A Mother and Baby Walk into a Trap
(“Shopping Spree,” Forensic Files)
Last week’s post told of two nice people who had the bad luck to cross paths with a personable married couple who were also thrill killers looking for prey.
The circumstances of Lisa Manderach’s murder, the subject of today’s post, seem even more improbable.
Random misfortune. She walked into a kids clothing store where a young man working the cash register just happened to be a fantasy-game superfan seething with thoughts of criminal perversion.
Lisa Manderach lost her life because the aforementioned Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast, one Caleb Fairley, age 21, reportedly considered her the embodiment of beauty he’d been wanting to seize.
Fairley also killed Devon, the baby daughter Lisa shared with husband James Mandarach. The murders initially made James, called Jimmy, a suspect because, as we know from countless other Forensic Files, the spouse did it.
Lenient system? Jimmy had reported Lisa missing when she failed to return home from shopping by dinner time. Fortunately, investigators found glaring evidence of Fairley’s guilt within days of the murder and built a case so solid that the attacker ended up sentenced to two consecutive life terms for two counts of second-degree murder.
Still, “Shopping Spree,” the Forensic Files episode about the murders, left me curious about an epilogue for Fairley.
He came from an affluent family, is white, and was young when he committed his crimes — all factors that can favorably tip the scales of justice. On the other hand, the judicial system rarely takes kindly to anyone who kills a mother or child, or both.
Before getting into the most recent information on Fairley, here’s a recap of the episode along with some additional facts culled from internet sources.
Quick jaunt. Lisa Manderach, two weeks shy of her 30th birthday, worked full time as a fork-lift operator in a food warehouse and also had an entrepreneurial streak. The Manderachs ran a janitorial service on the side. She also did volunteer work for Meals on Wheels.
Devon, 19 months, was their only child.
The trio were all dark-haired and striking. Lisa had long flowing tresses, pale skin, and a pretty face.
On September 15, 1995, she and Devon headed to Your Kidz & Mine, a new clothing store in the Collegeville Shopping Center, 10 minutes from her house in Limerick, Pennsylvania.
Jimmy stayed home to watch football.
Lisa left her diaper bag at home because she planned to stay out for only an hour, which makes “Shopping Spree” an odd choice for the title of the Forensic Files episode. (To me, it’s not a “spree” unless it starts in the morning and doesn’t end until it’s too dark to find your car.)
Fantasy. As soon as she stepped into Your Kidz & Mine, Fairley, who had a passion for vampire lore, reportedly recognized her as having the idealized look of the women portrayed in vampire-related literature.
Fairley, a blond, heavy, powerful-looking fire hydrant of a man who lived with his parents, was described by a friend as a devotee of Dungeons and Dragons, a role-playing game that allows people to act out story lines involving medieval warrior heroes, dragons, wicked monarchs, you name it.
It’s not clear whether Fairley’s interest in vampires was part of D&D or a separate pastime.
The mullet-wearing Fairley killed both Devon and Lisa via strangulation and most likely sexually assaulted Lisa. He disposed of the little girl’s body in Valley Forge National Park, where hikers soon discovered it.
Fairley took Lisa’s body to a wooded spot in an industrial area near his health club.
Cover-up. After Lisa’s husband reported her missing, police found her 1988 Firebird in the shopping plaza’s parking lot and located a witness who remembered seeing Lisa in Your Kidz & Mine.
Then, in what has to be everyone’s favorite part of the episode, police noticed Fairley was wearing beige makeup on his face when they brought him in for questioning.
He washed off the foundation at their request, uncovering scratch marks that looked as though they came from someone’s fingernails.
During questioning, he claimed he got them while mosh-pit dancing, although it later came out that he had told friends he got scratched up while rescuing a guy who was being beaten up outside the clothing store.
He allegedly pressured one of those friends, Christopher Lefler, to perjure himself by corroborating the dance alibi in court; Lefler refused.
Police got a search warrant for Fairley’s home and discovered a great deal of pornography.
Hasty assumption. “We found out that he was a real pervert, all kinds of sexual devices and various perverted stuff,” District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. told Forensic Files rather triumphantly.
In general, I wouldn’t be so sure about assuming a link between perverted, well, whatever it was he had in his possession, and criminality.
But fortunately the murder created plenty of forensic evidence that made for a stronger case against Fairley.
Police found Lisa’s body after Caleb agreed to disclose its location in exchange for a promise that they wouldn’t pursue the death penalty.
Investigators discovered his DNA under Lisa’s fingernails, some strands of long dark hair with the roots attached (suggesting a struggle) in the vacuum cleaner bag at the store, and the baby’s DNA on the carpet.
All this culminated in his April 1996 conviction for two counts of murder, aggravated assault, theft, and abuse of a corpse.
I’m real immature. Fairley has not found prison life agreeable, apparently. As of at least 2012, he was trying to have his convictions vacated and get a new trial following a Supreme Court decision that deemed life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders unconstitutional.
Fairley’s argument: The court should have rendered him a minor for sentencing purposes. Even though he commited the double murder at age 21, “a person’s biological process is typically incomplete until the person reaches his or her mid-twenties.”
That ploy hasn’t worked out, and today, Fairley lives in SCI Fayette, a moderately overcrowded maximum-security prison built in 2003 in Labelle, Pennsylvania. It houses 2,114 inmates but has bed capacity for just 1,826.
As for an update on Lisa’s widower, Jimmy Manderach, it appears he still lives in the same part of Pennsylvania. I make it a practice not to look too hard for up-to-date information about victims’ family members because, unless they show up on Dr. Phil or Dateline, they’re probably not looking for media attention.
(Jimmy Manderach did not appear on the Forensic Files episode.)
Dedication. In 1998, Caleb Fairley’s parents settled a lawsuit filed by Lisa’s mother and Jimmy Manderach for $1.6 million. According to legal documents reported on in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998, the Fairleys contended:
“While the circumstances were indeed horrific, the deaths . . . were relatively and mercifully swift, mitigating their conscious pain and suffering.”
In 1998, the Limerick Township Park System built the Manderach Memorial Playground in honor of Lisa and Devon. The township invested an additional $50,000 for new equipment for the playground in 2012. From the looks of its Facebook page, the place is still going strong.
That’s all for this post. For next week, I’m researching a bit about Dungeons and Dragons and whether any game aficionado — or the nature of the pastime itself — has been linked to any other major crimes.
Until then, cheers. — RR
Update: Read Part 2.