A decomposing body, 10 duped girlfriends and the saga of the 'alien' con man in Hollywood's backyard

Like well-tended balconies, the hills of the Pacific Palisades rise abruptly from the sea in sloping terraces, giving the place a dreamy quality. Houses with floor-to-ceiling windows and gently swaying chimes preen westward. Tesla SUVs park in clean and quiet driveways. J.J. Abrams, Reese Witherspoon and honorary mayor Kevin Nealon — the list of Hollywood folks who live here is dizzying. Much of it is leafy and green, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. Police reports reflect the area's relative security: a laptop stolen from an unlocked car, a phone swiped through an open kitchen door.

"We'd always joke that this was Mayberry," says Frances Sharpe, who, for two years starting in 2013, served as the editor of the Palisadian-Post, the town's oldest newspaper. The Post's stories were charming. An ice cream shop was having a sale. Someone was turning 100. They offered a bonhomie that brought this exclusive Los Angeles community, where the average home value is $2.7 million, a bit closer together.

And then one day in July 2015, the Post ran a different kind of story online, the first of many just like it, even though the paper had never run stories online. It was accompanied by a photo showing police gathered behind a Palisades condominium, where they had discovered hundreds of high-powered assault rifles and pistols, $230,000 in crisp bills and more than 6 tons of ammunition. The owner of this arsenal was a local named Jeffrey Lash, whose decomposing corpse had been found in the front passenger seat of an SUV on Palisades Drive, dead for two weeks. In the coming months, a bizarre tale that involved secret government agencies, covert Black Ops missions and even aliens (those from outer space) began to filter out. News outlets from around the world dove in, briefly, and then departed, leaving behind a feeling that the "palus," the stake that sheltered this community from the gaze of the outside world, had been torn loose.

Two years have passed since Lash was found. Two women who knew him, and loved him, are now fighting in court against a coterie of cousins to recoup what they say is their share of millions. One of them is represented by Harland Braun, the Hollywood attorney known for his longtime defense of director Roman Polanski. Another woman from the dead man's past has vanished, with no apparent explanation. Romantic entanglements with other women have emerged. UFO enthusiasts have concluded that Lash's death is evidence of dark truths long kept hidden from them.

Recently, sitting at a Starbucks on the corner of Palisades Drive and Sunset Boulevard, not far from where Lash's arsenal was found, Sharpe, 55, shakes her head. "It just wasn't Mayberry anymore," she says.

***

Those first news dispatches in the summer of 2015 ricocheted across Southern California. In Santa Monica, Michelle Lyons, now 66, watched, and listened, and felt sick. The arms cache discovery had made global headlines, but no one knew about her yet, even though she and Lash had been lovers since the mid-1980s. Every day for three decades, Lyons had attended to Lash, and she thought she knew him. But in those first days, with news reports coming fast and furious, Lyons began to realize she knew very little. Her boyfriend, who had said his name was Jeff Henderson, obviously wasn't who he had claimed to be. She wasn't even his only girlfriend — not by a mile. She felt adrift, mourning a dead stranger.

Lyons met Lash in 1984. She was recruiting customers for a marketing research project and called his company, which advertised in the Yellow Pages. They spoke a few times on the phone and then met in person. Lyons was in a flailing relationship at the time, and Lash's arrival hastened an end she had been anticipating. Here was a brilliant man with real charisma, she thought. His demeanor was intense and authentic; his stories were rich with detail. They began dating, and in 1986 Lash moved in with her. Thin and wiry, with a runner's build and gray-blue eyes, Lash seemed alive to her needs. She found him to be a tantalizingly good listener, and he was more present than any man she'd ever been with. They went for long bike rides, browsed bookstores, dined at fancy restaurants and hiked in the mountains. In those early years, Lyons recalls, he was often angry, unable to control his emotions. He and Lyons made a pact. She would teach him love and communication; he would show her commitment and excellence.

