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Murderers at Large 

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

Wednesday, Dec 6 2006
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.

Bach had been a close friend since childhood of Kalman's father, Seymour Apple, and had taken over as trustee of Kalman and his brother's $1 million trust fund following Seymour's 2002 death.

"I talked with Victor on a Wednesday, [two days before Halloween 2003.] He was finalizing tax documents, the expenses of my dad's death, and the hospital, and everything had wound down and finished. Then he meets with the lawyer, and the lawyer says, when you turn over an estate, there has to be an accounting. And he was killed three days later, on Halloween," Apple recalls.

During the days following Victor's death, family members rallied in an attempt to provide comfort to Kathleen Bach, his wife of nearly two decades who had begun managing Victor's business and financial affairs.

"You're thinking, 'Aw, poor Kathy. But then that Christmas Eve I got a call from the SFPD homicide detectives," Apple says. "They're asking me, 'Do you have any idea of the state of the trust?' ... The detective asked, 'Are you aware of all these expenses?'"

According to accounts in a criminal indictment of Bach, as well as lawsuits filed by the family, and by the trustee of a family trust fund she allegedly looted, Kathleen Bach allegedly forged checks and made ATM withdrawals from the inheritance a family friend of Victor's had left for his sons. She used the money to fund a lavish personal life, lawsuits allege, until her stealing from a family trust fund, and the plumbing business, totaled $1.9 million.

"The trust should have been $1 million. It was down to $100,000. They did a search of the Bach home and picked up all these statements, bank statements, canceled checks that had payees that didn't relate to Apple trust expenses at all," says Kalman Apple, repeating allegations stated in a criminal indictment and in several civil complaints, after having personally reviewed checks and bank statements drawn on the account. "Everything that Victor wrote with his actual signature, which was different than her forged signature, was a legitimate expense. Everything she wrote — credit card purchases, mortgage payments, jewelers, checks to herself — were not trust-related expenses. Then everything flooded into my mind. She'd be in the office at 5 a.m., before the plumbing contractors were in. She was going in on weekends."

Adds Hayes, Victor Bach's sister: "You've got money, motive, and means. It would seem to me that would make your life easier as a detective. I think it would narrow down the field of people you would really, really want to talk to."

Kathleen's attorney in the S.F. Public Defender's office did not return a call requesting comment. Calls to phone numbers in Shasta County under the name of a reputed boyfriend of Kathleen Bach likewise went unreturned.

However, a court filing earlier this month in a lawsuit brought by the professional trustee Kalman Apple hired to help recoup money on behalf of the family trust complicates the black-widow murder theory proffered by Victor Bach's family.

A supplemental amended complaint filed Nov. 17 alleges that Victor Bach himself was involved in looting his old friend Seymour's family trust, writing checks and making withdrawals for personal and other inappropriate expenses in what amounted to an embezzlement conspiracy with his wife as partner.

An attorney for Joanne Holman Stine, a professional fiduciary who Kalman Apple hired to act as trustee for the accounts, could not be reached for comment by deadline.

If Victor Bach and his wife schemed together to loot his friend's $1 million trust, what becomes of Kathleen's supposed motive to kill him? Was there a third accomplice involved in the stealing? Could the murder have been the result of a botched break-in after all?

Sandra Hayes says she gives the allegations of a conspiracy involving Victor Bach and his wife no credence. "What matters in the end is what the judge decides," Hayes said. "Not what's in an amended complaint."

Even Kalman Apple, upon whose behalf the filing was made, said he's loath to think his family friend Victor Bach would have knowingly defrauded him and his brother Jennings. Victor Bach's parents had taken Seymour in as an impoverished child when they were living in New York. Seymour Apple and Victor Bach were brothers in all but blood.

"My wife and I have gone back and forth on this. You don't see anything that says Victor wrote any expenses that are wrong. But you look at so many checks, and how could he not see? How could he not get a brokerage statement? It seems unrealistic that he would not have known that," Apple said.

Kalman Apple then cast his mind back to a time before Victor Bach's death when he asked for permission to take out a loan on the trust account for which Apple was beneficiary. Victor Bach said this wouldn't be possible, because the trust had been depleted. "He told me, 'Oh, it was the state of the economy. We had to sell off a bunch of things.' But when I looked at the account statements, it wasn't because of the economy," Apple said.

The account was empty because it had been looted.

Victor "was a family member, so you don't think of things that way. I don't think it was him. I think it was her. I think she was scheming behind his back. I have been haunted by this — by the murder and the whole civil case, and everything," Apple said. "The fact that the criminal thing has been dragged out as long as it has is so disappointing."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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