When Linda Sobek speaks to her mother on the morning of November 16, 1995, few – if any – signs point to the horrific chain of events that will shortly unfold. So the in-demand model simply tells her mom that she’s had a last-minute request to take part in an imminent shoot. And while the beautiful blonde already has a costume fitting for an upcoming part on TV scheduled later that day – as well as a host of other appointments – she’s said yes to the gig. Little does Sobek know, though, that this assignment will be her last.
Sobek makes one vital mistake too: she doesn’t tell anyone where she’s going or even who has hired her for the assignment. Perhaps it’s the eleventh-hour nature of the job that stops her from taking her usual precautions – or maybe it’s just bad luck. But either way, Sobek quickly gathers the clothes that she needs for the shoot and heads out.
Sobek had also assured her mother that she’d phone her later that same day. Yet while the model’s family and friends didn’t realize it at the time, this promise would actually be the last that anyone heard from her. That’s because, after setting out for her first photoshoot of the day, Sobek vanishes.
To Sobek’s parents, Bob and Elaine, though, their daughter didn’t always seem destined for the career path that she chose. “As a youngster, she would do pirouettes across the room, and it was so funny. She was so klutzy, and I was pretty near trying to keep from laughing,” Elaine told People in 1995.
It came as quite a surprise, then, that as soon as Sobek finished school, she began pursuing a career that required – among other things – good balance: modeling. To get her foot in the door, Sobek in fact auditioned to join the Los Angeles Raiders’ cheerleading squad. And after competing against roughly 1,000 other hopeful women, she and 39 others made the cut.
So from 1988 to 1993, Sobek stood on the sidelines of the football field as a Raiderette, and her friendly personality made her a well-liked member of the squad. Even after the future model left, in fact, she maintained friendships with many of the women alongside whom she had cheered. And one of Sobek’s pals, Gretchen Stockdale, went so far as to say, “Linda was the fabric that bound our group together.”
Sobek’s time with the Raiderettes didn’t just bring her a slew of new friends, either. It also served as a stepping stone into the modeling career that she wanted. But at only 5 foot 3 inches, Sobek didn’t have the height to nab high-fashion assignments. She therefore posed for swimsuit companies, magazines, catalogs and beer ads instead.
With these achievements under her belt, Sobek then set her sights on a new goal: acting. According to calendar producer Roy Morales, “[Sobek] was making it really big, staying really busy.” In 1995, for instance, she bagged a small role in Married… With Children, which was a popular sitcom at the time.
Given that Sobek’s career was evidently taking off, then, her schedule most days was presumably jam-packed. So November 16, 1995, was seemingly no different. And after receiving a page early in the morning to attend a photo shoot, the model apparently promised her mother that she’d ring later to iron out their plans for the weekend. Then, as we’ve seen, the former cheerleader hung up, gathered the gear that she needed and rushed out of the door.
That night, Elaine awaited a call from her daughter – but the phone never rang. And while this was of course worrying, Sobek’s brother, Steve, did his best to calm his mom down. As he recalled on an episode of Forensic Files, Steve told Elaine, “Hey, don’t worry. Linda’s got things to do. She’s out working. She probably just took off and was doing something.”
But Elaine wouldn’t listen. “No, no. I know something else is wrong,” Steve remembered his mother saying when there was still no word from Sobek. And Elaine did have a point: her daughter had apparently made it a strict policy to never go on a modeling shoot without telling someone its location or photographer first.
So Elaine decided to do something about her growing fear. “I had one of [Sobek’s] address books, and I just started making phone calls to all of the girls,” Elaine explained. And one of Sobek’s friends from the Raiderettes squad, Brooke Morales, answered a call from Elaine. Morales told People, “[Sobek] would never let her mother worry – no matter where she is.”
And after speaking to Elaine, Morales made a troubling discovery. The fact that Sobek hadn’t checked in with her mother was strange enough, but Morales also found out that the model – who was known as hardworking, committed and professional – hadn’t gone to any of her other appointments on November 16th, either. This included a wardrobe fitting for her part on Married… With Children – which presumably would have been a big deal to the aspiring actress.
Armed with this alarming revelation, Morales dialed 911. But neither she nor Sobek’s other pals could tell the police where the blonde model had gone that day. Refusing to give up, however, Sobek’s family and friends got to work. Her parents, for instance, reportedly printed more than 50,000 posters and offered a $20,000 reward for information about their daughter’s whereabouts.