Lash revealed little about his past and showed no inclination to include her in it. He grew tense if she inquired about his family. He said it would be safer to keep her separate from all that, in the event of some calamity. On the few occasions when she persisted, he got angry, yelling and banging his fists. There were times, Lyons said, when Lash could be "a scary person." Faced with this opposition, she relented. People had a right to their privacy, and Lash, it turned out, had better reason than most: He told her he was a former government agent with a top-secret security clearance. He said he performed counter-terrorism operations, hostage rescues, anti-harassment missions and, on occasion, he rescued people from cults. He was on a mission to save the world, he said. His company employed a team of highly skilled, dangerous operatives who were intensely loyal to him. Whatever skepticism Lyons harbored about this, she found ways to justify it. Lash owned lots of guns and seemed to know his way around them. He brought dozens of high-powered rifles and the gear that went with them into the condo they shared. He told Lyons that his company owned an entire building in Beverly Hills. His staff worked 24 hours a day. He didn't divulge much else about his work, but there was plenty of training and the occasional mission. Still, Lash went to work every morning, like everybody else, and came home at night.

Courtesy of Palisadian-Post/Rich Schmitt

 

***

Sharpe was at work on July 18, 2015. It was a Saturday. She was nervous because the Palisadian-Post was about to publish the biggest investigative scoop in its 86-year history. For more than a year, Sharpe and her colleagues had been looking into allegations that a beloved local jeweler had been thieving from customers. There had been 27 lawsuits, and a stream of complaints appeared to implicate him in a criminal racket. For a small community, it was shaping up to be a major scandal. Sharpe saw it as her duty to publish the dirty laundry. As her team was putting the final touches on the story, Sharpe checked Facebook. Someone had posted news about police commotion down the street. She panicked briefly, but guessed it was just an errant pool guy or a faulty car alarm and went back to the jeweler piece.

A little later she checked again and this time saw that police had cordoned off Palisades Drive, the tree-lined road that winds uphill from Sunset Boulevard. The breaking news reporter was away for the weekend, so Sharpe called her staff photographer, who agreed to come in. Rain poured down as they drove to the police cordon. Instead of the local cops whom she knew, she ran into unfamiliar LAPD officers who barred her from entry. A bomb squad was stationed nearby. She and the photographer snaked up and around the cordon on back streets, going house by house, until they found one with an open garage door. They knocked, identified themselves and were invited to the backyard, where they put up a ladder, peering over the foliage onto a broad alley below.

A white tent had been erected, a bit like the ad hoc government headquarters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A K-9 unit and a hazmat team had assembled. Police had cleared the closest neighbors. Men in civilian clothes milled around. The photographer snapped pictures, and the pair returned to the office, where Sharpe began emailing news alerts to the Post's subscribers: A neighbor had been found dead in his SUV on the side of the road; inside his condo, police had found enough high-powered weapons to stage a rebellion. The police, who had been alerted to the body by a call from Braun, at first thought they'd stumbled upon a gun trafficking ring. A neighbor sent Sharpe a picture showing a cop placing a rifle atop a huge pile of stacked guns, just some of the hundreds that Lash had stockpiled. For what purpose, nobody knew.

***

Lash had more than a few eccentricities, that much was clear to Lyons. He didn't want her to touch his stuff, ever — and he was a neat freak. He forbade people from taking his photograph. He had credit cards but always paid in cash. But in other ways, he seemed sane and rational, and she looked past her boyfriend's oddities to his better qualities. They went to dinner often, and Lash struck up conversations easily with waiters and strangers. He was skilled at getting people to open up, with a knack for zeroing in on what Lyons calls "the core issues." He seemed present and engaged, focused on her and ready to offer guidance. If she had problems, he counseled her. Lyons was convinced Lash was "the one."

