Woman leaves false clues in lover's murder, caught after escape to Belize
05/31/2016 12:27 pm PDT
A woman looking and finding love on Craigslist. But that red-hot romance would end with a cold-blooded killing. Crime Watch Daily goes inside the crime lab with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to see how they were able to crack this case.
Joe Espino and Robert Kenney are two veteran Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide bulldogs who can sniff out a killer's trail like nobody's business. Sometimes the bad guy can knock even the best cops off the track, but in this case, not for long.
At 29, Lanell Barsock was upwardly mobile.
"She was very successful, attractive. A licensed vocational nurse," said Detective Joe Espino. "She lived in a beautiful home, 3,700 square feet."
Lanell had a boyfriend, a native of Haiti, named Louis Bonheuer.
"Louis had a very hot temper. Jealous guy," said Espino. "He would stalk her, had a history of driving her off the road caused her to crash."
Lanell kept her romantic options open. She was also seeing a guy named Ike Umuna.
One scorching hot June day in 2010 in Palmdale, California, 65 miles northeast of Los Angeles where Lanell lived, her pal Larene Austin stopped by. She had planned to weave Lanell's hair that day, but she walked into a firestorm. Louis was in a rage.
"Louis had found out that his girlfriend had a phone given to her by this other boyfriend," said Espino.
Larene decided to come back later hoping things would calm down. When she returned it was calm. Dead calm.
"She saw her friend laying on the garage floor next to the car," said Espino. "Lanell had a black plastic bag around her head. She immediately checked her pulse, lifted up the bag to confirm her it was her friend. Lanell Barsock had been murdered."
Larene says she heard movement on the second floor of the house, and the next thing she knew, she was staring Louis Bonheuer in the face as he stood at the top of the stairs.
"Immediately Larene said 'That's the killer -- he saw me and he's going to kill me,'" said Espino.
Larene ran for her life, speeding off in her car, headed for the sheriff's station.
"When she came in she was hysterical and agitated," said Espino. "Her friend had been murdered and she wanted assistance. She had blood on her hand, buttocks and chest. She had wiped herself after falling on the cement floor of the garage."
It didn't take long for cops to catch up with Bonheuer.
"Louis appears to be the killer based on several factors," said Detective Robert Kenney. "Louis tells us the relationship is fine. We know that's not correct with anything we've heard from anybody."
"I noticed he had a scratch on the left side of his neck," said Espino. "He started crying but he had no tears. The victim's brother saw Louis on a computer making banking transactions and looking up flights to Miami, trying to fund his escape to Haiti."
And if the motive wasn't clear enough, the writing was on the wall: a "Dear John" letter from Lanell.
"The Dear John letter stated, 'Dear Louis, I am leaving you for another guy that I've been dating. Don't try to find me,'" said Espino.
Louis Bonheuer was taken into custody. The next order of business: finding the physical evidence that would seal his fate.
"We know the victim was shot in the head at a slightly downward angle," said Kenney. "The exit wound was through the nose."
"We found a pillow that was used as a silencer, placed on the back of the head to muffle the shots," said Espino.
Cops find an expended cartridge from a 9-millimeter gun.
Sheriff's Senior Criminalist Mary Keens makes her own telling observations at the bloody crime scene in the garage.
"There was a lot of blood throughout the crime scene but it had been moved around and cleaned up significantly," said Keens.
Keens uses Luminol to essentially "light up" blood the eye can't see. She determines Lanell had been murdered in the home and moved to the garage.
"The Luminol fluoresced, and you could see an area that looked like someone had been dragged through that location," said Keens.
Keens collects, among other things, a gray plastic pitcher with a distinct fingerprint which Keens believes was used to clean up the crime scene, a bloody pair of gloves and an area rug near Lanell's body that had been removed from the home.
She works to process the crime scene evidence while detectives work on Louis Bonheuer, who's being held in the county jail.
"He kept saying 'You've got to find the murderer, and I'm thinking 'I'm looking at the murderer,'" said Espino. "He said he wasn't even around, he was getting his car fixed at several auto parts stores."
