what happened to her.
A letter they find in her bedside drawer shows that she's not happy about Lyle's money dealings. In fact she is furious, and she wants out of this marriage.
They also find her purse with her jewelry inside it, something she never leaves home without.
In Lesley's purse, along with her jewelry, cops find a receipt from a local Starbucks dated on a Tuesday night, four days after she went missing.
"So we thought 'Wow, Tuesday night, this is her purse, we'll go to Starbucks, see her on the video, see what's going on. Maybe her and Lyle are doing something. So we go over there and we pull the video,'" said Gable.
They hustle over to Starbucks to check the surveillance tape before it is erased. The video shows Lyle walking in and making the purchase.
"We find out that it's Lyle by himself buying a single drink, that Lesley's nowhere to be seen," said Det. Gable. "So we thought that was pretty suspicious, why that would be in there, and we thought was that really designed for us to find that? Maybe later down the road when the video wasn't available?"
Cops suspect Lyle may have planted the receipt in Lesley's purse as a misdirection.
They turn to his personal computer and cellphone to see what else they can find. And what they come up with only deepens their concerns: Online searches for things like "profile of a mass murderer"; "violent death and the soul" and "10 common methods of suicide."
And only days after Lesley's disappearance, another mystery.
"There were several calls between Lesley's phone and Lyle's phone," said Gable. "What he didn't think is that we would also track the cell tower usage and show that both phones were side by side when they were doing the calls, suggesting that he's holding one phone, calling the other one."
Police are rapidly coming to the conclusion that Lyle has done something to Lesley.
But they need more evidence: Specifically they need Lesley, dead or alive. Or else they might have no case at all.
Lesley Herring has been missing for weeks. And police still don't know her fate, but they fear the worst, at the hands of her husband Lyle.
Police ask Lyle to appear before TV news cameras to plead for help in finding his missing wife. Cops figure it's an offer he can't refuse. And it will also help shake the trees for witnesses.
Days later police meet with Lyle's cousin Malcolm, who says he talked to Lyle in front of his condo shortly after Lesley disappeared.
"Lyle was very distraught. He was saying things that were really off the wall, like he said that he was gonna burn in hell for what he did to Lesley," said Det. Gable. "So Malcolm thought 'This is really strange, I need to see if Lesley's OK,' so he thought, 'Well, I'll ask to use the bathroom.' And so he asks Lyle, 'Hey, can I use the bathroom?' And Lyle said, 'Hm. Let me think about that -- nah I don't think that's such a good idea.' And from that point Malcolm thought 'Wow, there's something really wrong here.'"
And then out of nowhere, a neighbor of Lyle's comes forward with an electrifying story about the night of Lesley's disappearance that leaves cops slack-jawed.
"Around midnight he saw Lyle wheeling a dolly way down the hallway to a far back elevator, and on the dolly was a carpet which he described rolled up, wide enough to contain a body. Lyle had this crazed look on his face, he had a hoodie pulled up, he was sweating and he didn't even acknowledge the witness," said Gable.
Meanwhile, police call in for backup: a four-legged detective named "Indiana Bones." She's trained to find the scent of human remains. Cops have her check the trunk of Lyle's old Cadillac, and in back of his SUV.
"As it turned out we got a positive hit from the cadaver dog in both of his vehicles," said Gable.
The cars are parked about 200 yards apart in separate garages at the condominium complex.
"Our theory was that after her murdered her, he took her down to his SUV, then he transferred her body over to an old vintage Cadillac that he owned, puts her body in there, drives back to his condominium. Once he figures out what he's going to do, he puts the body back into the Mitsubishi and uses the Mitsubishi to discard her body, and that's why we got decomposition hits in both vehicles," said Gable.
Things are not looking good for Lyle. But cops don't move in on him yet. They still have no body. And without that, they'll need every shred of evidence they can get to make a convincing case for murder.
"The hardest part about one of these investigations is proving that she's no longer around," said Gable.
Leaving no stone unturned, detectives put a tracking device on Lyle's car.
"We did live surveillance and GPS surveillance on Lyle in hopes that maybe he would visit where he may have disposed to body just to get that warm and fuzzy that everything was OK," said Gable.
Sure enough a few days later, Lyle leads them to a remote area of Griffith Park, less than three miles away from his condo, at around 6 a.m. Then they call in the expert to have a sniff.
"We went out there with Indiana Bones and we got a positive hit on a dirt mound which is maybe 15 feet from a Dumpster," said Gable.
Cops get to work digging up the mound. But they find nothing.
And even the fine work of Indiana Bones only goes so far. She found the scent of human remains, but exactly who's is undetermined.
"Couldn't confirm it was her body 'cause it's Griffith Park, there's a lot of bodies that get dumped there," said Gable.
"But it seemed to really sync up with everything that perhaps he backed his Mitsubishi in there, put her body on this dirt mound and then transferred it to the Dumpster. Those Dumpsters go to our huge L.A. dump, and if that's the case I don't think we'll ever recover her body."
It's a maddening puzzle missing only one crucial piece.
But with everything they now know, police are still dead certain that Lyle has done away with his wife.
After 14 months of an exhaustive investigation, police drive over to Lyle's office at Cal State Northridge and arrest him.
Lyle is charged with murder. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Sam Hulefeld handles the prosecution. But there's still that one missing element.
"The obvious thing that's remarkable about this case is that there was no body," said Hulefeld. "Most murders start and end with a body, and here we had to build a case without one."
Whatever the odds against getting a conviction, the prosecution is absolutely certain of their findings. They can only hope the jury will see things the same way.
"Even without Lesley's body in this case, the amount of evidence pointing to Lyle Herring's guilt was overwhelming," said Hulefeld.
And after a three-week-long trial the jury quickly arrives at a verdict: Lyle Herring is found guilty of second-degree murder, and is sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
"As far as the evidence being overwhelming, that's actually the comment of the trial judge who presided over the trial after conviction, at sentencing," said Hulefeld.
Lyle went through plenty of effort to cover up his guilt. According to Detective Gable, he almost succeeded.
In fact, if Lyle had simply stayed home, Gable says, there's a chance this murder may never have been solved.
"He would have been much better off if he did nothing, then we'd have nothing to go on. It was his cover-ups that really solidified the case," said Gable.
As for Lesley, she might never be found. But the police and her bereaved family still have hope that Lyle Herring might do the right thing.
"Finding her remains would be very important, and the only person that can do that is Lyle," said Gable. "Hopefully one day he'll reach out to us want to tell us where she is."