But his work as a counter-terrorism operative was central to his identity. Almost immediately, he drew borders within their personal life that reflected this. In 1987, Lyons bought a three-bedroom condominium in Santa Monica, and Lash commandeered one of the bedrooms, ordering her to never enter and locking it with a key. On weekends, the couple would head off to the Mojave Desert, east of Lancaster and Palmdale, to target shoot. Lyons hated it, but Lash insisted that it was important she be trained to defend herself in the event an enemy came after them. So, loaded up with AR-15s and high-end hunting rifles, they set up rectangular bull's-eye targets in the wastelands and blasted away.

Lash told Lyons about members of the anti-terror team he worked with, whom he referred to as his "upper staff." They were brave, lethal and, most of all, loyal to Lash. If anyone harmed Lash, or stood in his way, he told her, his team would come after them. He said that his team had killed people before, and would do so again. Lyons never met any of the team members, nor spoke to them on the phone, but to hear Lash speak it was as if they lurked in the wings of their domestic life at all times. Lash told her about a psychic and healer who had been at one point one of his most valuable colleagues. "Tara" was her code name, and for national security reasons, he said he wouldn't reveal her real name. Lash had taught Tara to go dark and live off the grid.

Photographed by Damon Cesarez

Years would pass before Lyons recognized the psychological dominion he slowly was establishing. "He had this way of making you feel like the only person in the room, to respond right to your heart — you can't fake that," she says, "But that doesn't mean he wasn't evil." His threats grew more menacing, and he exerted other pressures on her, too. Lyons paid for virtually everything in their life, including the mortgage on the condominium, food, most entertainment and supplies. She also paid for the military-grade material Lash needed for his ongoing missions. He had shown his fury enough times that she had learned what lines not to cross. His behavior was so unsettling that Lyons took smaller and smaller opportunities to assert her independence, disarming him with humor. After one of Lash's demands, Lyons recalls just shaking her head. "You're so weird; you must be an alien," she joked. He gave her a strange look before retorting, "You don't know how right you are."

***

Sharpe needed to be convinced to become editor at the Palisadian-Post. She had worked as a journalist for years and lived in Paris when she was younger. She ghost-wrote books for a living and had a couple of New York Times best-sellers under her belt. But in 2013, the Post was sold, and the new owner fired the longtime editor and most of the staff, putting Sharpe in place. Many locals were livid at the changes, directing their ire at Sharpe and her fledgling team. One of her reporters, who had called around to get quotes for an innocuous story, was told to "fuck off." Sharpe received hate mail. When the Post was given a shout-out during a public meeting for developer Rick Caruso's local project, several attendees booed the paper. "People I'd been friends with for 20 years stopped talking to me," says Sharpe. "You're ruining our paper," they told her.

When the Lash story broke, tips began pouring in. Strangers stopped Sharpe on the street to discuss the case. People called her day and night to share their theories about who Lash really was. He was a hitman or was running drugs. Or perhaps he really was an alien, as some of the women who knew him were saying. A few were convinced Lash was exactly who he had claimed to be: a government operative with top-secret clearance who had hidden in their midst for decades.

Neighbors were understandably upset and angry. What would have happened to all that ammunition had the house caught fire? Weren't there municipal limits on how many guns one person could own? For their part, the police were astonished that 6 tons of ammunition hadn't collapsed the house. "How is it that he brought all that ammo to this place through the years and nobody ever noticed?" asks Detective Benjamin Meda, who responded to the first call. "That to me was suspicious."

Courtesy of Chuck Larsen Photography

 

For Palisades residents, small details became fodder for elaborate backstories. Why did none of his five cars have proper license plates? And why, when the police came to collect the guns, were they in overalls and dungarees? Maybe they really were from a government Black Ops agency. "They were completely obsessed," says Sharpe. "I mean, completely." Sharpe enlisted the help of locals she had known for years to help cover the story. She asked neighbors who had lived near Lash to snap pictures on their iPhones, and they did. A judge she knew tipped her off that Lash had lived part-time down the street from his own residence at a condominium complex in Malibu. People she had reported on became eager sources. She interpreted the volume of help she received from friends, neighbors and strangers as validation of her work.

