Thawing the cold case
Advantages of superior DNA testing give law enforcement the upper hand in closing the circle on murders and other major crimes long unsolved in Ventura County
By Paul Sisolak 02/04/2010
Frozen in time
Rachel Rodriguez Zendejas was a happy young mother of two who had only wanted to see her children grow up.
“We were sharing a two-bedroom apartment and she had her two daughters, 1 and 2 years old,” remembers her brother, Roy Rodriguez.
One night, all that would change forever, when Rachel, 20, failed to return home to Camarillo after seeing a friend’s band perform in Oxnard. The following morning, Rodriguez telephoned police to report her missing. Unbeknownst to him, his sister did make it home; the police had arrived, too, and were already outside, investigating the unthinkable.
“There was somebody waiting there,” said Rodriguez. “He attacked, raped and strangled her. The newspaper boy found her body across the street at 6:30. She was stripped nude.”
That was in 1981, and at the time, with detectives working at a feverish pace, it looked as though they were fast closing in on solving a rape and murder that was as senseless as it was random.
But leads in the crime eventually dried up, and as police hit one brick wall after another, Rachel’s tragic story — much like that crucial last chapter torn out of the pages of a mystery novel — never reached an end. Twenty-nine long years later, Rachel’s death remains unsolved. Her daughters, now grown and mothers in their own right, and her brother Roy, never received the closure they needed.
In July of 1996, Michael Stephenson was a well-liked counselor at the Turning Point Foundation in Ventura, where co-workers and colleagues referred to the jovial man with the large frame as their “Gentle Giant.” Stephenson had gone on a hiking excursion one day that summer near Apache Canyon, just past Ojai, and was never seen or heard from again.
“He didn’t return to work,” recalls Clyde Reynolds, Turning Point director. “When people checked on him, they found his pickup truck was parked there. At that point, search and rescue folks looked for a bit. We went there and walked the trails, but nobody found him, or his remains, or anything.”
Police speculated that Stephenson, who liked to travel off the beaten path, went spelunking in a darkened cave, lost his footing, and fell to his death. Another theory, according to Reynolds, was that Stephenson accidentally stumbled upon an illegal marijuana farm, where he was killed, his body buried underneath fields of contraband.
“Eventually, they said they couldn’t find any evidence. We just had to assume he died, obviously,” Reynolds said. “It was really quite a tragedy for us. For those of us who were there, we remember him greatly.”
Rachel Zendejas and Michael Stephenson were classified as cold cases, and they aren’t alone. Joining the dozens and dozens of murdered or missing across Ventura County, their fates have baffled police for years. With authorities unable to catch and convict a suspect because of anything from a lack of evidence to a shortage of witnesses, right down to some minor technicality or false alarm, cold cases are the figurative question marks in the field of criminology, made of the stuff that composes tales of the “killer that got away.”
“Cold case,” however, doesn’t mean that a decades-old murder can’t heat up once again through the help of forensic science. New advancements in critical DNA testing methods, some only within the last five years, have aided local authorities in not just solving the most mysterious of crimes, but in cracking cases dormant for years.
Like mercury rising
Dennis Fitzgerald had been with the Port Hueneme Police Department for 10 years when he was assigned as a rookie detective to the Cassie Miller murder in 1975.
Miller was already a familiar face to police as a prostitute who “worked” the area of the Plaza Marina shopping center in Oxnard. When she was strangled to death, the scenario, at the time, seemed cut and dried. The killer, police thought, must have been one of Miller’s clients. What was the motive? A disagreement over her fee, perhaps? Or maybe a sex game gone too rough.
Two years on, another Hueneme-based prostitute, Kimberly Fritz, was killed under near-identical circumstances. In 1977, any woman who chose to enter the trade of selling herself did so risking her life: in September, Velvet Sanchez of Oxnard was found dead, also strangled; that December, Lorraine Rodriguez, another prostitute, murdered. Each woman frequented the same shopping center.
At this point, Fitzgerald and team had their hands full. For a time, it seemed reasonably open and shut, the work of a serial killer, perhaps, murdering young prostitutes. But that turned out not to be the case.
