For 31 years, Michael Lubahn Clark denied killing his wife. He said she left him in the middle of the night following an argument. She was gone when he awakened in the morning at their Torrance home.
His wife's family believed him, inviting him to holiday parties and family events, and giving him his father-in-law's painting business. No way would Clark kill his high school sweetheart, the mother of his first two children.
But Monday, two months after a Torrance jury dismissed Clark's own testimony about how his wife left him March 31, 1981, never to be heard from again, Clark finally confessed, telling a prosecutor and detectives that he killed the 26-year-old woman in a rage at home. He hid her body in their garage, and later tied it to cinder blocks and submerged it off the Rancho Palos Verdes coast.
Clark, 59, confessed in the hours before he was set to be sentenced to prison for 15 years to life.
The hope is that some 50 divers expected to search for Carol Meyer Lubahn's remains will find something to return to her family for proper burial.
"Even if all we get is a cinder block, they want it," Lewin told Torrance Superior Court Judge Eric Taylor.
Despite Lewin's pleas for Clark to stand up in court and tell the truth, Clark did not say a word. Lewin instead recounted his confession, made during a morning meeting at the courthouse.
The confession came in stark contrast to everything Clark said during his six-week trial in September and October, when he was found guilty of second-degree murder.
Clark had told family members, police, the Daily Breeze and ultimately jurors that his wife of 10 years disappeared in the middle of the night following an argument about whether to sell the house. He said he awakened to find their bed empty, the garage door open and his wife's car gone. Telling police he believed she had run off, he found her 1979 Audi Fox three days later parked outside the Red Onion restaurant in Redondo Beach and filed a missing person report.
The case then went unsolved, although Torrance detectives always believed Clark had something to do with her disappearance.
Clark, who had met his wife when they were students at North High School in Torrance and married her when she became pregnant, said in a 1997 interview that he had tried to put his wife's disappearance behind him.
"The whole thing has been real strange," he told the Daily Breeze. "I don't like to talk about it. So many years go by and you get it out of your mind. You hear a song on the radio and it pops back in your mind.
Clark remarried, had two more children, changed his last name to his middle name, "Clark," and moved to Huntington Beach. He inherited his father-in-law's painting business when Milton Meyer retired, and later died.
Two years ago, Torrance police "cold case" detectives decided they had enough evidence to arrest him.
Clark then continued to claim his innocence, turning down the prosecution's offer of a lesser voluntary manslaughter conviction for the truth about where to find his wife's body. But, in a recent letter to the judge, Clark said an attorney told him there was no way he would be convicted of murder without forensic evidence and turned down the offer.
Jurors, presented with weeks of testimony showing inconsistent statements that Clark made over the years, convicted him of second-degree murder in a few hours.
In a hearing Dec. 12, Carol Lubahn's sister, Terri Meyer Samuelson, delivered a letter to the judge asking him to impose a sentence lighter than the mandatory 15 years to life, so Clark might reveal the truth.
"What we really need to know is what happened to her and where is her body," Samuelson wrote. "I feel like he still has some information for us and would be more likely to confess given some incentive, such as a shorter sentence. I don't feel like his punishment serves a purpose if we do not get the information we need to have full closure and we can say goodbye to our beloved sister."
On Monday, Clark told this story to investigators, although he received no deal:
He and his wife had indeed argued about the house that night. Carol Lubahn indeed took off in her car. But unlike Clark's original story, she returned home about 1:30 a.m.
She had met another man, she told him, and planned to take him to her sister Terri Meyer's wedding days later.
Clark told the detectives he was hurt and grabbed a pillow to sleep on the couch. His wife tried to talk to him and console him, telling her husband he would find someone else, but he became angry and shoved her. Carol Lubahn fell back and hit her head on a table.
"He knew instantly she was dead," Lewin said.
Clark said he hid her body behind a roll of carpeting in their garage, got into her car, drove to the Red Onion restaurant on Harbor Drive in Redondo Beach and parked it there. He returned home in the morning just as Carol Lubahn's father, Milton Meyer, arrived.
Clark later wrapped his wife's body in cloth and blankets, and attached 50 feet of nylon rope to cinder blocks. He loaded her body into his truck, drove to Point Vicente and put her body onto a raft. An expert scuba diver, Clark put on a wet suit and flippers and paddled out about 200 to 500 yards beyond the kelp line. There, he let the cinder blocks pull her body down, never to be seen again.
Lewin said detectives believed Clark's account of how he hid the body, but did not believe his account of how he killed his wife. After taking and failing a lie detector test Monday, Clark altered his story, saying he did not "push" his wife, he actually punched her hard in the face, knocking her over and into the table, Lewin said.
"I don't know if we'll ever know what happened, but we are closer than we were at the start," Lewin said.
In a Dec. 14 letter to his 86-year-old mother-in-law, Melba Meyer, Clark wrote that he was not thinking straight when he hid the crime. He wrote that he was afraid of going to prison and leaving the couple's young children behind. He thanked the elderly woman for her kindness and said he hoped his confession helped her.
"Words cannot express how sorry I am," he wrote. "I will take whatever punishment they give me."
Taylor sentenced Clark to 15 years to life in prison.
Outside the courtroom, Carol Lubahn's mother said she had not known what to believe about her son-in-law for years until the trial. She said she did not believe Clark's story of how he killed her daughter but was glad to learn the truth, that her daughter would never come home after always believing it was a possibility.
"It's been hard," she said. "It's been really hard."
Said Lewin: "He had 30 years of freedom that he shouldn't have had. He let his kids think their mother voluntarily abandoned them."
Follow Larry Altman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/larryaltman