***

Lash grew up in the L.A. neighborhood of Westchester. His father, Jerry, was a microbiologist. His mother, a pianist who studied at Juilliard, often took the young Lash to the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles. He attended Westchester High and then went to UCLA for a while before dropping out. After his mother died in the mid-1980s, Jerry lived for about 25 years with Shirley Anderson, who had known Lash as a boy and remembers him as "very cute and very smart." Lash came and went in the intervening years. He maintained a relationship with his father, whom Anderson recalls as being "real funny."

Lash had begun collecting guns, and when a number of them were stolen, he turned to his father for help. The elder Lash brought in Robert Rentzer, an attorney who had used Jerry as an expert witness in a few drunk driving cases. "Jeff was fanatical about collecting guns," says Rentzer, "but he was very private. He didn't want anyone to know where he lived." Whenever the police recovered some of Lash's stolen guns, the two would meet. Sometimes Lash went to Rentzer's home. "He was a nice guy and very bright," says Rentzer, who says he never bothered to ask what Lash did for a living. "I consider it off-putting, asking someone what they do," he says. "I shave in the morning, I shower, that's what I do." When Lash did return home, Anderson enjoyed his company as well. "I saw him rarely," she says. "But he'd tell me about himself. He was very pleasant and a nice person, and then we wouldn't see him for a while." The last time was in 2010, just before the death of his father, whose remains were scattered at sea.

One day in 1998, after nearly 13 years together, Lash informed Lyons that he would be moving out of her apartment for a while. A national security emergency had arisen that required immediate attention. More of the weapons that Rentzer had helped recover were being returned, but Lash was furious that they'd been handled by other people, and he wanted to clean them. He'd be gone for two weeks, living at the Pacific Palisades home of Lyons' close friend Catherine Nebron and her husband, Phil Gorin, a dentist with a practice in Brentwood. It was a swanky condo complex. Former Miami Heat center Chris Bosh lived nearby. So did The Hills star Lauren Conrad. Chevy Chase once owned a home nearby. For years, Lash, Lyons, Nebron and Gorin had been a friendly quartet. They had even double-dated. This new living arrangement was temporary, Lash insisted. It was the safest option for everybody. Two weeks turned into four. Four into eight. Eight into 16 and then 32. Weeks turned into months, which turned into years. Lash never returned to live with Lyons.

Their relationship, however, advanced, even as Lash's gun emergency remained unresolved. They dined out at nice Westside restaurants regularly, including at Tivoli in the Palisades. Their weekend shooting excursions to the desert continued. Lash told Lyons that she was his true love, and she reciprocated the sentiment. Their relationship also developed more intricate tentacles. Lyons and Nebron spoke on the phone constantly, often about Lash and his needs as a government operative. (Whenever Nebron and Lyons discussed Lash, Nebron referred to him as "your boyfriend.") From 1998 to 2008, Lyons showed up at Nebron's apartment every night and picked Lash up for dinner at a local restaurant. Afterwards, she dropped him back at Nebron's and returned home.

The women agreed that they were helping him in his fight to save the world. One concrete way to help was to provide Lash with cash and goods. But by 2008, Lyons was reaching a limit. Lash had developed a bad gum infection. She went days without seeing him. She counseled him to see a doctor, but he said he'd tried everything. She harbored doubts about his work. His threats about loyalty frayed her nerves. "It didn't make sense to me, but I couldn't do anything about it," she says. She thought about running away but says she feared for her life. Lyons claims Lash gave threatening examples of other people who had been killed because of their disloyalty. "He would tell this to me and Catherine," says Lyons. "When you hear these stories, and you see all these weapons, and you know there's a trained team out there, you don't just hop in your car and drive away." Lyons and Nebron didn't confide their deepest fears to each other, and Nebron didn't tell Lyons about her own burgeoning relationship with Lash. But in moments of unguarded intimacy that sometimes arise between victims, they shared hints. Lyons recalls telling Nebron, "This is crazy."