“They were very similar, but there were different descriptions of individuals seen with them. So that put a different twist on it,” said Fitzgerald. “They were all very similar homicides. Whether they were linked or not, we don’t know.”
And like the slaying of Fontaine Johnson in June 1979, the death of the Port Hueneme mother of three that could not be solved even though Fitzgerald had strong evidence. In each case, whether it was blood, semen, hair, saliva, or some other fluid or artifact found at the respective crime scene, there was no analytic method — no scientific follow-up — to link the crime to anyone police may have pegged as a prime suspect.
“If we had DNA (testing) back then, it would have been a whole different ballgame,” Fitzgerald said.
By the mid-1980s, however, all that started to change, as improvements in forensic pathology saw the pairing of law enforcement with Watson and Crick’s double-helixed discovery. That marriage proved to be a happy one. If temperature was a barometer of crime investigation, many cases went from cold to warm to hot, all due to valued DNA profiling.
For Fitzgerald, it also meant that another trio of murders, all in Port Hueneme, would in time reach their resolution, after the sleepy coastal town of just 20,000 was witness to the brutal killings of three women in 1993.
Cindy Berger was raped, strangled, her body left in the bathtub while the alleged killer set fire to her condominium; Norma Rodriguez, strangled, her body discovered by police bound crudely with duct tape; and 87-year-old Beatrice Bellis, deaf, mute, brutally murdered in the senior citizens home where she resided.
Fitzgerald headed up those investigations, but even in 1993, the advent of DNA profiling, still in its relative infancy, wasn’t yet in the law enforcement lexicon, and each case sadly turned cold.
“They were all whodunits, women basically living alone in different areas of the city,” Fitzgerald recalled. “There was no smoking gun or anything like that. These were back-to-back-to-back homicides, which was difficult for a small city like Hueneme.”
When Fitzgerald retired from the Port Hueneme Police Department in 1994, the fate of each case remained open-ended. It would be nearly a decade more before they would get their due.
Profiling a perpetrator
Ventura County fully embraced DNA profiling techniques by the early 2000s, and it paid off for Fitzgerald: by the time he began working part time as an investigator for the county district attorney’s office, all three murders capping off the latter part of his career with the Hueneme P.D. successfully closed out.
Through DNA evidence, police captured Michael Schultz in 2003 for the murder of Berger. He was subsequently convicted and sent to San Quentin State Prison, where he currently sits on death row. Warren Mackey was proven the killer in the Rodriguez murder; his DNA, according to Fitzgerald, was found under the victim’s fingernails and on the duct tape used by the killer.
A suspect was also captured for the Bellis case, also through means of a DNA database “hit” in December 2003. A trial is scheduled this spring.
At the cellular level, all people have their own unique DNA — DeoxyriboNucleic Acid — in the “map” of their genetic makeup. Like a set of fingerprints, no two readouts of DNA are the same. In policing, that means evidence can be procured from a crime scene, its DNA analyzed, then coded, and later fed into a national database of known criminals. If investigators get a “hit” from that list, an exact match is ensured because DNA data is perfect right down to the last digit of binary coding.
It was so for Schultz, who was already in prison for another offense and was only suspected to be Berger’s killer.
“But it was his DNA that really proved he did it,” said Fitzgerald.
Conversely, the thoroughness of DNA testing can also rule out who isn’t a suspect, even if a crime is decades old and has since turned cold.
“One of the thrills for most forensic scientists is when you come up with proof positive that this wasn’t the person. DNA has some real advantages that way,” says Jim Roberts, a scientist with the Ventura County crime lab.
Looking like the backdrop of some crime scene investigation drama, the county’s nationally accredited lab is the hub for all forensic analysis in Ventura County, where specialists skilled in the areas of ballistics, controlled substances, toxicology and, of course, DNA work in the sterile, clinic-like setting of microscopes, test tubes and sophisticated computer programs. Without the crime lab, policing and prosecution as we know them today would be sorely compromised.
