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Murdered Former NFL Cheerleader's Friends Quickly Helped Spearhead Search Effort When She Went Missing
"Act as fast as you can" when someone goes missing, advises Denise Villanueva, friend of murder victim Linda Sobek. “We respected the process, but we pushed the process.”
When ex-Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader Linda Sobek vanished 28 years ago, her friends and former squad members rallied to help — and fast.
They got Sobek’s story out to the public very quickly. “It was a team effort. We provided a piece of the puzzle that elevated the exposure of the case,” said public relations pro Denise Villanueva, a former Raiderette who shares insights with Oxygen.com on the tragic missing person-turned homicide case featured in Real Murders of Los Angeles, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Who was Linda Sobek, the ex-Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader who went missing?
In late 1995, Sobek, 27, was carving out a career as a model and an actress. On November 16, she left her Los Angeles home for a photo shoot and was never heard from again.
Villanueva — also a former Raiders cheerleader at the time her friend went missing — met Sobek in 1988 in her rookie year as a Raiderette. “I’d already been on the squad for four years. Linda was a true team player,” Villanueva told Oxygen.com.
Sobek was disciplined and dependably predictable. So her failure to return calls to her mother, Elaine Sobek, was a bright red flag for loved ones. In the early evening of November 16, “I got the call from Elaine, asking me, ‘Have you talked to Linda? Do you know where she is?,” said Villanueva, who was also a spokesperson for the cheer squad. “I could hear it in her voice — deep concern. That still sticks with me to this day.”
Linda Sobek's Loved Ones Spearhead Search Effort
Villanueva’s first move was to connect with Raiderettes and alumni, who, in turn, worked the phones. “None of the girls had any idea where Linda was,” said Villanueva.
On November 17, Sobek’s family filed a missing persons report with the Hermosa Beach Police Department. They didn’t wait 24 hours to do that, which many people mistakenly believe is a must.
“By and large, there are no overarching rules in the U.S. about waiting 24 hours,” according to Michelle Jeanis, an associate professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Jeanis, whose area of research is missing persons, doesn’t recommend waiting, she added.
Villanueva knows first-hand about the value of acting quickly. “Family and friends who are concerned about somebody and know something's gone wrong shouldn’t wait to file the missing person report,” she said. “Just go for it. It gets the ball rolling. It’s on record. There’s a case number.”
All of that was key to Villanueva’s next move. After getting a green-light from Sobek’s family and the Hermosa Beach Police Department, Villanueva used her years of experience in marketing and media to write and distribute a press release about Sobek’s disappearance.
“I knew the media would want the who, what, when, where, why, and contact information,” she said. “I had the case number from the Hermosa Beach Police.”
“I’d billed the release as ‘model and former Raiderette missing’ in hopes that people would pay attention,” she added. “It was very emotional, but we had to get the story out.”
The impact of the press release was nearly immediate and far-reaching. “The story was everywhere every day on the news — morning, noon and night,” Villanueva explained. Reports included photos of Sobek. Villanueva helped Sobek’s family handle the media requests.
“The media picked up on this story right away,” Lt. Mark Wright, now retired from the Hermosa Beach PD, told Real Murders of Los Angeles. “We were getting approximately 100 calls an hour.”
The investigation into Sobek’s disappearance took a dramatic turn thanks to a man who was doing clean-up in Angeles National Park on November 18, who’d found pictures of a pretty woman that had been tossed in the trash.
He kept the pictures — and days later, reached out to police after seeing the news about Sobek to report he’d found photos of her.
The tip was key to the case, leading investigators to discover invaluable evidence that was also in the garbage — a lease agreement for a Prototype Lexus vehicle between the car company and photographer Charles Rathbun, then 38.
Rathbun was arrested on November 24 and later convicted of murdering Sobek, who he buried in the forest.
Nearly three decades later, Villanueva and Elaine Sobek still speak regularly. The loss is still palpable.
Villanueva looks back at how she and Sobek’s other friends and former colleagues responded quickly and “tried to be there for the family."
"Act as fast as you can,” Villanueva advises of when someone goes missing. “We respected the process, but we pushed the process.”