Lesley Herring: The Hollywood Murder Case With No Body

In a risky move, Los Angeles is trying a man for the murder of his wife—the sister of a ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ actress—though the woman was never found. Christine Pelisek reports.

03.28.13 8:45 AM ET

Lesley Herring was a creature of habit. She called her mother every morning to pray, kept her home spotless, and rarely missed a day of work at SimplexGrinnell, a fire alarm and security company in Los Angeles. So when her sister, actress Aasha Davis, received a call from Lesley’s employer that she hadn’t showed up to work for two days, a sense of panic overcame her.

“It made me nervous and uncomfortable because it didn’t sound like her,” Davis, who has appeared on Friday Night Lights and Grey’s Anatomy, would later testify. “She doesn’t just go anywhere without telling anyone. She likes doing the same thing all the time. Doing something new is unusual for her.”

Four years later, Herring still hasn’t been found. Even so, L.A. prosecutors have taken the unusual step of bringing Herring’s husband to trial for murder without a body to point to as evidence.

“Don’t expect to see Lesley Herring’s body,” said deputy district attorney Sam Hulefeld during opening statements on March 14. “There isn’t one. We cannot produce one for you. And we are going to ask you not to reward the defendant for that.”

Murder trials without a body are quite rare, but not unheard of. One unofficial tally estimates that there have been 300 such cases in the United States. Such trials present unique difficulties for prosecutors and often rely heavily on circumstantial evidence, making convictions difficult to wrangle.

From the start of the investigation, there were signs that something was amiss. Police found Herring’s purse, identification, keys, money, cell phone, and ATM card inside the trunk of her 1998 red Toyota Corolla parked at her gated Hollywood Hills condo. The treasured Guyanese gold bracelets she wore every day were found inside a different purse on her bedroom closet floor. That was a major red flag, Lesley's mother would testify—Lesley was extremely frugal, and she lived by an old superstition: purse on the floor, money out the door.

Then, a week after she went missing, Herring’s husband Lyle, a recruiter and admissions counselor at California State University, Northridge, was pulled over by customs officers reentering California from Mexico. Herring told investigators that he had no idea where his 44-year-old wife was. The couple had plans to vacation in Mexico, he said, but they had quarreled before they left, and she ran off. He decided to go to Mexico to see if she had made her way there ahead of him.

A last-minute trip without telling her family members or work? It seemed extremely unlikely for a woman described by family members as a reliable, meticulous planner who would never go on vacation without giving her family a copy of her travel itinerary. Her family was adamant that Lesley, who had just become a new aunt with the birth of Davis’s son, would never walk away from her elderly mother, her siblings, or the employees who counted on her for their weekly paychecks. As a sign of their affection, those employees gave her their hardhats when they moved on or retired. She lovingly kept them on a shelf above her desk.

Detectives soon learned that Lesley had talked to her mother about leaving her husband, and a cadaver dog named Indiana Bones "alerted" to human decomposition in the trunk of Herring's two cars. Despite knowing the pitfalls of prosecuting a case with no body, they arrested Herring for the murder of his wife 14 months after she vanished.

“This is a case about a senseless and callous murder of an innocent wife by a calculating husband who tried hard to get away with it,” Hulefeld said in the opening of the trial. “It’s a case about how that regular middle-aged woman vanished abruptly off the face of the earth four years ago, never to be seen or heard from again, because that husband that killed her got rid of her body successfully. And it’s about how that husband then started weighing his options, looking for a way out, and planning his escape from justice.”

Herring has pleaded not guilty. “What this is, and nothing more, is a missing person case,” said attorney Marvin Hamilton. The case, he said, is “built on loose circumstantial evidence.”

Prosecutors say Herring began to cover his tracks immediately. As part of his elaborate misdirection to police, he planted a Starbucks receipt in Lesley’s purse, dated two days after she was last seen, in order to support his “wife left me” tale. (Herring was caught on a Starbucks surveillance tape purchasing the cup of coffee.) He also called her mother and left a message inquiring about Lesley's whereabouts, and took on the role of distraught husband at a news conference in March with her family and police.

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At the same time, Hulefeld says, Herring was planning his escape, and began searching the Web using keywords such as “U.S.-Mexico Border, “US-Texas-Mexico Border,” and “Do I need a passport?” He also checked out a website called “Which Country Do I Flee to?” and “What’s the Weather Like in Belize?”

During the week following his wife’s disappearance, Herring, with his signature dreadlocks shaved off, apparently popped up in the Mexican resort town of Rosarito Beach asking about buying a nightclub. “He mentioned he had money,” testified real estate agent Maria Minando. “He said he was a millionaire. He couldn’t access money currently but it would be available shortly.”

His trial has included close to a dozen witnesses, one of whom testified that Herring, on the night of Lesley’s February 7 disappearance, was observed by a neighbor pushing a dolly containing a “large roll of carpet, loosely rolled around something” onto a back elevator.

The prosecution’s star witness is Herring’s cousin, Marvin Thomas, who told the jury that a frantic Herring called him several times after February 7 claiming that he was “tired of everything and he wanted to check out,” he testified.

Later at a Denny’s restaurant, Herring allegedly blurted out to Thomas that “what he did he cannot come back from” and “he would burn in hell for what he did.”

Thomas testified that he noticed that Herring was wearing a gun holster around his ankle. “It looked like there was something in it,” he said. “I was scared. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t know what would have happened.”

And maybe most chilling of all, Thomas testified that Herring placed a large plastic bag in the back of his car that contained what appeared to be a woman’s maroon sweater, white tennis shoes, and a pair of blue jeans.