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The Sunset Strip was the place to be in 1980s Los Angeles, but when the body of a young woman was found buried in the Hollywood Hills, friends and loved ones were left reeling with fear.
Lisa Ann Mather, 18, was one of many young Angelinos who flocked with friends to the strip for a taste of the nightlife one Saturday night in 1985. The heart of West Hollywood was where she spent many weekends listening to live bands and hopping from dance club to dance club.
“Lisa was a people person and was a free spirit,” Lisa’s best friend Aimee Steckler told “Buried in The Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “We did feel like when we were together, we could just conquer the world.”
On Jan. 11, 1985, Lisa, Aimee, and their friend, Anthony O’Farrill, met on the strip. When they were denied access into 21-and-over clubs without proper identification, they resorted to the sidewalk, where they could still hear the live music. They joined other partygoers and found a construction site nearby, continuing to dance by the tailgate of a truck.
Friends last saw Lisa talking to a long-haired stranger, but moments later, police arrived and ordered the minors to disperse from the area.
“Lisa was gone,” said Anthony O’Farrill. “She was literally nowhere to be seen.”
Aimee and Anthony searched neighboring clubs. In a time before cell phones, the friends hoped Lisa might reach out via public payphone, but by morning, there was still no sign of their friend. When she didn’t return home, Lisa’s mother filed a missing persons report that very morning.
Days went by, but nothing was found.
Weeks later, Lisa’s mother got a phone call from a man asking for her daughter. The man on the other line claimed he had Lisa’s name and phone number from a matchbook he found inside his van, which had been stolen from the Sunset Strip around the time Lisa vanished. The man called Lisa’s number in hopes of finding out who’d stolen his van.
Authorities followed up on the lead and searched the vehicle, but ultimately found nothing.
“It was a very frustrating situation for both the victims and the detectives,” said retired LAPD Detective Ted Ball. “There were a lot of dead ends. You can only take it so far, and you need a break in the case.”
Days and weeks and months went by before another theory came to light: Could Lisa Mather have fallen prey to the Night Stalker?
Throughout the 1980s, serial killer Richard Ramirez kept Los Angeles in the grip of fear after killing at least 13 people and committing a number of rapes throughout the city. His August 1985 arrest came seven months after the disappearance of Lisa Mather.
“There was not anyone in the city of Los Angeles that was not terrified [of Richard Ramirez], including myself,” said Det. Ball. “There hadn’t been a serial killer working around Los Angeles in quite some time, in that fashion: extremely violent deaths.”
Police determined the pattern didn’t quite fit. If someone abducted Lisa from the street, it didn’t make sense that Ramirez, known for breaking into his victims’ homes and attacking them on their home turf, would use a different M.O. Authorities ruled the Night Stalker out as a suspect in Lisa’s disappearance.
The leads dried up until Dec. 3, 1986, nearly two years after friends last saw Lisa Mather on the Sunset Strip, when a camper in search of a clearing began to set up a tent in Coldwater Canyon. High above the sprawling metropolis of L.A., the camper made a grisly discovery when he tried to drive a stake into the ground, only to hit bone beneath the winter’s brush and leaves.
At the scene, investigators found a rope tied to the base of a tree and handcuffs hanging from the tree’s limb. Dental records confirmed the skeletal remains belonged to Lisa Mather. Because of the body’s condition, the cause of death could not be determined.
“It was the worst outcome we could hope for,” said Lisa’s sister, Rosalind Lutz. “And all of us were grieving in our own way. Not really understanding anything [about] what happened.”
Without knowing how Lisa died, detectives hoped to connect other similar deaths from the area within the same timeframe.
“We had a stroke of luck with this particular case involving fellow detectives at North Hollywood,” said Det. Ball. “When we discovered the remains of a female found on the hillside, the detective in charge of the rape detail at North Hollywood notified us that they had a serial rapist in that specific location in Coldwater Canyon that had been captured and arrested and prosecuted.”
The victims reported their rapist, Edmund Arne Matthews, assaulted them in the same area where Lisa was found in 1986.
Edmund Arne Matthews was somewhat of a fixture on the Sunset Strip. Known as “The Count” for wearing a cape and tall hat, the partygoer would dress in character and claim to be part of the rock and roll scene, having rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities.
He was also convicted of two violent attacks against women only weeks before Lisa’s murder. “The Count” lured his victims from the Sunset Strip to Coldwater Canyon with the promise of taking them to an after-party at a celebrity’s home. Authorities arrested Matthews on Jan. 28, 1985 for the Coldwater Canyon rapes.
Lisa’s relatives were disheartened to learn authorities hadn’t connected Matthews to Lisa’s disappearance earlier.
“They found him coming down the hill in Coldwater Canyon with a lantern and a shovel, and they arrested him,” said Rosalind. “I don’t know what they thought when they saw him coming down the hill, but for some reason, they did not go back up to the place where the ladies had been raped.”
The family believed that had authorities searched the hill, they would have found Lisa’s body.
As part of the ongoing investigation, Lisa’s friends, Anthony O’Farrill and Aimee Steckler, identified Edmund Matthews as the man they saw Lisa talking to just before she disappeared. But lacking any physical evidence tying Matthews to Lisa’s death, authorities were faced with a challenge: All their evidence against Matthews was circumstantial.
Detectives paid a visit to Matthews, who was serving a 10-year sentence for his rape convictions, and questioned him about Lisa Mather’s death.
Matthews confessed to picking Lisa up on the Sunset Strip but claimed Lisa willingly left with him. Matthews told detectives he and Lisa had consensual sex in a pool of a nearby school before he took her up to Coldwater Canyon. He claimed Lisa allowed Matthews to tie her to a tree to continue their sexual encounter before she lost her balance and slipped, becoming entangled with the rope, which resulted in her strangulation death.
Matthews admitted to drinking too much and alleged he could not free Lisa from the ropes and that her death was the result of a horrifying accident.
“At some point, he returned to the scene,” said Det. Ball. “Then he partially buried the body, but still, was unable to untie the rope from the tree.”
A short time later, police arrested him on the previous charges of rape as he came down from the hill with a lantern and shovel.
Police didn’t believe Lisa voluntarily went up the hill with Matthews, nor did they think she became entangled in the ropes, as told by the suspect.
“What the physical evidence showed was that Lisa was most likely laying on her back, and she’d been tied at the neck to the base of the tree,” said Det. Ball. “From the evidence, it’s more likely that there was a strangulation involved.”
Although Matthews maintained Lisa’s death was merely an unfortunate accident, a jury found him guilty in 1991 for the first-degree murder of Lisa Mather.
“He took away a beautiful girl who could have had anything in life; she was so bright,” Rosalind said of her sister. “Her life counted and she wasn’t given the opportunity to live. And to see what a difference she would have made in this world, she would have made a difference.”
Edmund Matthews is currently serving life without the possibility of parole at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, California.
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