KSBY Investigates

May 8, 2014 9:06 PM by Victoria Johnson, KSBY News

KSBY Investigates: The cold case murder of Charles Lavenson

KSBY is taking a fresh look at a murder mystery in San Luis Obispo.

On October 23, 2011, the body of 63-year old Charles Russell Lavenson was found at a popular hiking spot on Cerro San Luis, also known as Madonna Mountain. An autopsy shows he died from blunt force trauma to the back of his head. Two and a half years later, the case is cold. Now, San Luis Obispo Police Department detectives are opening up their investigative files, hoping for a break.

So far, detectives say this case is a complete mystery. They are calling this a 'who done it' with a lot of unanswered questions. Now, detectives are sharing never before released surveillance footage with KSBY in hopes a fresh round of publicity will help them find Lavenson's killer.

"Sitting at the counter here with him, he could entertain you for an hour," said Scott Sweeny, owner of Luisa's Place in San Luis Obispo.

Sweeny considered Lavenson a part of his family.

"Whenever he would leave, he would want to give a bear hug or I would give him a bear hug. So we would say ‘Charlie bear' and that would turn into a bear hug," said Sweeny.

Lavenson lived alone in a senior residential complex in San Luis Obispo. He was seen around the city daily, taking buses and making his usual stops.

"Our suspicion is that it is a robbery gone bad," said San Luis Obispo Police Captain Christopher Staley.

The last video ever taken of Lavenson was captured by a surveillance camera at 11:15 a.m. as he walked along Marsh Street toward Chorro.

"This (video) was taken at the Sports Authority, one of the businesses in the downtown area," said Staley. "Downtown was an area he frequented. He was the type of person on a regular schedule. From the description of his neighbors, he kept to himself but was friendly with folks."

At about 11:30 a.m., Lavenson used the ATM at Chase Bank in the 1200 block of Chorro Street.

"It didn't appear at the time there is anything suspicious. Mr. Lavenson didn't appear to be concerned at any point," said Capt. Staley.

Police say they don't believe anyone asked Lavenson to withdraw money from the ATM. The ATM pictures are the last taken of Lavenson.

"The wallet pictured here in Mr. Lavenson's hand appears to be a dark bi-fold leather wallet, but we aren't sure exactly which type of wallet it is. It was never found and that is one of the key items we are looking for," said Staley.

He says that leads detectives to believe Lavenson may have been a victim of a robbery turned homicide. Just hours before he was killed, Lavenson made his last stop at Luisa's Place.

"He had a lot of friends. Everyone that worked here loved him," said Sweeny.

He left the restaurant between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m. Police believe, after Lavenson spent the majority of his morning downtown, he went for a hike on Madonna Mountain, starting near Fernandez Road.

"We believe he may have walked up this way, which connects to the trail that connects to the Lemon Grove Loop going up Madonna Mountain," said Staley.

At about 3:45 p.m., a couple reported seeing Lavenson on the trail. He was wearing khaki pants, a button-up white short-sleeve shirt with blue stripes, and brown dress shoes.

It was a busy Sunday afternoon on the trail and about an hour and a half later, at 5:15 p.m., a mountain biker came across Lavenson's body, just a few feet off the trail.

"Mr. Lavenson's body was found here with his body facing that direction," said Staley at the crime scene. "He was fully clothed and the only thing we found missing was his wallet from his person."

Police say he was hit on the back of the head and died a half hour before he was found.

"There was nothing at the scene that would give us any clues to give us a reason of his death," said Staley.

Adding to the mystery, a key was found on Lavenson's body.

"He would sometimes collect things he would find in his travels. We don't know if this is the case with the key or if he had actually obtained it from renting a hotel room," said Staley.

Investigators are frustrated and friends remain heartbroken. Scott Sweeny now has Lavenson's usual order at Luisa's Place on his menu as a tribute to his late friend.

"The Charlie Bear Special (is) on our menu that anybody can have now. It's on our menu for forever," said Sweeny.

Police are still looking for Lavenson's wallet. Detectives say they are also looking into whether a robbery that happened within a month after Lavenson's murder could be connected to his case.

In that case, two people followed a man who made a withdrawal at an ATM, hit the victim from behind with a skateboard as he walked away, and stole his wallet.

Police are asking anyone who remembers seeing someone carrying a skateboard near Madonna Mountain on the day Lavenson was murdered to come forward.

Rewards are being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in this case. A Crime Stoppers reward just increased to $2,500 this week, and the owners of Luisa's Place say they are now offering an additional $1,000 reward and have created a Facebook page to aid in the search for Lavenson's killer.

If you have any information on this case, call Crime Stoppers at (805) 549-STOP or the San Luis Obispo Police Department at (805) 781-7317.

Tips can also be made on the Crime Stoppers website.

To retrace Lavenson's steps before his murder, check out this detailed map of his last day.

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