UPLAND, Calif. — Jason Matthew Lea, 9, was a third-grader at Baldy View Elementary School. Originally from Texas, he resided with his paternal grandfather, Gary Yeager, in Upland.
Jason’s mother, Linda Lea, lived in Houston. She later said she did not know that Yeager, her father-in-law, had taken Jason to California. She thought they still lived in Trinity, TX, about 90 miles north of Houston. Lea said she sent her son to live with Yeager because the schools in Trinity were better.
On Saturday, July 29, 1989, Jason told Yeager he would ride his BMX bike around the track at Upland High School, about a block away from their residence, and return in 30 minutes. He did not take any cash with him when he left home.
Jason never returned. Yeager searched for his grandson and found Jason’s bike in front of the James Games Family Fun Center at 364 W. Foothill Blvd. at 10 p.m.
Yeager knew Jason would never voluntarily abandon his bike and reported his grandson missing to the Upland Police Department.
On Thursday, Aug. 3, 1989, police arrested two 16-year-old boys connected to Jason’s disappearance. Detectives never released their names due to the boys’ ages but said they were also looking for two other Upland teenagers, Wayne Owen Hobb, 19, and Richard LaLonde, 18.
Police Capt. Martin Thouvenell said the boys’ arrests came after two witnesses’ statements. One witness reported seeing Jason playing video games at Upland Bowl, 451 Foothill Blvd. but did not see him leave. The other said they saw Jason leave the premises with the suspects.
On Aug. 4, 1989, authorities found Jason’s nude, partially decomposed body in the San Gabriel Mountains. Rescuers from two counties had spent the day searching for Jason near Mount Baldy Village Resort when they found his body at the foot of a cliff off the narrow, winding Glendora Ridge Road, about 16 miles north of Upland.
Authorities said there was no evidence of a gunshot wound, and the initial autopsy failed to yield the cause of death due to decomposition.
At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 6, 1989, LaLonde called the police saying he wanted to surrender. Officers arrested him at McDonald’s. Hobbs turned himself in at Upland Police Department at 7 p.m. Both men were booked on suspicion of murder and placed in the custody of the sheriff’s substation in Walnut.
Hobbs was the son of San Bernardino County deputy sheriff Sgt. Gary Hobbs of the Chino Hills Sheriff’s Substation. The younger Hobbs spent several years as a sheriff’s explorer cadet and once thought of pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Those who knew Hobbs defended him and did not believe he could kill anyone. However, they noticed a change in the friends he hung out with in recent months.
Hobbs had a few minor offenses — traffic tickets and a rock thrown through a window. He mostly had trouble in school and dropped out in 1988.
Before his arrest, Hobbs had told a friend, “Don’t ever let anybody borrow your car because it will only get you into trouble,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1989. Hobbs had loaned his white Ford pickup truck to one of the juveniles arrested for Jason’s death. Hobbs’ lawyer, Barry Plotkin, claimed Hobbs never willingly lent it to anyone. “My client did not take part in this thing,” Plotkin said.
“This thing,” meaning the death of a child.
LaLonde was a quiet, friendly young man who frequented Upland Bowl most weekends. He had a few run-ins with the police but nothing significant.
Jim Price, an uncle of one of the juveniles arrested, said his nephew had an alibi for the night Jason disappeared. Price said he was with his nephew and the nephew’s girlfriend at various times that night.
The youth’s friends claimed he had been mistaken for another teenager with the same first name, haircut, and physique. They also said he did not hang out with the other suspects or Jason.
A friend of the youth said, “We didn’t even know the little punk.”
“Punk,” meaning Jason.
On Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1989, Deputy District Attorney Gary Hearnsberger said there was insufficient evidence to charge the suspects with Jason’s murder mainly because the coroner had not yet completed its investigation or determined how Jason died.
Upland police released Hobbs and one of the juveniles but kept LaLonde in jail on a probation violation. The other youth stayed in Juvenile Hall on an unrelated charge.
News stations reported that Jason had overdosed on LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) after his abduction, but the police said they had no evidence supporting that theory. The suspects’ family and friends were feeding the story to the press. Yeager denied that Jason took drugs and believed if they were found in Jason’s system, he did not willingly take them.
On Aug. 15, 1989, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Bob Dambacher revealed Jason’s cause of death: blunt force trauma. The boy had been beaten to death by severe blows to the chest, and he had alcohol in his blood. However, there were no drugs. Dambacher could not measure the alcohol level because of the decomposed condition of the body.
Dambacher said Jason did not receive the injuries from a fall, and the injuries were not necessarily caused by any instrument. He also said it was evident from the onset there were blunt force injuries to the chest, and Jason had received the wounds before and after death.
The case then became a homicide investigation.
Sharon Lea, the boy’s aunt in Houston, told journalist Tommy Li of the San Bernardino County newspaper, The Sun, “The family was given a possible scenario of Jason’s death: He went with the youths into the foothills above Upland because ‘he wanted to hang out with the big boys.'”
Sharon Lea said she heard that theory from L.A. County sheriff’s Detective Bobbie Morck, who could not be reached for comment when Li contacted Morck’s office.
Officials never charged the four suspects in Jason’s murder due to insufficient evidence.
Hearnsberger said in March 1990: “While witnesses place the suspects in the company of the victim earlier in the evening of his disappearance, there is no evidence linking the suspects to his death.”
It is unclear why LaLonde and Hobbs turned themselves in if they were not responsible for Jason’s death. Furthermore, Donna Burns, a victim-witness representative for the L.A. County District Attorney’s office, told Linda Lea one of the four suspects admitted to kidnapping her son.
Detectives never established a motive for Jason’s killing, nor did they explain why Jason’s body was found nude or whether he had been sexually assaulted.
Even though detectives never charged any other suspects, Jason’s case is not listed among the cold cases on San Bernardino County Sheriff’s website. It is almost as if the police have forgotten him.
Now in his 50s, LaLonde still lives in Upland but has close ties to Florida. Wayne Hobbs died on June 10, 2014, at age 44.
On Jan. 20, 1988, Patrick Shawn Betz, 11, disappeared from Upland. Witnesses reported seeing the boy with a male teenager, the son of a local pizzeria owner.
Shawn has never been found. Police investigated the teenager’s family but found no evidence tying them to the disappearance. The family closed the restaurant and left Upland immediately afterward.
Despite the similarities, the police never considered Jason’s case related to Shawn’s. The victims were close in age and vanished from the same area. Witnesses placed both boys in the company of older male teenagers. Each case received very little media coverage.