‘Lost Hills’ podcast returns with a Santa Cruz Island drowning and rumors in Malibu

By Kathryn Barnes

A sea cave off Santa Cruz Island, near where Verna Johnson-Roehler and Doug Johnson drowned in 1981. Photo by Dana Goodyear.

The “Lost Hills” podcast’s second season tells the story of Verna Johnson-Roehler and Doug Johnson, a mother and son who drowned off Santa Cruz Island in January 1981. The husband, Fred Roehler, was the sole survivor and only witness. Initially, the deaths were ruled accidental. But speculation among Malibu neighbors changed everything. 

“Somebody that knew Fred from Malibu called up the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department, because Santa Cruz Island is part of Santa Barbara County, and said, ‘You can't let these cremations go forward. You have to investigate Fred. You have to find out how his first wife died,’” says Dana Goodyear, a reporter at the New Yorker who hosts the podcast.

“Not only did Verna and Doug drown. His first wife, Jean, drowned in 1976 in the family pool. And once again, Fred was the only witness,” she says. “So that tip from somebody in Malibu who knew the family was actually what set the investigation of Fred in motion.”


The Johnson-Roehler family is aboard their ship, “Perseverance,” before Verna and Doug’s deaths. Photo courtesy of the Roehler Family.

Fred Roehler was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to life without parole. He’s currently an inmate at the California State Prison in Lancaster.

Goodyear says he and his family are hoping this podcast, which looks closely at the strength of the legal case against Roehler, could lead to his exoneration.

“Legal experts tend to agree with them that the case wasn't made at trial — that it's possible, whether or not he's guilty, that legally he shouldn't have been convicted based on the evidence that was presented,” she says.

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“Lost Hills” investigates the dark side of Malibu. Image courtesy of Pushkin.

Season one of “Lost Hills” focused on a series of strange shootings at Malibu Creek State Park around 2018. Goodyear says this beachside community of the rich and famous creates a marvelous backdrop for storytelling.

“I think it's a really interesting place because its surface tells you one story, and it tells that story pretty insistently, which is beautiful, rich, young people having fun in the sun,” she says. “And the minute you scratch the surface, you find out there is so much else going on there. There's so much complexity and quite a lot of darkness, and so much denial of that because of the importance of that surface image.”

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