Courtesy of Palisadian-Post/Rich Schmitt

Still, she persisted. From 2008 until Lash's death, Lyons made a nightly trip to the Palisades to deliver whatever Lash and Nebron needed, including cash, food, ice and merchandise purchased from Amazon. Concerned about damage that moisture and heat could do to his guns, Lash had turned off the water in Nebron's condo and demanded that the windows remain shut. He required a special chef, which cost $1,785 a week. It was supposed to last for a few weeks, but Lyons ponied up the money for seven years. She bought two "healing frequency machines" for $12,000 each, plus another $9,800 a year in storage fees for a decade. In all, Lyons, who runs a successful computer consulting firm, estimates she shelled out $1.8 million. In exchange for the deliveries, Lash and Nebron gave Lyons trash bags, which they had sorted and labeled in one of three ways: "normal," "elsewhere" or "elsewhere separate" that had to be distributed widely. Over the years, Lyons developed a familiarity with dumpster locations across the Westside. "My repertoire," she calls it.

***

Lash told Nebron and Gorin a version of the story he had told Lyons — that a national security emergency had arisen and he needed a temporary location from which to stage an important operation. Much as he had done with Lyons, Lash isolated Nebron and Gorin inside their own home. In legal documents filed in 2016, Nebron and Gorin, now divorced, filed separate complaints against Lash's estate, alleging he waged a campaign against them that combined charm, intimidation and outright threats. Soon after moving in, Lash constructed a virtual labyrinth inside their condominium, restricting their movements to a tiny subset of that space. Nebron claims she slept on a yoga mat in the bathroom and used a bath mat as a pillow. She alleges that Lash hit her between eight and 10 times, threatened her with "fines" if she misbehaved and required that she always stay in the house to guard his belongings. Since Lash had turned the water off, they showered at a neighbor's place. Nebron says she took out personal loans for hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for Lash's fines, as well as for his material demands.

At times, Nebron appeared to be a ready participant in Lash's confabulations. They told neighbors that Lash's name was Bob, and neighbors began calling him Skinny Bob. When Lash did speak to neighbors, he told them the same basic story he told everyone. He had once told Nebron that he had 200,000 people on his payroll and that his company was responsible for thwarting upward of two-thirds of the post-9/11 bomb and terror threats. A neighbor had once questioned Lash and Nebron about why they were sitting in their car for such a long time. "National security!" the pair had howled back in unison.

There were snickers and raised eyebrows, but also shrugs that anything was possible in after 9/11. Gorin, for one, seemed convinced. According to a creditor's complaint filed in 2016, he alleges that Lash once placed a gun against his head and demanded that he continue to provide the cash Lash needed to carry out his missions. Gorin claims he forked over much of his life's earnings, some $2.5 million. After Gorin and Nebron divorced, Nebron took up with Lash, eventually becoming his fiancee. In legal documents, Gorin says he moved into his Brentwood dentist's office for nine years, financially destitute and psychologically wrecked from Lash's abuse.

Meanwhile, Lyons still believed that she and Lash were simply going through a transition and that once his emergency was over, they would resume their life as a couple. "The goal was for him to return home," says Lyons. Nebron and Lyons had been friends for years, but Nebron never mentioned that she and Lash were engaged. Instead, Lash had instructed Nebron to call Lyons on a regular basis and counsel her on how to be "less angry."

***

Lash, meanwhile, was getting increasingly ill. He had trouble walking, eating and even talking. One day in 2015, Nebron hired an assistant, a young woman from Oxnard named Dawn VadBunker. Nebron owned several properties around L.A. and told VadBunker she needed help managing the paperwork. For a long time, Nebron declined to meet VadBunker in person, so her new hire worked remotely. Then one day, Nebron brought VadBunker in on a little secret. She wanted her to meet the man she loved, Jeffrey Lash. After a few meetings, VadBunker returned to Oxnard and told her adoptive mother, Laura VadBunker, that she had given up smoking and started eating raw meat. "Raw bison. Water. Weird juices that taste like hell," recalls Laura. (VadBunker had, for a time, been married to Laura's biological son, and Laura had legally adopted her.)

