Oxygen’s ‘The Real Murders of Los Angeles: Murder on the Marquee’ chronicles how famous film connoisseur and the sole silent movie hall proprietor at that time, Laurence Austin, was brutally murdered inside his theater in mid-January 1997. The murder occurred during a movie screening with almost five dozen attendees, yet the killer managed to escape scott-free till they and their co-conspirator were arrested months later. If you wish to learn more about the case, including the killers’ identities and current whereabouts, here’s what we know.
How Did Laurence Austin Die?
Laurence William Austin was born to Ethel Frances (née Fuller) Austin and William Austin in Orange County, California, on February 5, 1922. His mother, Ethel, worked as a tailor for the renowned director Cecil B. DeMille, while his father, William, appeared in silent films. Further, his uncle, Albert Austin, established himself as a character actor featured in numerous Charlie Chaplin films. Laurence owned the only theater in the nation devoted solely to silent movies — Silent Movie Showcase in Los Angeles, California.
Laurence was a prominent figure at the theater, where iconic stars of yesteryear like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks rekindled their presence on the silver screen. He often addressed the audience, presenting restored, long-forgotten films he had played a part in preserving. After the screenings, he would loiter by the exit, warmly greeting patrons as they departed. The theater opened its doors in 1942 but sadly closed down in 1979 upon the passing of its owner, John Hampton.
However, Laurence, a close friend of John’s, took the reins and revived the theater in 1991. Under his dedicated leadership, he made significant improvements, including seat replacements, sound system upgrades, and adorning the walls with portraits of silent film luminaries. In his mission to preserve cinematic history, Laurence leveraged not only his predecessor’s collection but also an extensive network of archives, granting him access to films unseen for over eight decades. He remained faithful to the original presentation of these films.
During screenings, he would stand at the theater’s front, offering insightful background information about the movie. Laurence would then treat the audience to a cartoon, a couple of short films, and finally, a feature film, all accompanied by live organ music. Special screenings sometimes attracted elderly silent film stars, creating memorable moments for all in attendance. Hence, it was shocking when the 74-year-old was fatally shot in the head, torso, and upper thigh on January 17, 1997, during the showing of a silent short film.
Who Killed Laurence Austin?
According to police sources, the perpetrator also shot a teenage concession worker, Mary Giles, then 19, during the perceived attempted robbery and commercial burglary. Mary had a gunshot wound to her chest and was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital, where she survived. The officers found a bag of money containing around $500 beside Laurence’s body in the Fairfax district theater’s lobby. However, the investigators did not find any shell casings at the crime scene that would have helped them identify the murder weapon.
The detectives learned the theater had been playing a silent short, “School Days,” with about 60 people attending the film screening. Some attendees told the law enforcement officials that an individual had entered the theater, firing blank shots in the air and fleeing the cinema hall through the back door amidst the commotion. According to the episode, the Hollywood section of Los Angeles had been expecting multiple bouts of robbery during the late 1990s, and the police initially thought it might have been another case of burglary gone wrong.
The detectives found a .357 magnum shell casing lodged inside the auditorium wall, thus identifying the murder weapon. They were also slightly confused about the robbery hypothesis since the perpetrator did not take the bag of cash beside the body. However, the police received an early breakthrough when Mary, the survivor, offered a detailed description of the killer. She told the officers the murderer entered the lobby, firing a shot at Laurence, then shooting her in the chest before turning toward the theater owner and firing at him twice more.
The case garnered national attention, with several crime shows coming forward to cover and help the homicide investigation. The police corroborated with ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ with the show producers lending the law enforcement one of their finest sketch artists. Mary met with the artist and had a detailed sketch drawn of the perpetrator, which the show aired nationwide, and LAPD offered $25,000 for any information leading to the suspected killer. Meanwhile, the officers uncovered a shocking fact while reviewing Laurence’s financial records.
The police uncovered Laurence, who had been previously convicted once of embezzlement, had a joint sharing account with his theater projectionist, James Leslie Van Sickle. When the officers questioned James, he initially claimed he solely shared a business relationship with Laurence before finally disclosing they were romantic partners. As the investigators probed further in that angle, a confidential informant came forward in mid-February 1997. He claimed to be a friend of an individual named Christian Rodriguez.
According to him, he and Christian had been driving around when he spotted a sketch of the suspected gunman in a newspaper. The friend claimed he told Christian the suspect looked quite similar to him when Christian smiled and allegedly confessed it was him. The police reviewed Christian’s background to make another startling discovery — James and Christian used to be former colleagues. With enough evidence to tie them together, the police brought both in for questioning before charging them with murder.
Where Are James Van Sickle and Christian Rodriguez Now?
According to the show, James would eventually receive the deed of the theater from his lover, Laurence, after the latter died. However, the former projectionist faced a severe financial crisis and could not wait for Laurence to die naturally before he inherited the property and his money, amounting to $1 million. The prosecution alleged James offered Christian $25,000 to kill Laurence and an additional $5,000 to kill Mary to make the crime look like a robbery. Christian’s defense tried to bring up sympathy by mentioning his impoverished background.
The jury convicted both James and Christan of murder, with the latter initially facing the death penalty because the 1997 murder involved special circumstances of lying in wait and for financial gain. Christian, of South Gate, was also convicted of the attempted murder of Mary, attempted robbery, and commercial burglary. Both men were sentenced to life without parole in 1999 in separate trials. James, 61, is serving his sentence at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility while Christan, 45, remains incarcerated at the Ironwood State Prison.