And while Sobek’s family handed out flyers, and her friends drummed up media attention by calling TV stations and newspapers, someone inadvertently located the first clue in the case. A staffer in the Angeles National Forest had, you see, gone to clean out one of the 1,000-square-mile park’s trash cans. But the man had actually discovered a stack of photographs of a gorgeous blonde model inside.
Apparently, the staffer then slipped the pictures into his rucksack, took them home and didn’t think twice about them. That is, until he caught the news a few days later. During the broadcast, you see, the man heard Sobek’s story. And when the missing model’s face flashed across the screen, he seemingly recognized her as the woman from the snapshots that he’d found in the park. Alarmed, the man claimed that he contacted the cops right away and shared what he had taken.
And then came another crucial breakthrough in the case. A couple of days after Sobek had disappeared, you see, a man by the name of Charles Rathbun also picked up the phone to call the cops. According to a 2001 episode of Forensic Files, the freelance photographer actually wanted to tell authorities that he had seen Sobek on the day that she had vanished. Apparently, they had met at a Denny’s to go over her modeling portfolio and then parted ways.
While corroborating Rathbun’s story, though, police found an important piece of evidence in the case. In fact, they discovered Sobek’s car, which still sat in the Denny’s parking lot where she had supposedly met the photographer. Unfortunately for them, however, the vehicle didn’t appear to yield any incriminating evidence. But investigators still had that stack of photos from the Angeles National Forest.
As it turned out, then, the park trash can hadn’t just been hiding Sobek’s modeling shots. Also inside the container, in fact, was a discarded day planner as well as a car rental agreement. And as investigators perused this last document, they suddenly recognized a name printed on it: Charles Rathbun.
Unsurprisingly, this troubling development raised police suspicions. But Rathbun seemingly had a simple explanation as to how those items had ended up in the trash together. He suggested that his and Sobek’s papers had probably just become jumbled during their encounter at Denny’s. And he told investigators that he’d rented the car to snap photos of it for Autoweek magazine.
Even with an apparently logical explanation, however, the police remained suspicious. So they subsequently tracked down the exact vehicle that Rathbun had rented. Yet when investigators searched the Lexus SUV, they found it to be in mint condition – initially, at least. After undertaking further inspections, you see, the cops found a red mark on the back seat. And they later determined the stain to be human blood.
This unsettling find naturally gave police ample cause for interviewing Rathbun again. And as they pressed the photographer on his story, he began to tell it completely differently. In fact, the second time around, Rathbun claimed that he had actually asked Sobek to work for him on the day that she’d vanished. He also said that he’d hired her to pose in an Autoweek shoot alongside the Lexus SUV that he had rented.
According to Rathbun’s new story, then, he and Sobek had driven a couple of hours to reach the shoot location at El Mirage – a dried-out lake bed in the Mojave Desert. Rathbun also claimed that, while there, he had instructed Sobek to drive the Lexus in small circles as he snapped photos. And to clarify what he had envisioned, the photographer had apparently hopped behind the wheel of the car to show her.
Then came a shocking admission. According to Rathbun, you see, the proposed photo shoot had taken a terrible turn. The photographer told police that, as he had spiraled around Sobek in the SUV, he had lost control of the wheel – and driven into the woman that he’d hired to model. The impact had killed her, Rathbun said, and so he had freaked out, packed Sobek’s body into his rented Lexus and driven to the Angeles National Forest to bury her remains.
Even after admitting to killing Sobek, though, Rathbun apparently wouldn’t provide investigators with concrete details about the location of her body. The assistant district attorney at the time, Mary-Jean Bowman, recalled, “He was very vague. He just kept saying, ‘I can’t remember.’ He would break into tears and say, ‘I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I don’t know where she is exactly, but I can take you there.’”
In the meantime, authorities took yet another look at the Lexus SUV to see if they could corroborate Rathbun’s new story. But the rented vehicle seemingly didn’t have any damage that could have been caused by hitting a human being with enough force to kill them. Suspicious, the investigators interrogated Rathbun once again. They actually hoped that he had been lying and that they might be able to find Sobek alive.
