New charges in 1981 child homicide case could trigger battle between SoCal DAs over Gascón sentencing policies

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New murder charges filed in Orange County Tuesday against a man with a long history of violent child sex crimes set up a legal battle with Los Angeles County prosecutors, who are already trying the man in the same case.

Kenneth Rasmuson, 53, was set to stand trial with the death penalty on the table when George Gascón was elected as L.A. County district attorney last year. But after Gascón was sworn in in December, he issued a series of progressive reforms, among them the ending of sentencing enhancements for most crimes.

O.C. District Attorney Spitzer, who has been critical of many of Gascón’s new policies, says he filed his own special circumstances charges against Rasmuson in Orange County Tuesday to try to ensure he gets the harshest punishment possible if convicted in the 1981 sex assault and killing of 6-year-old Jeffrey Vargo of Anaheim Hills.

The case against Rasmuson — which involves charges in the deaths of Vargo and another boy abducted separately in L.A. County — has so far been handled in L.A. County. But Tuesday’s filing could potentially change that.

In a statement, Spitzer called the allegations against Rasmuson “the stuff of parents’ nightmares” and vowed to do everything in his power to stop Rasmuson from ever coming in contact with another child.

“Jeffrey’s family will have justice,” Spitzer wrote. “I refuse to allow the LADA’s ‘one-size fits all approach’ to prevent the family of a 6-year-old murdered child from achieving the justice that they deserve.”

Rasmuson has been in custody since March 2015, after DNA tied him to Vargo’s death and authorities arrested him in Sandpoint, Idaho, where he was residing.

Upon his arrest, Rasmuson was a registered sex offender in Idaho with convictions in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, the Idaho state police’s online sex offender registry showed at the time.

Rasmuson had served two separate prison terms for child sex crimes. In one case he was convicted of molesting an 11-year-old boy he lured into seclusion and sodomized, and in another of kidnapping a 3-year-old boy from his Los Angeles front yard then sodomizing him and leaving him wandering the streets naked the next day, according to the O.C. DA’s office.

Two months after Vargo’s abduction, Rasmuson kidnapped and sexually assaulted an 11-year-old in Santa Barbara County after asking the boy for help finding a handicapped dog, O.C. prosecutors said.

Vargo vanished in July 1981 after he went out for a bike ride in Anaheim Hills. His body was found the next day in Pomona, but it was three decades before DNA evidence led to Rasmuson’s arrest.

Shortly after Gascón was elected, Vargo’s parents say they got a call telling them it looked like the death penalty would be taken off the table. Since then, others have weighed in saying life without parole may be taken off as well.

Connie Vargo, the victim’s mother, says she worries that could lead to Rasmuson’s release.

“Right now, he’s already been in jail for six years,” she said. “That means that that time served would also take off on a 20-year sentence. Which means that he could probably get out in 13, 16 years.”

O.C. prosecutors charged Rasmuson Tuesday with murder, a special circumstances enhancement of murder during a kidnapping and a special circumstances enhancement of murder during a lewd act on a child, all felonies. The charges make Rasmuson eligible for the death penalty.

Spitzer also filed an amicus brief in L.A. County Superior Court opposing Gascón’s motion to dismiss the special circumstances and enhancement in its prosecution.

“If he doesn’t want to pursue the death penalty, why in the world would you not pursue life without the possibility of parole?” Spitzer asked in a Zoom interview with KTLA.

KTLA has reached out to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office for comment.

Vargo’s parents say they support Spitzer’s move, even if moving the case would extend the proceedings, if it means a harsher sentence for Rasmuson.

Rasmuson is also currently facing charges in the case of Miguel Doe.

After serving time for the Santa Barbara County case, Rasmuson was designated a mentally disordered offender and sent to a conditional release program in 1985 for treatment, the O.C. DA’s office said.

While still a part of that program, Rasmuson is accused of abducting, sexually assaulting and killing another 6-year-old boy, identified as Miguel Doe, in Agoura Hills in April 1986. The boy’s body was found later that same day in a wash with signs of stabs wounds and strangulation, officials said.

The abduction of the 3-year-old boy in L.A. occurred after that of Miguel Doe, and Rasmuson was sentenced to 17 years in prison for the toddler’s kidnapping.

After serving his term, Rasmuson was designated a sexually violent predator and committed to Atascadero State Hospital, from which he was released in 2007, officials said.

It’s unclear how the dual child abduction homicide case being tried in L.A. County will proceed, but a hearing in the case is scheduled next week. Spitzer is expected to appear.

This isn’t the first time Gascón has faced opposition from another California DA’s office. Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported San Diego County’s DA reclaimed jurisdiction on a case involving a violent series of robberies spanning Southern California that left two people dead.

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