The detectives check out Bonheuer's story. They're stunned at what they find.
"We're searching his truck looking for evidence," said Det. Kenney. "Instead what we find are receipts showing that he was in Los Angeles when this murder should be taking place."
"We found receipts corroborating Kragen's store at two different times," said Det. Espino. "We found a receipt for AutoZone."
Surveillance footage from two Los Angeles auto parts stores 65 miles away from Palmdale clearly shows Louis Bonheuer.
"Now we know he couldn't have committed the murder -- we have video evidence," said Espino.
Cellphone records also put Bonheuer in Los Angeles.
"You can't get from Los Angeles to Palmdale and back unless you have your own private jet," said Kenney. "Even then it would be difficult."
The investigation takes a sharp turn. Detectives Kenney and Espino have cleared Lanell's other boyfriend, Ike Umuna.
So if they didn't kill her, who did?
Then detectives uncover a shocker: They find Lanell Barsock also liked women. And they turn their attention to Larene Austin, who first reported the murder, Lanell's so called "best friend."
In fact they find the two had just met.
"Larene Austin was very involved in the personals section of Craigslist, the 'Women Seeking Women,'" said Det. Espino. "She was involved with six other women through Craigslist."
It was on Craigslist that Larene connected with Lanell just one month before her murder.
"Larene befriended her, they developed a romantic relationship. Larene was hoping to move in with her and be happy forever after," said Espino.
But after just three weeks of a whirlwind affair, Lanell told Larene she was going to focus on just one love: Louis Bonheuer. Cops now have a hunch Larene, a woman with no job and heavily in debt, was not happy.
"When she hooked up with Lanell, she thought 'My ticket is here. I'm going to get what I want and what I deserve,'" said Kenney.
Espino and Kenney ask Larene to take a polygraph. She promises to but puts them off. Then cops discover:
"She had been online researching ways to defeat the polygraph," said Espino.
The detectives' suspicions soon turn into hard evidence as criminalist Mary Keens' results are in.
That pair of bloody gloves?
"Some of the DNA came back from Larene Austin, so it gave us a strong indication that she was wearing these black gloves, which puts her at the crime scene," said Keens.
That gray plastic pitcher?
"The container with the fingerprint belonged to Larene Austin," said Espino.
But what about that goodbye letter to Louis signed by Lanell Barsock?
"The letter was written by Larene Austin," said Espino. "She forged it and placed it at the crime scene."
And finally, inside that rolled up area rug found near the Lanell's body: Several hair weaving needles -- remember Larene was going to style Lanell's hair that day.
When detectives piece it all together, they've got motive, means and opportunity.
"The victim was having her hair weaved and the suspect was standing behind her," said Kenney. "The suspect reached over grabbed a pillow -- pardon the expression -- used it as a 'home girl silencer' -- put the gun up to the pillow and shot her once in the back of the head."
"She got angry. She was jilted and she decided she wanted what she was owed and she took it. Including Lanell's life," said Espino.
Cops believe Larene dragged the victim's body to the garage hoping to get it into the car, with a plan to dump Lanell in the desert.
"She was going to take her car, take her jewelry, take what money she might have, possibly steal TV sets and make a little money," said Kenney.
When Larene couldn't lift the body into the car, she resorted to Plan B: Blame it on Louis.
Louis may in fact have been a jealous guy, but he was no murderer. Larene's entire story was a lie, and now she was detected, Larene took off and stayed on the lam for a year. Until an "America's Most Wanted" tipster led cops to the murderess-turned-fugitive, hiding out in Belize.
When Espino and Kenney catch up with their long-sought killer, she was as coy as ever. Larene had nothing to confess, but she did complain that the media dared to portray her as the moocher.
Larene Austin probably wasn't any happier about the jury's guilty verdict, and her sentence of 50 years to life behind bars.
"Bottom line, it all came together, the truth came out, the jury saw through the defense's theory," said Det. Espino. "She's sent to prison for a long time. She should never be out of prison where she can harm again."