After 14 years in jail and 139 court appearances accused murderer John Laurence Whitaker, a former Pasadena Unified School District volunteer and a candidate for the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees, was scheduled to again return to court for yet another pretrial hearing on Oct. 22.
Whitaker is accused of raping and strangling two women, one in 1975 in Santa Monica and the other in 1975 in Laguna Niguel. He is has been held without bail in the Harbor Justice Center jail in Newport Beach since 2005, soon after being arrested in Oregon, where he failed to register as a sex offender. Whitaker was wanted at the time by Orange County homicide investigators, who had linked his DNA profile to the unsolved 1983 strangulation murder of Patricia Ann Carpenter, a known prostitute from the Hollywood area. Whitaker has also been linked though DNA evidence to the murder of Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District clerk Bodil Rasmussen in 1975.
“While it’s vitally important to afford each defendant the necessary time to prepare a proper defense — especially in a murder case such as this — it does seem that Mr. Whitaker’s chosen approach of continued delay is unusual,” said Rene Amy, a local attorney and schools activist who has been following the case since Whitaker was arrested in Oregon in 2005.
According to Amy, it has probably cost taxpayers more than $1 million to house and care for the ailing, 72-year-old Whitaker, who needed hip surgery last year, according to the Orange County Register.
“I’m somewhat surprised that no one is asking more questions. Given his age now, it seems ever more likely that Mr. Whitaker will be well cared for at taxpayer expense for the rest of his life — and that the family of the murdered woman will never see justice truly served,” Amy said of Carpenter.
Officials with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
“I’ve never heard of a murder case being actively open 14 years, unless there was a finding of the defendant’s incompetence to stand trial,” said local attorney Pamela Dansby. “While it is not uncommon for murder cases to take two years or so, 14 years is way outside the norm.”
Whitaker has had 11 lawyers. Each attorney has requested continuances to get up to speed on the case. Others have requested and received reviews of the DNA evidence.
“It is absolutely taking a long time,” Orange County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Farrah Emani told the Pasadena Weekly in 2014, shortly before Whitaker’s 99th court appearance for the two murders. “Defendants have a lot of rights. When their attorneys request continuances, they are often granted by the court.”
Carpenter’s body was found during the early morning hours of Dec. 17, 1983 alongside Laguna Canyon Road. She was partially naked and, judging by the abrasions on her face, had most likely been dumped out of a moving vehicle, authorities have said.
Rasmussen’s body was discovered in a parking lot in Santa Monica in 1975, Whitaker being the last person seen with her, according to witness testimony given to the police.
Whitaker was interviewed by detectives at that time, but he denied being involved in her death, stating they did know one another and that any sexual activity between them had been consensual.
In both cases the bodies of the two women were found with their stockings around their necks.
However, because of a lack of physical evidence and the crime- solving technology available at the time, police were unable to identify a suspect. Both murder investigations were shelved and remained in cold case files of the respective jurisdictions in which they occurred.
The women fought their assailant and some of his skin was trapped underneath their ingernails. Eventually technology caught up with Whitaker and etectives hoping to find leads fed the evidence into TracKRS, a cold case homicide database that contains details about thousands of cases, with some including DNA evidence. Whitaker’s DNA had been in the database since 1994 after he was released from a New York state prison, where he served 10 years for rape. He had also served time beginning in 1964 for sodomy of a child under 14.
By the mid-1990s Whitaker was living in Pasadena and attending PCC under the alias John Whitaker Betances, one of 18 aliases he had allegedly used.
Under that guise, Whitaker would sometimes visit the offices of the Pasadena Weekly claiming to be a US Army Special Forces officer. He once said he escaped from a Viet Cong prison after killing a guard by chewing threw his neck.
Whitaker, a large and imposing man who regularly wore a black beret and army fatigues, worked his way into a volunteer position at the Pasadena Unified School District where he created a support group for fathers called DADS, an acronym for Dads Are Doing Something. Whitaker appeared on several local TV programs with then-Superintendent Percy Clark.
PUSD admitted that no background check was done on Whitaker and claimed that he was never alone with children. Whitaker had been given an office and entrusted with a key to district headquarters, where he had access to district personnel files and computers.
He also unsuccessfully ran for the PCC Board of Trustees.
Neither PCC nor the PUSD performed a background check on Whitaker. His arrest in Oregon forced PUSD to change its policy and perform background checks on all volunteers.
“I remember they gave him free reign,” said Pasadena Board of Education member Scott Phelps, who was a teacher at the time of the arrest. “It was a wake-up call in retrospect. It was really important. Now, the first thing we ask is if they can pass a background check. It is much more in people’s minds.”
Once he was in custody in Oregon for failing to register as a sex offender, Whitaker attempted to fight extradition to stand trial for the murders in Orange and LA counties. Since 2005, he has been an inmate in the Orange County Jail.
Whitaker may have even predicted the long case during an interview with the Pasadena Weekly in 2009.
“It’s not going to be the duck-shoot they thought it would be,” Whitaker said in a phone interview with the Pasadena Weekly from jail. “It’s not going to be like shooting fish in a bucket.”