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New book puts spotlight on four decade old murder case in Santa Barbara County

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Man convicted of killing wife and stepson for insurance money in what was originally reported as a boating accident in the Channel Islands.

It was an infamous double murder case in Santa Barbara County four decades ago. Now, the story is the focus of a new book.

A man claimed his wife, and stepson jumped overboard during a sailing trip to the Channel Islands, trying to save the family dog which fell overboard. Verna and Doug Roehler drowned, while the man, Fred Roehler survived the January, 1981 incident.

It was first believed to be a terrible accident, but investigators and a jury later determined it was murder.

A family friend from Ventura who’s also a journalist didn’t believe it at first.

"I thought it was a man who was cursed by bad luck. It was unthinkable," said Ivor Davis. He and his late wife, Sally had become friends with Roehler.

Davis was coaching a youth soccer team in Malibu, and Roehler approached him about helping as a coach, because his stepson was on the team. He said Roehler seemed like a nice guy, and was helpful and reliable.

Roehler’s wife, Verna was a teacher, and the Davis’s son was in her class. The families became friends. But, when Davis and his family moved, they didn’t see the Roehler’s as often as they had in the past.

"I'm sitting in my home. I'd moved to Ventura. It's the day after New Year's (1981)," said Davis. "I pick up the local paper, and on the front page, there's a picture of Fred in a stretcher being carried off a Coast Guard boat. And, the story that followed...Verna had died in a boating accident. Douglas has died. The dog had survived, and Fred had survived. It was a terrible, terrible shock."

Then, there was more shocking news.

"Two years later, we picked up the paper and Fred Roehler had been arrested for their murder, in a murder for profit case. Fred Roehler had taken out an insurance policy on his new wife, and his stepson. The policy had been taken out just days before the deaths," said Davis.

In 1985, Roehler was convicted of the murders, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Davis was a newspaper reporter, and his wife Sally was a former television anchor, and magazine writer. They decided to do their own investigation, to try to help clear their friend. But, they said they started turning up unsettling things.

"What changed my mind, and Sally's mind was what we discovered when we went back to Richmond, Indiana, which was where Fred Roehler grew up," said Davis.

He said they found people didn't care for him.

But, he discovered something bigger. He said they discovered Roehler's father had filed insurance claims, and was paid for fires which destroyed a car, a houseboat, and a guest house.

Davis said they were horrified, because they knew that in Malibu and San Francisco, Fred's houseboat burned, a guest house burned, and a car burned, and like his father, he collected insurance.

Prosecutors successfully argued that mother, and son were murdered over money.

Davis said there was also the question of the death of Roehler’s first wife, who drowned. Investigators ruled it was accidental. Prosecutors efforts to get that admitted as evidence in the trial failed.

Davis admits he and his wife became convinced that they had it all wrong, and that the man they considered to be their friend was indeed a murderer

They tried to publish their book, The Devil in My Friend, four decades ago, but Davis said their publisher abandoned the effort after Roehler threatened to sue. It’s finally coming out now.

As for Roehler, he’s now in his 80’s, and still behind bars. He’s had multiple requests for parole denied.

Ivor Davis will do a book signing June 26th in Santa Barbara. It will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, at Chaucer's Bookstore.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.