Lash was helping her turn into an alien, Dawn explained. "Dawn mentioned he was turning her into a hybrid," says Laura. "She could tell her head was getting larger. She said, 'You know that [my ex-husband] wouldn't be able to see me if he drove by because I would be invisible.' " Laura pressed Dawn for answers but got none. "What was the threat?" asks Laura. "I think it had to do with government to government on another planet. They didn't exactly explain it to me, but he was helping the government on top-secret operations on the computer all night and traveling to different solar systems and planets through the computer and chips. Bizarre."

Laura, a practitioner in the Japanese healing technique called Reiki, was enlisted to come take a look at Lash herself. In 2015, she, Dawn, Nebron and Lash parked one of Lash's trucks in a Santa Monica grocery store lot. During the three-hour healing session, Laura sat next to Lash and sent healing energy into his stomach and chest. Lash was emaciated and could barely speak. Laura, convinced that he was dying, told him this, and he just nodded. He pointed to a building across the street and told her she was in a "test." He asked her what she would do if she was facing a building full of snipers firing at her. Confused, Laura replied, "Run toward the building?" Lash nodded sagely. "You passed the test," he said.

Lash had given Nebron specific instructions in the event of his death. She was not to contact the police, he told her. Instead, he wanted her to wrap his body in blankets and leave it in his car to be found. Which is exactly what she did when, on July 4, 2015, Lash died. Nebron called Gorin, now her ex-husband, who rushed to help. Gorin reportedly tried to administer CPR, but Lash was dead. They chose not to call 911. Per Lash's instructions, Nebron and VadBunker wrapped Lash in blankets, closed the tinted windows, drove the car to the Palisades, locked the doors and took off. "I just wanted to get the fuck outta Dodge," Gorin later told Sharpe.

Nebron and Dawn VadBunker fled L.A. for the Pacific Northwest. When Laura VadBunker wasn't able to reach her daughter by phone, she called the police and filed a missing persons report. A few days later, police located Nebron and Dawn in Oregon. Through the police, Dawn relayed a message to Laura that she was with "like-minded people." Then she went dark.

Laura VadBunker doesn't believe Lash's alien-spy hype. But one thing has always bothered her. "To tell you the truth, no matter where we traveled, there was always a blacked-out helicopter hovering overhead; that's one thing I can't explain," she says. "All the way to Santa Monica, all the way home. I said, 'Guys, what's with the helicopter?' They said nothing. I said, 'No, really.' That bothered me. I mean, what are the odds? No matter where I traveled with Dawn would be that damn black helicopter. I cannot explain that away."

***

As she did every night, Lyons called her old friend Catherine on the night of July 4, 2015. No one answered. It was highly unusual, but she thought there must be a good reason. But when the same thing happened the next several days, she began to worry.

Maybe, she thought, the answer lay in Lash's secret room. For decades, he had told her that the room contained sensitive government files, classified data and the contact information for the members of his team. Lyons wanted to get in touch with those people now. They would know what to do. "I was looking for high-security stuff," she says.

When she finally broke in, using a credit card to slip the lock, it wasn't the national security headquarters she had expected. It wasn't neat and tidy, the way Lash had been in the early years of their relationship. It was a mess, a hoarder's hodgepodge. As she dug into the room, Lyons found traces of people connected to her boyfriend, whose real name she finally learned. But the people she found weren't government operatives. They were other women. At least six of them. And in that room, they existed in the form of love letters, pictures and at least one audio cassette tape that one of Lash's paramours had made for him. "I realized then that he was unfaithful," she says. "Right there and then, I knew he was a liar."

But she still didn't know where he was or what to do with herself. Nebron and Lash had never been so quiet for so long. She drove over to the Palisades condo. No one answered. She spotted one of Lash's SUVs parked on Palisades Drive and tried peering in, but the windows were tinted and she couldn't see anything. She called Gorin, who told her he didn't know anything. So Lyons went home and waited. Eventually, Gorin called back: Lash was dead, he told her. He had been dead for two weeks. (Soon after that, Nebron returned to L.A. and, seeing that Lash was still in his car, instructed Braun to call the LAPD.) Then the news reports started and the scope of the lie Lyons had been living began to crystallize. "I couldn't believe what I was reading. When they were calling Catherine his fiancee, I thought it was a mistake," she says. "It wasn't. But nobody broke up with me."

Courtesy of Palisadian-Post/Scott Ross

It would take weeks before Lyons gathered the courage to investigate the other women in Lash's life. She did so with Sharpe's help. The two have been collaborating on a book about Lyons' experience, titled One-Man Cult. Five of the six women whose names Lyons found in Lash's secret room were still alive, and she tried contacting all of them, eventually reaching four. Their stories mirrored her own. Lash had swooped in and disrupted their relationships. He had bilked them of money and leeched off their goodwill for years. Some had been intimidated and were scared, believing that Lash was capable of killing them.

There was one name that stood out to Lyons: Tara. Among Lash's papers, Lyons found Tara's real name and set about trying to locate her. Lyons paid a private investigator, who provided a background report, then she searched on her own. According to Lyons, Tara seems to have vanished around 2005. Lyons claims there is no death certificate, no missing persons report, just a paper trail that goes cold. Lyons did find a friend of Tara's, who confirmed that Tara had, in fact, been in a long relationship with Lash. Lyons and Sharpe interviewed this friend, who told them Lash had grown increasingly angry with Tara in the months before she disappeared because Tara had been unable to "cure" Lash of his physical ailments. "We know that Tara feared for her life," says Lyons. She is exploring the possibility that Tara is dead and Lash was somehow involved.

It is hard to imagine how so many smart, successful women fell for Lash's con. "That's the question everyone has," says Sharpe. "How could one person entice these people to do what they did?" All relationships require certain amounts of flexibility. We often see only what we want to see; we find excuses for the things that don't fit. We justify the bad and focus on the good. When Lyons reflects on her experience with Lash, her language mirrors the disjointed quality of his life. "He pursued his own spiritual growth, and he'd say the most brilliant things," she says. "But it was all mixed up with people being killed. It scared me." When Lyons thinks of Lash now, she recalls the parable of the frog who, when placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly heated to a boil, only realizes its predicament when it's too late. "I was the frog and didn't know it," she says. "I was coerced, little by little, to give up my life."

Sharpe nabbed an exclusive tour for the Post of Nebron and Gorin's apartment about a month after Lash's body was found. The inventory of stuff that police discovered there ranged from the lethal (high-powered sniper rifles with military-grade scopes) to the bizarre (a book called What Women Want). Police found as many as 50,000 music CDs and roughly 1,000 Palm Pilots. There were medieval broad swords, machetes, crossbows, Harry Potter books, laptops, DVD players, athletic gear, Gore-Tex jackets, Nikon cameras and shoes. Much of it was still in its original packaging. The kitchen was filled almost entirely with rifles and shotguns.

Sharpe believes the Lash case changed something fundamental in her homey community. "Maybe the notion that we're not immune to crime, to frightening things, to the things we usually see in other parts of the world," she says. It could have been worse, of course. Lash could have gone on a rampage. The guns could have fallen into the wrong hands. The house could have exploded. "There's this realization that you don't know who your neighbors are," she says. "That's frightening."

***

Move west from the Palisades and you hit Malibu. Turn right off the Pacific Coast Highway and the hills are scraped bare, which gives the neighborhoods a raw texture. Tilting perilously above the Pacific can leave you feeling adrift, unmoored by the sea's tug. This was the setting of Lash's last stand. As his illness progressed and his relationships with Nebron, Gorin and Lyons grew more complex, Lash sought out yet more conquests.

Sometime around 2012, he established a relationship with Jocelyn Eberstein, an acupuncturist who lived in a Coastline Drive condominium and took him in. For a couple of years until his death, Lash spent roughly half his time at Eberstein's place.

There, he again passed himself off as a covert agent. Her landlord, Paul Rodriguez, recalls a morning when Lash emerged looking frantic. "Did you hear the shootout last night?" Lash asked excitedly. Rodriguez wasn't aware of a shootout. No one else had mentioned anything and no police had come. "Right here," Lash insisted, indicating that the gunmen had been lined up and down the street, duking it out. Rodriguez wasn't buying it. Lash eventually backed off the story.

Courtesy of Palisadian-Post/Scott Ross

 

One day, Lash was speeding to Eberstein's when he smashed his truck into a neighbor's Lexus SUV, pushing it into a curb and snapping both wheels off an axle. The crash also totaled another neighbor's BMW. When confronted, Lash said, "You can't go through insurance. I'll lose my top-secret clearance."

"Not my problem," the neighbor said. (Lash eventually settled the claim through an insurance company.)

Even as his illness progressed, Lash was still juggling the demands of four simultaneous relationships. "I think he's one hell of a con person," says Laura VadBunker. "I think he has more charisma than 10 Trumps." And, it would seem, an ability to keep those who knew him longest forever confused. "Maybe he did do national security missions," says Anderson. "The government doesn't always tell you everything they know, either."

The likeliest scenario is also the simplest, however: There was no government work. Anderson confirmed that there had been no vast inheritance, as some had speculated. The coroner found that Lash had died at age 60 of natural causes, but his corpse was so decomposed that a conclusive determination of what ailed him in his final years was problematic.

In certain cases, diseases like cancer and ALS can cause psychotic episodes and hallucinations, but Lash's manipulative behavior went on for so long, and was seemingly so calculated, that the brief episodic explanations seem to fall short. Kevin J. Fleming, a former neuropsychologist turned entrepreneur who runs Grey Matters International, a global neuroscience-based advisory firm, speculates that Lash could have had any number of personality disorders, ranging from narcissism or sociopathy to full-blown psychosis. But he had no criminal record and no sexual offenses. Lyons doesn't know what to believe any longer about the man with whom she shared a life. "I think he was either evil, or delusional or somehow mentally unstable," she says. "He was definitely a narcissist, but I didn't recognize it fully at the time."

On one of the days I visited the condos on Coastline Drive, I met Dawn Usher. Her father was Gary Usher, who penned a slew of Beach Boys songs and became a record label executive before dying at the age of 51. Usher lives now with her second husband in an open-plan condo with an ocean view just down the hill from Eberstein's place. "Yeah, I knew that guy," she says. Usher is blond, attractive and chatty. "I probably talked to him more than anyone else around here."

A familiar story unfolds. Lash talked her up often, especially if her husband wasn't around. He was charming, intelligent, charismatic and demonstrated a keen interest in her. Usher was drawn in. They shared a love of cars and spiritual questions. Lash listened to her troubles with men. They spoke about the difficulties of having a relationship. Yes, he was a top-secret government agent, he said. No, he couldn't tell her more. He'd had an out-of-body experience some years ago, traveled to outer space and seen the light of God — and it had shaped who he was. Did she know what he meant? He probed, listened, probed some more. The pitter-patter of Lash's uniquely twisted weave was becoming clear. He told her that he sometimes wondered whether he — he said his name was Bob Smith — was an alien. He wasn't sure. He wasn't sure who he was. Could anyone be? Really? What did she think ...;?

And then, before he could make further progress, Lash died. In the end, Usher avoided his trap. But for Michelle Lyons and many others, Lash's lies are really lost lives.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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