By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A SAN FERNANDOSUPERIOR COURT judge has sentenced a former Sheriff’s sergeant and elementary school teacher to 25 years to life in prison for the 1991 murder of his estranged wife. A stunned John Racz, 61, who did not testify during the two-month trial, spoke briefly to Judge Ronald Coen and a packed courtroom that included his three adult children and the detectives who pursued him in a saga that spanned 16 years.
“I did not kill my wife,” he proclaimed on September 14 in front of the judge and members of the jury who returned to hear the sentence. Racz, who was wearing a Los Angeles County orange jail jumpsuit, claimed that his wife “left on her own.”
The case was unusual in many ways. It pitted Racz against his former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department peers. Homicide detectives never found a body, physical evidence or witnesses to prove that the vanished woman, Ann Racz, was murdered. The trial, which concluded last month with a first-degree murder conviction, was based solely on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of dozens of family members, friends — and a pastor who testified that he saw scratches on Racz’s face after his wife’s April 22, 1991, disappearance.
It was a tale of betrayal, anger, greed and cunning. Ann Racz was a regular churchgoer and devoted 42-year-old mother who had solid ties to her Valencia community. She vanished during a quick trip alone to McDonald’s. Her friends and family were baffled, but her husband claimed she had gone on a surprise vacation. Family and friends were adamant that Ann wouldn’t walk away from her children — ages 7, 11 and 14.
Detectives soon found out that Ann Racz was about to leave her ex-cop husband, and that she had served him with divorce papers three days before she disappeared. She had recently moved into a condo with her kids, and a divorce hearing was set for May, the month after she went missing.
Racz told detectives Louie Danoff and Frank Salerno that on the day of his wife’s disappearance, he spoke to his wife about the divorce, and he offered her $25,000 in cash to take a vacation and think things through. He insisted to detectives that he met his wife on two more occasions at local restaurants, and gave her the cash. Then, Racz said, he received a collect call from his wife telling him she was going out of town, and that her minivan was parked at the Van Nuys FlyAway, a park-and-ride lot for LAX.
The two key detectives in the case couldn’t find anyone to corroborate Racz’s tale, and they believe Racz had already murdered his wife and disposed of the body. During a search of her condo, police found her passport, makeup and other traveling essentials. At the park-and-ride lot, police found a parking ticket in her minivan that lacked any fingerprints — including Ann Racz’s.
Knowing the difficulties of prosecuting a “no body” case, the detectives searched dozens of potential burial spots, scouring hundreds of miles for Ann’s remains, including Malibu — Racz’s last Sheriff’s post — and even enlisted the help of psychics.
But the case stalled until 2005, when new homicide detectives took over and re-interviewed Racz, his children and dozens of witnesses. By then, Racz was retired from teaching. In June 2006, detectives searched Racz’s backyard after receiving several clues that the former teacher had remodeled the area with concrete. However, the use of cadaver dogs and sonar technology did not uncover any remains.
Regardless, Racz was indicted by a grand jury a few months later, and was arrested by detectives in October 2006 at LAX when he was returning from a trip to Thailand. At his summer trial, two prosecutors from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Major Crimes Unit contended that Racz killed his wife out of anger over an affair she had begun with a man in Northern California, and to prevent her from getting money in the divorce. His trial, which began with opening arguments on June 22, also included close to 30 witnesses, one of whom testified that Ann told her that Racz threatened that if she left him, he would kill her, and her body would never be found.
The prosecutor’s star witness turned out to be Racz’s own daughter, Joann, who was 14 at the time of her mother’s disappearance. She testified that Ann confided that she was unhappy with Racz, and Joann never believed his tale that her mother just abandoned her and her siblings.
At Racz’s sentencing, Judge Ronald Coen described the case as “a horrific example of greed and control gone awry.”