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Former Los Angeles Raiders Cheerleader Sexually Assaulted, Strangled and Buried by Photographer
Photographer Charles Rathbun claimed he accidentally hit Linda Sobek with a car. The evidence told Los Angeles detectives the more sinister truth.
The day began like any other one in sunny California for Linda Sobek, 27, a model, actress and former NFL cheerleader for the Los Angeles Raiders with big dreams.
On November 16, 1995, she called her mother first thing to check in. She told her she’d booked a photo shoot — and that she’d call later.
She never did. Sobek’s mother reported her daughter missing on November 17. Sobek’s friend Denise Villanueva, a media spokesperson for the Raiderettes, as the team's cheerleaders are known, sent out a press release.
“The media picked up on this story right away because Linda was a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Raiders,” said Lt. Mark Wright, now retired from the Hermosa Beach Police Department.
The Search for Linda Sobek
Investigators questioned if Sobek’s personal relationships could be tied to her disappearance. “None of the evidence pointed towards past boyfriends, current boyfriends or associates,” said Wright.
Detectives interviewed Sobek’s Hermosa Beach roommates. They had no information, but shared that she kept all of her scheduled TV auditions and modeling shoots in her day planner. The journal wasn’t there.
On November 21, Wright got a call from a man who’d found photos that he believed were of Sobek in Angeles National Forest. The caller had been doing community cleanup in the Los Angeles County wilderness area on November 18 and found the pictures in roadside trash bins.
“He said this woman was so beautiful that he was going to keep four of the photographs,” said Stephen Kay, a now retired prosecutor who worked for decades for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Three days later, he saw reports about Sobek on the TV news and contacted authorities. The tipster showed police exactly where he’d found the pictures on Saturday.
Investigators believed more evidence could have been tossed. They searched dumpsters filled with trash collected from the forest receptacles.
“We found modeling photographs of Linda,” said Wright. “In another bag I noticed a daily planner.”
The page for November 16, when Sobek vanished, was ripped out. “That was not a good sign,” said Wright. “I began to believe that Linda was the victim of a homicide.”
How did a Lexus lease provide a key piece of evidence in Linda Sobek's case?
Investigators had all of the trash recovered from Angeles National Forest transported to the Hermosa Beach police station to look for clues. At the same time, search teams, including canine units, combed the forest area. At the police station, investigators sifted through the trash. They found a lease for a Lexus prototype SUV, according to Raul Saldana, a retired detective with the Hermosa Beach PD. The agreement dated November 16 was between Lexus corporation and a photographer named Charles Rathbun.
Police learned that Rathbun returned the Lexus SUV on November 20. The vehicle was brought to the crime lab to be searched.
Saldana called Rathbun, then 38. He explained that he was working on the Sobek missing-person case. Rathbun said he’d photographed her two years earlier for a Chevy shoot.
During the phone call, Rathbun also said that he met with Sobek on November 16 at a Denny’s restaurant in Torrance, Calif. He added that he needed to book a model for a Lexus shoot, and claimed that she wasn’t right for the job and she drove away.
Rathbun agreed to come to the police station to make a formal statement. He then shocked detectives with what he said next, they told Real Murders of Los Angeles.
“He said, I guess it's really important that you talk to me, considering I was the last person to see her.”
Police had never hinted that he was the last person to lay eyes on Sobek. “But he’s admitted it,” Saldana pointed out.
Investigators were sure Rathbun had lied. They believed Sobek had never driven away, as he claimed.
Rathbun never showed up to give his formal statement, so a surveillance team was assigned to his house in Hollywood.
As a team was keeping eyes on Rathbun’s residence, he came out of his house and fired a gun. Detectives learned that Rathbun had been drinking and telling close pals he was responsible for Sobek’s disappearance, according to Real Murders of Los Angeles.
When two friends came by, Rathbun fired a round at the ground that ricocheted and hit one of them in the arm. Rathbun was taken into custody for assault with a deadly weapon.
The two friends had no information on Sobek, so police turned their focus to Rathbun. He told police that he and Sobek drove the prototype Lexus to the Mojave Desert, where they photographed it at El Mirage dry lake bed. The area is about 40 miles from the Angeles National Forest.
He then said he wanted to photograph the car doing donuts, but Sobek wasn’t getting it right. She got out of the car, and he jumped in to show her what to do. That’s when, he claimed, he accidentally hit her with the car and killed her, according to detectives.
Saldana explained that Rathbun said he was thinking about taking Sobek to a hospital, but that "during his panic, he buried her."
Charles Rathbun Charged with Linda Sobek's Murder
Rathbun agreed to take police to the burial site. Instead, detectives said, he spent six hours leading them to a series of dead ends.
Rathbun was taken back to the station and booked for murder. Sobek’s family learned of the arrest as they prepared for Thanksgiving without their beloved daughter and sister.
“It was the worst Thanksgiving of our lives,” said Linda’s brother, Steve Sobek. “After that, Thanksgiving was never the same.”
Police found no damage done to the Lexus prototype, which poked a hole in Rathbun’s accident story. At Rathbun’s house, they collected more than 100 firearms along with a pack containing cord and duct tape that could be used to bind another person.
Then another alarming development arose. Rathbun appeared to try to kill himself while in custody with a razor from a shaving kit. “In his cell on the wall he had written in blood, ‘I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt anyone,’” said Saldana.
The shallow wounds led investigators to believe that this was a tactic by Rathbun, not an act of remorse, they said.
At the hospital, Saldana appealed to Rathbun, saying that Sobek’s family desperately wanted to lay her to rest. Rathfun finally gave in.
Accompanied by Wright in a police helicopter, Rathbun directed officials to where he buried Sobek in the Angeles National Forest, according to the Los Angeles Times. Media choppers tailed them in close pursuit.
After a number of hours and false leads, Rathbun zeroed in on the actual burial location. Sobek’s body was carefully exhumed by a CSI team of forensic archaeologists.
Because of the cold temperature, her body had been preserved. There were no signs of being struck by a car, as Rathbun claimed. Ligature marks on her ankle indicating she’d been restrained.
The autopsy report concluded that she suffered blunt force trauma to her head and had been asphyxiated. “She was clearly sexually and violently assaulted,” said Wright.
Rathbun was charged with sexual assault and first-degree murder. At trial, the defense team argued that Rathbun accidentally strangled Sobek during consensual sex.
To learn more about the case, watch Real Murders of Los Angeles, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.