Twenty-three years after Kathleen Smith's storied Tempe murder, a footprint will loom large in her alleged killer's upcoming trial

On the morning of October 5, 1984, Lisa Pickett, 14, let her three cats outside of her mother's condo on West University Drive in Tempe, east of Hardy.

Lisa's maternal grandmother, retired nurse Ina Weisbaum, had been staying there, and the pair liked to keep an eye on the pets to make sure they didn't stray.

Lisa lived in Unit 111, in the southeast section of the SceneOne Condominiums, a few minutes west of the Arizona State University campus.

She was just inside the condo when her grandmother came in to report that she'd heard an odd noise and suspected the cats were fighting.

The two went back out to see what was up.

"I heard something like a slamming of the door," she said later. "I turned around and I saw this man coming out of Kathleen's apartment."

Kathleen was Kathleen Marie Smith, a 20-year-old who lived alone in Unit 110, about 20 feet around a corner.

Lisa Pickett hadn't actually seen the man close Kathleen's door, but he had come toward her and her grandmother directly from the area of 110.

"He saw me, and all of a sudden he just took off running from her door around in front of my apartment on the sidewalk," Lisa said. "My grandmother was in this little pathway between the two apartments, and he had almost practically knocked her over because he stepped in the flowerbed."

Lisa and her grandmother described the man as blond-haired, fair-skinned and wearing red shorts, a white T-shirt, and sneakers.

The guy had seemed familiar to Lisa. "But it was not a face who was around a lot," she said. The man didn't have facial hair, she said, a noteworthy observation in light of what followed.

Ina Weisbaum told a private investigator in 1985, "He was just a madman, boy. I've never seen anybody move so fast in all my life."

She made another point that would come into play more than two decades later, long after her death in 1994: "His foot was in the mud here and I thought, 'Oh, my God, what big feet.' That was what come into my mind."

Right after the man vanished into the 120-unit complex, Lisa and her grandma became distracted by the sight and smell of black smoke seeping out of Kathleen's front door — the only way in and out of Unit 110.

Lisa tried to open the door, but it was locked.

Other neighbors had rushed over when two engine companies from the Tempe Fire Department reached the scene at 10:42 a.m.

Firefighters broke down the door and entered the burning condo. They quelled the fire within minutes, but the thick smoke didn't allow them to immediately see a body on a floor near the laundry room.

Then they did. Two firefighters carried the obviously dead victim outside to a sidewalk. It was a young woman whose face had been burned beyond recognition.

Eerily, though, a gold necklace with a pendant that said "Spoil Me" had remained intact around her charred neck.

The firefighters found her face-up, and her back seemed mostly unscathed by the flames and intense heat. The victim also had a deep, fresh wound to the back of her head, as if someone had bludgeoned her.

Tempe fire investigator Al Haeberle entered the smoldering condo. He saw the body of a small, gray cat that had died on the dining room floor, apparently of smoke inhalation. A parrot also was dead, at the bottom of its cage.

The investigator also found a burned Clorox bottle in the laundry room that smelled strongly of gasoline.

As for the fleeing man's "big foot," Lisa Pickett and her grandmother directed authorities to his footprint, saying they saw him make it in the wet flowerbed. It was if he'd stuck his hand into a freshly poured sidewalk at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Though police generally find eyewitness testimony flawed, that kind of identification seemed different.

A crime-scene technician placed a ruler next to the pristine print and took black-and-white photographs.

Now, 23 years after Kathleen's murder — one of the highest-profile crimes in Tempe history — that footprint will loom large at the trial of her alleged killer, 47-year-old Robert Ortloff.

Trial testimony is scheduled to start February 13 in Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Warren Granville's courtroom.

As Robert Ortloff's trial gets started, nagging mysteries and contradictions about him and his murder case remain. Some things can be sorted out; some cannot.

Veteran Deputy County Attorney Noel Levy will have the task of trying to prove to a jury that Ortloff is guilty of first-degree murder, arson, and burglary.

Levy may be right when he claims that Ortloff is an evildoer who deserves to spend the rest of his days behind bars (prosecutors decided to drop the death penalty last year after originally filing the case as a capital crime).

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin