“Cold-Case” Experts Solve the Unsolvable by Never Giving Up
SANTA ANA – The woman’s body was headless.
That’s what a man saw when he walked his dog down a dry creek bed in Santiago Park on March 31, 1988.
For police, the horrific scene offered few clues. The woman was unidentified. And though her head was found four days later, near where her body was found, she remained unknown. Police could only speculate that she was in her 20s, white or Latina, and possibly from out of the area.
What’s more, nobody came forward to claim her.
Still, the woman – and the mystery – hasn’t been forgotten, even after 27 years. Same for about 1,000 other victims of unsolved homicides in Orange County.
Last year, police agencies formed the Orange County Cold Case Homicide Task Force, a team that includes 14 detectives from six departments. They look full-time into unsolved homicides that stretch as far back as as 50 years. It’s the only task force of its kind in California.
Cold case work is a familiar idea, the grist of TV shows and movies and paperbacks. But for the detectives, the case of the headless woman in the park remains unique.
After 27 years, she’s the only homicide victim in the county who doesn’t have a name.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
“I think there’s a family member out there wondering what happened to their loved one,” said cold case Detective Gus Moroyoqui, who recently rewalked the path the man with the dog had taken when he found the woman.
“Once we’re able to identify her, that will open so many doors.”
At 42, Moroyoqui of the Santa Ana Police Department is the youngest detective on the cold case task force. A spokesman declined to list the age of the oldest investigator but said he has 46 years of experience.
Though most on the task force are homicide investigators, the team includes a criminal analyst – who can go over the language used in decades-old interviews – a police investigative specialist, an investigative assistant and a clerk.
“Some of the (investigators) have literally been working on these cases their entire careers. Sometimes, they can remember responding to these calls as patrol officers,” said Santa Ana Deputy Chief of Police David Valentin, who helped form the task force.
“Individually, agencies may struggle in committing the required human resources to work these most complex cases,” Valentin added.
Craig Hunter, the Santa Ana bureau chief for the District Attorney’s Office, saw this in action during his tenure as deputy chief of Anaheim police. He moved to bring together investigators from different agencies to work as a new, independent unit.
“Seeing it from the other side, I did some inquiry and found out we had 1,000 open cases in the county,” Hunter said.
By July 1, the task force was up and running.
“In our joint mission, together, we have a greater impact, which directly leads to leveraged solvability in these murder cases,” Valentin said.
Before attempting to solve cold cases, Moroyoqui worked as a Santa Ana police homicide detective, building his own cases and discovering new, fresh evidence.
But in his new position, it’s not so easy.
In Orange County, an unsolved homicide can be classified as a cold case after five years. The majority of the cases investigated by the task force are from the early 1990s, although the oldest occurred in 1964.
Because of the time lapse, Moroyoqui works from notes taken by his predecessors, often decades earlier. He hits roadblocks other detectives don’t hit as often, regularly learning that former suspects, witnesses, family members – even the police who once looked into the cases – have moved on or are dead.
He has no original crime scenes to explore, so he has to reconstruct everything the facts will allow.
“It can be frustrating at times because you think you’re on the right path and then you hit a wall so you have to come up with a new game plan,” Moroyoqui said.
“On cold cases you have to take your time and look at every little thing multiple times.”
Moroyoqui and the team know this as well:
It’s not a job for the impatient.
“You come in with an open mind, like you would with a fresh homicide,” he said. “(But) you take a little more time with the cold cases than the fresh cases.”
But patience has limits. Part of Moroyoqui’s job at the task force is talking with loved ones still mourning people the rest of the world often has forgotten.
The job of the task force is to help bring them all closure. Toward that end, Moroyoqui offers a simple message to relatives and others connected to the case.
Their loved ones’ cases are eventually going to be reviewed.
I can’t make promises,” he said. “And I don’t want to give them too much hope.
“But their cases will be reviewed.”
Task force detectives have reviewed about 100 cold cases so far, exploring DNA and fingerprint evidence first. The science in those areas has improved greatly over the decades.
Science, in fact, is the one advantage the task force has. It’s how they hope to give the woman in the park a name.
In 1988, no weapon was found. And the identity of the assailant – who police believe returned the woman’s head to the area sometime after the discovery of the body – was beyond speculation. Detectives have little to work with.
But every year since the woman was found, state officials have processed the Santiago Park Jane Doe’s DNA through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Their hope has been to find family members with similar DNA profiles.
So far, they’ve come up empty.
But, in December, DNA testing helped the task force make its first arrest, for the 1989 homicide of Carla Salazar, a transgender phone operator who was stabbed to death in her Santa Ana apartment.
The man arrested for Salazar’s death, Douglas Gutridge, was a suspect decades ago. But investigators say recent DNA testing connected him to the crime. Gutridge pleaded not guilty in January.
Roy Ellison, a former homicide investigator for the District Attorney’s Office, joined the force to provide insight on the probability of a conviction without a confession. That’s the ending the team hopes comes for every case.
“We have an obligation to the victim and their family,” he said. “We have to keep moving forward and do what we can until all avenues are exhausted.”
Ellison composes PowerPoint slide shows that list available evidence, likely suspects, living witnesses and detectives.
His presentations also list the holes that need to be filled before a prosecutor would have a solid case.
He loves the work.
“This is probably the best law enforcement job in Orange County,” Ellison said. “When they think I’m getting old enough to retire, they’ll need a pry bar to get me out of this chair.”
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