Oxnard Police Detective Jeff Kay hears regularly from the families of murder victims concerned that their loved ones have been forgotten.
“I’ll get emails at Christmastime or the anniversary of their deaths,” Kay said, recalling one victim’s mother. “I told her, that case book will always be on my desk. It’s been there 11 years.”
One of six detectives already busy working on the eight murders that have happened this year —including three in less than 24 hours on June 27 — Kay carves out time for cold cases when he’s able.
“I like to work cold cases when I can. You stop and start as things come up,” said Kay, who proposed the new cold case homicide website that OPD launched on July 12.
Kay hopes that reading details of the murders will trigger memories in people who may have seen or heard something but didn’t come forward at the time.
“I’ve already got people calling me up,” Kay said one day later on July 13, when there were still only 30 cases profiled on the site. “I’m adding to this daily. I didn’t want to wait; every day counts.”
Kay says that the site, coldcase.oxnardpd.org, will eventually feature descriptions of 178 unsolved Oxnard murders dating from 1966 to 2012.
“I want people to be informed because, over the years, they remember things,” said Kay, who has been going to community meetings to promote the website.
“If I can spend 30 minutes to get the word out, then maybe somebody will remember something,” said Kay, adding that he’d love to solve all 178 murders.
Kay says that the biggest challenge in getting people to talk is their concern that getting involved puts them at risk.
“I know a lot of people are really concerned about having their name out there,” Kay said. “If you tell me something in confidence, it stays between us.”
Kay says that if the site leads to even one case being closed it will be worth it, because one of the worst parts of his job is telling a mother her son has died but being unable to tell them the things they want to know.
“Did they suffer? They want to know these things, and I can’t always tell them,” because the case is still active, Kay said.
If it turns out the murderer is dead, “We can at least tell them how it happened. They’ll have the closure of that,” said Kay.
Kay says that he has seen murders split families in two, leading to divorces and children without parents.
He still has the card from a 6-year-old girl thanking him for investigating her father’s murder.
“It’s still an open case,” Kay said. “Imagine growing up not knowing how your father died.”
Kay says that the idea for the website came from his own experience as a cold-case investigator, which began with a 1979 murder that had gone unsolved despite DNA evidence.
Kay closed the case after realizing that the key to solving it was talking to someone that investigators hadn’t interviewed before.
“That’s when I realized that you can have all the DNA in the world, but it’s people that solve cases,” said Kay. “I realized I needed to talk to people; that gave me the idea for the website.”
So Kay talked to one of the department’s Internet technology staff, who produced a demonstration for Chief Scott Whitney and Assistant Chief Eric Sonstegard, who in turn told Kay to go forward with the project.
Sonstegard says that one of the advantages of the website is that it doesn’t take up much of the department’s resources.
“We funded two cold-case investigators in 2012 who worked with the Sheriff’s Office cold-case unit,” said Sonstegard, “but we’ve gone through some lean years and had to reassign them.”
But despite budget cuts the department still feels an obligation to the families of victims to solve cold homicides, said Sonstegard.
“When it comes to cold cases we’re always believing there’s a responsibility, even if it’s 30 years old, to bring some closure to the family,” said Sonstegard. “So we’re always juggling resources back and forth.”
Gloria Maynard says that sense of commitment from Kay as well as the launching of the website have given her more hope than she has had in a long time that her daughter’s murder will be solved.
“Det. Kay seems so interested and knowledgeable,” said Maynard. “Over the years I’ve had others who weren’t; one even told me not to call him anymore.”
Maynard’s daughter, Lisa Gondek, was killed in December 1981 shortly after moving to Oxnard from Connecticut.
She was found strangled and posed erotically in the bathtub of her Oxnard apartment after going dancing at Huntington’s nightclub the previous night.
The killer — who had also raped Gondek — set the apartment on fire, leaving only one clue to his identity for detectives: DNA from a bite mark.
Oxnard investigators focused on one suspect who was later exonerated when the DNA was tested. The killer’s DNA does not match any in criminal databases.
“They were so sure it was one person, I don’t think they looked any more,” said Maynard, who says investigators didn’t talk to the club’s owner or staff.
“Why would I spend money on Lisa’s case when I already know who did it?” Maynard says Oxnard’s then-police chief asked her when she complained. He told her there was no money for cold cases.
“The first two detectives were nice and considerate,” said Maynard. “The next few, after I hung up, I knew they just forgot that I called.”
She grew so frustrated that she asked California’s attorney general to investigate the department. “After that they said they wouldn’t talk to me anymore,” Maynard said.
Ten years after Lisa’s death, Maynard learned that her daughter wasn’t the killer’s only victim; 11 months earlier Rachel Zendejas was murdered outside ther Camarillo apartment.
Like Lisa Gondek, Zendejas was raped and strangled — and she had also been at Huntington’s the night she died.
Investigators didn’t make the connection between the two murders until DNA technology grew more advanced.
Maynard says that Lisa was very friendly and probably talked to her killer. She thinks someone at the club that night may have seen them together, which is why the website makes her very hopeful.
“It’s been so long, but there may be somebody out there who has the conscience they didn’t have then,” said Maynard. “They’ll come forward and help solve it.”
For more information go to coldcase.oxnardpd.org.