Murderers at Large

The death of a prominent businessman is just one more murder that goes unsolved

A day or so before Halloween 2003, Victor Bach, 71, the handsome, soft-spoken owner of Western Plumbing & Heating Co., confronted his much-younger wife, Kathleen, about her mismanagement of family finances.

Or perhaps that's not what happened. Instead, in late October 2003, Victor Bach might have huddled with his wife to figure out what to do about their joint mismanagement of the family's finances.

Or maybe, in an incident completely unrelated to the Bachs' breathtakingly out-of-whack bank passbooks, some random hoodlums cooked up a scheme having nothing to do with the family's finances, to break into the plumbing company and look for loot.

Whichever events seeded the ensuing incident at Western Plumbing on Oct. 31, 2003, the aftermath is clear. That evening, police found the white-haired Victor Bach bludgeoned to death in his Mission neighborhood plumbing shop.

"Nothing was taken. He was wearing a $5,000-plus watch. He had credit cards, car keys," said Bach's sister, Sandra Hayes. "This was not a professional hit. I don't think they do things up close and personal like that."

More than three years later, Kathleen Bach is scheduled to face a San Francisco jury in February on charges that she embezzled $1.9 million from trust funds and business accounts under her husband's purview. But there's no indication that police are anywhere near solving Victor Bach's murder, or determining which of the aforementioned scenarios might have presaged Victor Bach's death.

In lawsuits and public statements, Victor Bach's siblings hypothesize the first scenario, where Victor Bach confronts his wife about stealing just before his death. A lawsuit filing earlier this month, which suggests the couple were in cahoots in looting a family trust, suggests the second scenario, where the two might have discussed joint culpability. And previously quoted statements in Kathleen Bach's defense suggest the death was the result of an unrelated break-in gone awry.

Inspector Antonio Casillas returned a call regarding the case late Friday, but we were unable to reach him Monday. But Bach's brother and sister say police officials have led them to believe that the murder investigation ran cold more than two years ago, despite dogged and expensive efforts by the family to conduct their own parallel investigation into the killing.

This situation of unsolved murders is not uncommon, to put it mildly.

According to figures compiled by the Office of Legislative Analyst at the request of Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, out of 166 San Francisco murders since 2004, the city has convicted a single suspected killer. That's right: just one murder conviction on the killings during the past three years.

Victor Bach's bizarre murder mystery seems to stand out as an example of this appalling record. He was a prominent man whose family has aggressively prodded police. Yet as with most killings in this city, the murderer remains at large.

"San Francisco is not the county you want your homicide in if you're one of the victim's family," notes Victor Bach's brother Kerry Bach.

Instead of waiting for Victor Bach's case to go cold, the family has taken up where they believe police left off.

Since the 2003 killing, Bach and other family members have spent more than $90,000 on their own parallel investigation. They've hired a private investigator, filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit alleging Kathleen Bach was behind the killing, and lobbied to obtain more than $100,000 in award money now offered for information leading to the arrest of a murder suspect.

In the latest twist, the family has paid for a billboard to be installed this January in Redding, where Kathleen Bach has most recently resided. It will urge passersby to call the SFPD with possible information about the Victor Bach murder.

"Myself, my sister, and one of Victor's children have taken out equity lines on our houses, and others have pitched in what they can out of pocket," said Kerry Bach, in reference to the family's efforts to supplement the SFPD investigation.

"To put it simply, we have been trying to get the police off the dime," added Hayes, who lives in San Diego.

Disgruntled family members aren't necessarily the best source for assessing the diligence of police detectives in solving a murder investigation. Bach and Hayes, however, claim detectives have failed to follow up on leads unearthed by their private investigator. And they complain SFPD inspectors failed to drive the three hours to Shasta County to conduct interviews.

But without hearing from the police department, it's impossible to assess whether this is an extraordinarily complex and no-clues case of the sort that might befuddle the most diligent detectives. And we can't be sure that detectives don't have good reason to believe it's prudent to wait until Kathleen Bach's embezzlement trial is complete before advancing the murder case further.

We do know, however, thanks to the recent report requested by Mirkarimi, that the vast majority of San Francisco murder cases seem to go nowhere.

Victor Bach's murder is notable among the city's unsolved murders in that it's accompanied by a fascinating family drama.

Kalman Apple, a Los Angeles filmmaker whose 2000 short movie Speed for Thespians was nominated for an Academy Award, still spends time mulling over the events surrounding the death of Victor Bach. Not because he plans on making a movie about them — though he acknowledges someone else could. He simply can't get straight in his mind how his close family friend, Victor Bach, could have stood by while his wife Kathleen Bach apparently looted Kalman Apple's inheritance.

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