Robert Price

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:36 PM

Family seeks closure in 1978 slaying

By Robert Price

It was the first Tuesday in September and summer vacation had officially ended. Thirteen-year-old Jimmy Leard and his 10-year-old sister, Sharon, like thousands of children across Bakersfield, were heading back for the first day of school.

At 7:30 a.m. sharp, 38-year-old Patricia Henson Leard inspected her children at the front door, handed them their lunches and shooed them on their way.

They never saw her alive again.

Someone killed Pat Leard that day, and 26 years later her family still yearns to know who and why. Her brothers and sisters have always had suspicions about one man: Pat's husband, Phillip Ray Leard. Pat had informed him she would be leaving him, or so she confided to her late mother, her siblings say. But Phillip Leard, a cigarette salesman, had been at a business meeting in Fresno that morning. All morning.

The investigation went nowhere. By the following year, the trail had faded. The Pat Leard slaying was a cold case. A dead end.

But last summer, sheriff's Detective Karen Smith petitioned Kern County Superior Court Judge Charles McNutt to order Phillip Leard and his brother, Julius Barney Leard, to produce saliva samples for DNA testing. They had refused to do so voluntarily.

Investigators at the scene of the slaying 26 years before had clipped and preserved Pat Leard's fingernail tips. In a process those investigators could only have imagined, law enforcement laboratories now have the ability to compare such things at the molecular level.

McNutt wouldn't order Barney Leard to be swabbed for saliva, but he OK'd Smith's request that Phillip Leard be forced to comply.

So, on the morning of July 6, five sheriff's deputies appeared at the door of Leard's house in south Bakersfield.

"I thought it was a convention of Jehovah's Witnesses," said Leard, who is now 61 and retired. "One of them had a camera. It was a real circus. These guys have been spitting into the wind for 26 years."

He conceded it will be good to clear the air. "In a way you're kind of glad they're still looking at it, that they care," he said. "But on the other hand the only one they're looking at is me."

Leard won't be cleared -- or implicated -- anytime soon, however. The District Attorney's crime lab has a backlog of 60 cases, and the Leard case isn't even among them. The file still hasn't been forwarded over from the D.A.'s office.

"And it'll be six months more once it gets to us," said Vernon Kyle, the lab's chief criminalist. "Business is good, unfortunately."

That grates painfully on Frank Henson, Pat's brother and the youngest of the eight Henson boys. He told investigators the day his sister was killed to look closely at Phillip Leard, and he hasn't changed his tune in the 26 years that have followed.

"I hope we are wrong, because I have a nephew and niece out of that marriage and they're family, period," he said. "I love them to pieces. But we have to do this."

He's convinced the DNA samples would have been analyzed long ago if the Hensons were anything but the working-class people they are.

"It's more than frustrating," he said. "Sometimes when I really think about it, I get nauseated.

"It's time. It's been (three) months since they got his DNA. The family needs resolution. And it takes influence."

Patricia Leard was, by all accounts, a dutiful wife.

Before her killer came to the house on Rosewood Avenue that day, Pat had had time to make up every bed and wash every dish. She had limited use of her left hand -- at age 15, encephalitis had paralyzed the entire left side of her body, although over time she had regained most of her mobility -- but her family had come to expect a spotless house nonetheless.

A spotless, securely locked house. Pat Leard was "a tad paranoid" when she was home alone, said her sister Yolanda Benson. So much so, Benson said, Pat would pretend to not be home when anyone she didn't know knocked on the door. Investigators found no evidence of forced entry the day of the slaying; everything except the front door was locked tight.

Jimmy was the first one to get home that afternoon. He intended to ask for his mother's permission to go home with a friend, Kenny Manzer. Kenny came inside with him; Kenny's mother waited in her car. The boys walked in the door just before 2 p.m.

They found Jimmy's mother seated at the table where the Leard family had had breakfast five and a half hours before. Blood covered the linoleum.

Patricia Leard's throat had been slashed, and she'd been stabbed 19 times in the abdomen. Her blue-and-white house dress was soaked red. The killer had apparently tried to simulate a rape scene, though no rape had taken place.

The boys stumbled back out the front door and ran screaming to Mrs. Manzer. She called the Sheriff's Department.

An aunt arrived and took Jimmy across the street to a neighbor's house. From there, determined to spare Sharon the sight of her mother's gruesome slaying, they waited to intercept the girl.

Phillip Leard, 35 at the time, had left the house at 6 a.m. that morning for a meeting in Fresno. He came home to the chaos at about 3 p.m. and immediately took the children to the home of his brother, Barney.

Investigators have always wondered about Barney Leard, with whom Phillip was especially close.

Barney was a newly hired child support investigator in the Kern County District Attorney's office at the time of Pat's killing. He lost his job after being arrested in 1981 on child molestation charges -- he sexually assaulted a boy on the youth wrestling team he coached -- and eventually served three years at Atascadero State Hospital.

Phillip Leard had similar troubles. As revealed in the sheriff's search warrant request from July, he was arrested in separate incidents for lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor under the age of 14, lewd conduct in a public place and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The cases were expunged from his record in 1992.

Barney Leard's past association with the D.A.'s office has always troubled Frank Henson, who still wonders if it ever came into play in the initial investigation.

"I think there's a connection there with Barney," he said. "I think there's a strong connection with Barney. I think they knew how to work things back in those days."

Sheriff's Department representatives declined to comment on the Pat Leard slaying case.

Phillip Leard, for his part, insists the sheriff's entire case is nonsense and wishful thinking.

"My children came home and found her like that," he said. "My god, what kind of monster would I have to be? I'm a Christian man. You know what they always think, though: The wife's dead, husband did it."

That's what the Sheriff's Department hopes to sort out, one way or another. They just need the line at the DNA lab to move a little faster.

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