The intricate yet precise work of nuclear DNA profiling comes down to Song Wicks, a forensic pathologist whose job is to extract, break down and map the DNA retrieved from crime scenes across Ventura County, mostly homicides, often in the most abstract of methods. Wicks, who works hand in hand with investigators like Fitzgerald, is often a first responder.
According to Wicks, DNA can be swabbed from the handle, not the blade, of a knife used in a stabbing, providing a positive match to a suspect. In other instances, there may appear to be no blood on the dark-colored dress of a murder victim strangled to death. That is, until someone uses a special fluorescent light, finds traces of dried blood, extracts DNA from the fluid, match it to a suspect, tracks him or her down, and makes an arrest. What the naked eye misses is detected with DNA.
“There’s always a transfer of evidence when a suspect meets a victim,” he says.
The crime lab, led by director Renee Artman, gained some leverage when it received federal funding for a pilot DNA testing program earlier in the decade to look into 32 unsolved cold cases. Under Fitzgerald’s watch, the Hueneme murders were solved with the ever-evolving profiling technique, and the program proved to be a success, in the name of science … and justice.
Last December, another round of federal funding was awarded to the DA’s office from the Federal Consolidated Appropriations Act. This time, $570,000 will cover up to two years’ worth of DNA testing for Ventura County. It’s a major coup for local law enforcement who, faced with an influx of 30,000 cases a year, hot and cold, operates with limited funding.
“Even tackling 10 percent of our cases a year would bankrupt us. There’s no way we could do it,” says Michael Jump, the finance director for the district attorney’s office.
In spite of past financial shortcomings, the scientific progress of DNA testing accelerates with each passing year. Arguably, DNA testing is living through its own Golden Age; new enhancements, according to Fitzgerald, could open up dozens, maybe hundreds, of cold cases in the next few years.
“Even since 2006, the method of extracting DNA and the sensitivity of it has advanced,” he says. “We can go back and look at those cases and what other types of DNA testing we can do to resolve those cases. It’s a continuing process.”
Still, no amount of newly obtained cash flow or futuristic technology can replace good old-fashioned police work. According to Jump, it is hoped the grant monies will be allocated to examining cold cases dating back to 1970. Admittedly, though, no amount of DNA testing can make up for a lack of tangible verbal testimony or physical evidence — a weapon, for example, degraded over 40 years in a county locker.
“Witnesses die. Suspects die. They move. It’s very difficult to reconstruct cases that go back that far,” Jump said. “Once you have viable leads supported by good DNA results, you can send investigators to do follow-ups, even if witnesses have gone to the four corners of the nation.”
“You’ll be chasing a ghost for 20 years and have no idea if the person is dead or alive,” adds Fitzgerald.
Still, for the veteran investigator, it’s a case-by-case situation. New leads on a presumed-dead cold case can open up at any time.
“We try and exhaust all leads and process the evidence as best you can and talk to as many people as you can. Once that happens and you have nowhere else to go, it does go cold. That could take several months to several years,” Fitzgerald says. “I find working cold cases, though, after a while, people change, their values change, friends change, relationships [change]. Over the years, a lot of people who wouldn’t talk at the time of the homicide may talk now.”
That’s why the district attorney, sheriff’s department and independent police departments across Ventura County continue to implore anyone with information on criminal cases to come forward with anything that may help break a major crime investigation.
Organizations like the local branch of the Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) advocate for the solving of cold cases in the county. Their members mourn the deaths of people like Frank Rojas, Christian Garcia, Jesse Cardenas, Carlos Prado and others, each one the unfortunate victim of an unsolved murder.
Time will also tell the outcomes of a series of murders that took place last year in Ventura County: Brock and Davina Husted of Faria Beach, Wendy DiRodio of the Ventura Keys, and David Laut of Oxnard.
Roy Rodriguez, a new member to the POMC, hopes that his sister Rachel won’t be forgotten.
“I want to believe it’ll be another cold case solved, like you read about,” he says. “It’s still hard after all these years. It doesn’t go away.”
Anyone with information on a murder, disappearance or major crime in Ventura County is asked to call the local police department, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, or Detective Dennis Fitzgerald in the county district attorney’s office at 477-1639.