And yet Rathbun seemingly wasn’t going to make things easy for the police. For although he had promised that he could take the cops to the very spot that he had buried Sobek’s body, he repeatedly threw them off course. Bowman, however, claims that she saw right through his behavior. “He knew exactly where she was, and he was trying to stall – to buy more time, hoping that [Sobek]’s body would be decomposed by the time we did find it,” she theorized.
Still, the investigators refused to give up. They took a new approach, piling Rathbun into a chopper and flying him over the forest in the hope that he might point out where he’d dumped Sobek’s remains. And this time, the photographer cooperated. The police subsequently found the young model’s corpse hidden in a shallow grave and covered over with earth. They also found tire marks that matched the Lexus’ treads imprinted in the sand close by.
Tragically, then, the police’s hopes had not come true, and Sobek had in fact died. But the mystery still remained: had her death been a terrible accident as Rathbun had indeed claimed? Well, it would be Sobek’s body that would ultimately answer this question. Even though it had been nine days since she had died, you see, her remains were “perfectly preserved,” according to forensic analyst Heidi Robbins.
During Sobek’s autopsy, too, examiners couldn’t spot any signs that suggested she had been hit by a car. Instead, the former cheerleader’s body exhibited injuries that were consistent with sexual abuse and asphyxiation. It was also clear from the injuries that Sobek had fought as hard as she could to save herself.
This disturbing evidence, coupled with a deep-dive into Rathbun’s past, painted a dark picture of the real man who had been hiding behind the facade of a skilled and respected photographer. In 1979, for instance, a co-worker had accused Rathbun of raping her. But his attorney had claimed that the act had been consensual, and Rathbun had ultimately been found not guilty.
On top of this, Rathbun had reportedly shown difficulty controlling his anger in the past. According to colleagues, in fact, he would have horrible, violent tantrums when problems occurred during shoots. And an unnamed photographer told People in 1995 that some models had even begun refusing to work with Rathbun. Apparently, they had claimed that he had made unwanted sexual advances on them.
If all this weren’t disturbing enough, it seems as though Rathbun had actually been targeting Sobek too. He had apparently met and photographed the model prior to their fateful shoot, for one thing. Plus, he had “a dislike for blondes” and “a dislike for some women in particular,” according to Bowman. And Rathbun had deemed Sobek particularly challenging to work with, his associates said.
Finally, authorities questioned why Rathbun had even called Sobek for the photo shoot at all. Autoweek magazine spreads rarely use models to show off the cars, after all. This detail may have pointed at premeditation and may explain why Rathbun received a first-degree murder charge.
Throughout the trial, though, Rathbun continued to profess his innocence. Yet he couldn’t get his story straight. The photographer claimed first that he had accidentally killed Sobek with the Lexus. Then he alleged that he had driven into her but that the impact hadn’t killed her. And in trying to calm her down post-accident, he said, he had unintentionally suffocated her.
Then came another shocking statement. In attempting to explain away the signs of sexual assault on Sobek’s body, Rathbun said that their encounter had in fact been consensual – and that he had the photos to prove it. And so he sent his brother, Robert, off to the desert with a map to retrieve five reels of film that the photographer had dumped there.
All but one of the film rolls featured images of Sobek modeling normally – but the fifth contained pornographic images. These supposedly proved that Sobek had willingly been intimate with Rathbun. But none of the X-rated snaps showed the subject’s face. So forensic analysts stepped in and examined the photos, scrutinizing each and every tiny detail. And they discovered a small but vital clue in one of the pictures.
You see, this particular X-rated image showed the steering wheel of a car in the background – and on it was an Oldsmobile logo. But Rathbun had been photographing Sobek with a Lexus – not an Oldsmobile. So this woman on the film couldn’t have been her. And regardless, the pictures showed no definitive proof that the featured sexual acts had happened with consent.
In the end, then, the court found Rathbun guilty and sentenced him to spend the rest of his life behind bars – without the possibility of parole. And in 2018 the 60-year-old former photographer was still an inmate at the California Institute for Men, having already spent 22 years in a prison cell.
Despite presumably being grateful for Rathbun’s guilty conviction, Sobek’s family have found more solace from remembering their loved one than from putting her killer behind bars. Speaking about the journey ahead, Sobek’s mom, Elaine, told People, “It’s going to be happy, and it’s going to be sad.” But she said that she and the rest of the family will eventually heal – because they have Sobek’s memory to guide them.