Crime

Murder of Merced couple still a mystery

Jim Chapman has been driving from Los Banos to Merced to mow the lawn at his parents' house for almost two years.

He could hire a landscaper to do it, but it would be an unnecessary added expense. "I also like to think of it as a testament to my parents," he said.

The yard and the burned-out house behind it have become a monument to the brutal murder of his parents, Bill and Lena Chapman.

The Chapmans were found dead inside the charred shell of their home Oct. 1, 2006. Bill, 91, was in the bathroom. Lena, 81, was in their bedroom. Both had been assaulted before the fire.

The 2:23 a.m. blaze destroyed much of the evidence. Detectives refuse to say what clues were left in the ashes.

Today, pinned to the chain-link fence surrounding their East South Bear Creek Drive home, is a reward poster with a photo of the Chapmans smiling in their kitchen.

Bill wore suits to church and work. He arrived home from his job at nearly the exact same time, 5:50 p.m., every day.

Retirement never fit him. He kept busy with three part-time jobs, working at Kirby Vacuums the Saturday before he died.

Lena never went into town in anything but slacks. She swirled the laundry detergent in with the water by hand, a throwback to her life in Kansas before washing machines. She wrapped family photo albums twice with Save Mart bags to keep the dust off them. On the morning they died, the plastic protected the albums from the water from the fire hoses.

Immaculately folded sheets

Her children found crisp sheets folded immaculately in the closet as they sorted through the mess. The smell of bleach nearly overpowered the stench of smoke.

In other ways, the couple was adapting to modern times. The Internet, and particularly Google, fascinated Bill. He checked e-mail, read news sites and used it to buy a case of Chamberlain Golden Touch Lotion, which he couldn't find in local department stores anymore.

No arrests have been made in their deaths. Police have not named any suspects.

Bill and Lena met in Los Angeles just after World War II.

Lena Naomi Mawhirter, whom everyone called Lee, grew up on a farm in St. John, Kan., one of 12 children. She was lured in her 20s to Los Angeles by the big city's energy and jobs.

There, she met Bill Lightfoot Chapman, born in Powell Butte, Ore. He had helped build B-29s during the war.

They wed in February 1947 in Las Vegas and spent the next few years moving around California. In 1953, they moved to Merced. Bill loved the dry climate.

He landed a job with Sterling's Department Store, where he worked in the shoe department. He opened Chapman's Shoes in 1961; it remained a downtown institution for nearly two decades.

In shoes, he found his niche. He would contradict the advice of podiatrists who were trying to correct foot problems. For gifts, everyone got shoes. He even sent pairs to his grandchildren, living far away, based on outlines of their feet. They fit well.

Lena, more introverted, stayed at home to care for their children -- Karen, Gail and Jim.

The family moved into a custom-built home on Bear Creek in the 1970s. It was 1,800 square feet and surrounded by empty fields. "It was a great place to be a boy," Jim said.

The kids were brought up in a strict but loving household. Jim would spent afternoons hiking along Bear Creek clutching his BB gun, always making it home by 4:30 p.m. for dinner at 6.

The last call

Jim Chapman got a call from his parents Sept. 29, 2006, a Friday night. His dad was having trouble with a pop-up window on his computer and needed help.

Before hanging up, his mom got on the line to say that she loved him. "My mom's not one to express emotions," he said.

Tom and Gail Clendenin got a call at 7 a.m. Oct. 1. They were in Chico with their daughter, who was beginning college.

Jim and Jenny got a call around the same time. Dazed, he couldn't understand how a fire would have started. His parents were careful about extension cords and anything flammable.

He thought it might be a scam. Someone calling to get him out of his house so it could be robbed. He phoned his parents. Busy.

Detective John Fister took over investigating the murder a few months ago. Calling himself an old-school cop, he doesn't like the phrase "cold case."

"I don't want to take the frame of mind that there's nowhere to go," he said.

Fister is still poring through the two 4-inch binders of reports and photographs.

The case will be presented this spring at a Department of Justice workshop. Current and retired investigators will see if they can solve the crime. The family and Fister are hoping someone is willing to step up and say what they know.

Back outside the Chapmans' house, the lawn mower is in Jim's truck. The family is ready to go back to Los Banos. The picture of the Chapmans, smiling, faces the road.

Someone knows who killed them.

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