By Robert Price
Almost two years ago, the quarter-century-old Patricia Leard murder file migrated from the cold-case archives to the top of Karen Smith's desktop pile.
Smith, a detective with the Kern County Sheriff's Department, took a special interest in the case -- the stabbing death of Leard, a 38-year-old east Bakersfield mother -- and pushed for DNA analysis.
Investigators had long suspected Leard's husband, Phillip Leard, but the tobacco company representative had an impenetrable alibi: He was at a business meeting that day in September 1978 and, based on time-of-death findings, couldn't have traveled home from Fresno quickly enough to have committed the murder.
A comparison of Phillip Leard's DNA and genetic material gathered from the scene would settle the matter, investigators believed. It was telling, they noted privately, that Phillip Leard had always refused to provide a DNA sample until a July 2004 court order finally compelled him to.
Well, the evidence is starting to come in, and it's not what anybody wanted to see -- not those convinced Phillip Leard was the killer and not those convinced he wasn't.
Inconclusive. Not enough DNA material from the crime scene to reach a definitive conclusion. At least not yet.
"They're still doing some more tests," Smith said, "but I really expected there to be more DNA on the nylons" that Patricia Leard was wearing the day she was murdered in her home.
"We have not punted," Smith said. "But it does not appear his DNA was there on the nylons. They can't find foreign DNA at all."
Phillip Leard died one year ago this month, a week shy of his 62nd birthday.
For the Leards' daughter Sharon, convinced her controlling father was the killer, the DNA lab's failure to settle things is frustrating.
"I'm resolved to the fact that we'll probably never see this (scientifically) proven," she said. "It's aggravating, but what can you do?"
This cold case is more special than most because Karen Smith and Sharon Leard have developed a mutual admiration for the other's tenacity. The detective is also motivated by the fact that, if Phillip Leard was not the killer, somebody else is getting away with murder.
Among the prime possibilities: Phillip's brother Barney Leard, a Kern County District Attorney's employee at the time of the murder who was later convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy. Smith sought a court order to obtain his DNA, too, but was denied.
Phillip Leard has his defenders. Al Haas, an old friend, says this is a case of sloppy police work and old-fashioned conclusion-jumping.
"It's always the husband," Haas said. "Well, I thought he was a pretty good guy. He wasn't a big drinker, wasn't a skirt chaser. If I didn't know the guy I wouldn't give a damn."
Sharon Leard knew him pretty well too, though, and she already has plans for the one-year anniversary of his death a week from now. It doesn't involve flowers.
She wants to replace her mother's headstone at Hillcrest Cemetery.
"Her headstone just says 'Beloved Wife,'" the daughter said. "He didn't add 'beloved mother' or anything else about her. I talked to a (criminal) profiler once who told me that was his last way of saying 'I own you.' And he did, right to the end."
She ordered the new headstone Tuesday.
The "filter center": Three readers called or wrote to answer Jack Williams' question, posed in last Friday's column, about the World War II-era "filter center" inside Bakersfield's Masonic Temple.
Williams' mother had told him that her sister -- his aunt -- had talked about some sort of eavesdropping operation there.
Dean VanZant, whose father was a Mason in those days, wrote to say that during the war the U.S. Army Air Corps rented the third (top) floor of the temple, at F and 18th streets.
The Army used the facility as an aircraft tracking center, he said. Army personnel and local volunteers, relying on information from aircraft spotting stations around the county, used a huge map to track aircraft. There was no telephone eavesdropping, he said. Most houses had party lines anyway -- so "listening in" was a popular hobby.
Mary Lou Stewart, who volunteered there, said workers spent their shifts "plugged into our earphones taking calls from the aircraft spotters."
Ethel Meyer said she worked as a "pusher," moving markers representing aircraft in flight across a huge grid.
But Meyer also had "spy" duty -- and here perhaps is where the confusion may lie.
Meyer said she was quietly instructed to listen to the conversations of others at the filter center in case they were up to no good. But in all her time there, she said, she never had cause to bring anything suspicious to the attention of supervisors.
Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 395-7399.