These investigators get results on very cold cases, deliver long-delayed justice
These investigators get results on very cold cases, deliver long-delayed justice
A beer can. A dog bite. A shoelace.
Each sliver of evidence recently helped detectives solve local killings that, for years, were viewed as stone-cold whodunits.
Now, those cases are making their way to trial. And that, prosecutors say, is evidence of another kind – that the Orange County Cold Case Homicide Task Force is paying dividends.
The county-funded task force, formed in 2014, includes a dozen investigators from the District Attorney’s Office, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and some of the county’s largest police agencies. The mission is simple: Solve homicides that others couldn’t solve before.
The task force has crafted cases against at least three accused killers. It also played a key role in investigating La Palma’s oldest unsolved killing. All four cases are awaiting trial.
But numbers alone don’t do justice to the importance of the task force.
From 1970 through 2010, Orange County had roughly 1,100 unsolved homicides, about 24 percent of all reported killings in the county. Having a task force dedicated to solving those mysteries – helping bring justice for families that long ago gave up hope or taking killers off the street after decades of skirting the law – is just part of why it exists.
It’s also a reminder that justice doesn’t have an expiration date.
“The family of these victims have had to endure the horror of having their loved one brutally murdered,” said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
“We are hoping that the cold case homicide unit helps bring closure for families.”
THE COLDEST CASE
For decades, cold case investigations have been conducted by individual police agencies in the county, on a piecemeal basis. The idea to centralize those efforts – to form a single, multiagency task force – came in a simple way: when Anaheim police and county prosecutors solved a crime that they shouldn’t have been able to solve.
The case started Jan. 17, 1998, as a brazen killing. Prison guard Elizabeth Begaren was shot to death as she ran from her SUV, which was parked near the East Street on-ramp to the 91 freeway.
Begaren’s husband, Nuzzio Begaren, told police at the time that he pulled over the SUV just before the shooting after realizing he and his wife had been followed, by men in a sedan, since they’d left a mall in Burbank. He also told investigators that while they were at that Burbank mall, he gave his wife several thousand dollars and told her to carry it.
Nuzzio Begaren had a history of failed business ventures and no reportable income. He’d taken out a $1 million insurance policy on his wife’s life shortly after he married her. And he liked to gamble.
He was, in short, a prime suspect.
But the only physical evidence from the crime scene was a torn note with a license plate number that Begaren scrawled down minutes before his wife’s death. The plate was traced to a street gang in Los Angeles, but in the late 1990s, it didn’t produce anything solid.
Detectives had suspicions but no case. The investigation went cold.
A decade later, a letter written by Elizabeth Begaren’s father came to the attention of Rackauckas, who passed it on to Larry Yellin, a senior prosecutor for the county. Yellin turned to Anaheim police Sgt. Daron Wyatt, who at the time was working as a detective.
“My family and I are asking you to please look into this matter and take the necessary action,” wrote Robert Wheat, who noted that his daughter’s killing was far from forgotten.
Rather than go after Nuzzio Begaren directly, Wyatt tracked the gang members. He believed they had carried out the killing, and he figured it was more likely that they would turn on Begaren than Begaren was to admit his own guilt.
Time proved Wyatt right.
It turned out that the gang members who had been hired by Begaren to shoot his wife had left the lifestyle. By September 2013, when Begaren went on trial for murder-for-hire, they were willing to testify against their onetime employer. He was convicted and, in May 2014, sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The conviction became Exhibit A for creating the Cold Case Homicide Task Force.
After that conviction, the District Attorney’s Office, working with a half-dozen police agencies and the sheriff, put together a crew of investigators – some active, some recently retired – to work only cold cases. The investigators work with a specific county prosecutor on a case, from start to finish.
“It really showed how we can all work together,” Wyatt said.
As part of the process, police officers and prosecutors began evaluating the county’s long list of unsolved homicides, assigning each case a “solvability rating.” A case gets a higher solvability rating if there is DNA or fingerprint evidence that can be looked at with modern technology. The same is true if the case involves living witnesses or suspected accomplices. Another factor is victim advocacy; if somebody has been in an investigator’s ear for decades, the case’s solvability rating is bumped up.
So far, the task force has identified more than 130 cold cases that warrant serious re-examination.
That relatively small number means task force investigators spend more time on a case than investigators in other departments spend on their cases. That can help them focus on everything from deeper background information to previously unknown details about key evidence. They also can take more time developing witnesses and informants.
In short, the process isn’t a treadmill.
Investigators “aren’t at a police agency, where they have to move onto the next one, then the next one,” said Louie Martinez, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office.
The process also is personal.
It’s the rare investigator or prosecutor who doesn’t recall a homicide that they were this close to solving or making an arrest, one who doesn’t wish for a second chance or more time or, short of either, better luck.
Or one who doesn’t wish to help the survivors.
“What we hear a lot is, ‘We thought our loved one was forgotten,’” Fullerton police detective and cold case unit member Ed Contreras said.
“It’s nice knowing they were not.”
The first task force-related arrest came in December 2014.
More than a quarter century earlier, Santa Ana police took a call from Douglas Gutridge, who said he’d read a story in the Register about the death of Carla Salazar, a transgender phone operator. Gutridge told police in 1989 that he wanted to help.
Now, police say, Gutridge wasn’t a good Samaritan. They say a new look at old forensic evidence from the crime scene, a Santa Ana apartment, shows that Gutridge once placed his hands on Salazar’s body. Gutridge had already volunteered his DNA to investigators, back when DNA testing wasn’t as precise as it is today, allowing them to make the comparison.
Gutridge, now 64, pleaded not guilty to murder last year. His trial is pending.
The task force isn’t just an investigative unit; it’s also a consulting agency of sorts.
Last year, the unit helped La Palma police put together a case in the city’s oldest unsolved homicide.
Patricia “Annie” Ross was strangled in her La Palma apartment on the night of Dec. 11, 1974. Tiny smears of blood were at the scene. Investigators suspected the killer had been bitten by Ross’ small dog, who was found unharmed in a drawer.
The case didn’t come together in the mid-1970s. When La Palma police reopened the investigation in 2008, when DNA testing was vastly improved, they quickly tested the blood smears.
The tests didn’t tell them much initially. Then, in March 2015, authorities in Sonoma County arrested Larry Stephens, a retired postal worker, on suspicion of domestic violence. His DNA sample came back as a match with blood spilled by the bite of a tiny dog in La Palma 41 years earlier.
Authorities say Ross and Stephens were strangers. But they note that Stephens lived in the area at the time of the slaying and may have been friends with residents in Ross’ apartment complex.
Stephens has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.
Members of the task force helped La Palma investigators prepare for the interview with Stephens.
“He denied, denied, denied,” said district attorney investigator Martinez.
But Stephens didn’t know, or didn’t remember, that the dog bite had produced a DNA sample in 1974. Task force officials urged La Palma police to use their knowledge to their advantage during the interview.
“There is nothing like walking in, and they think they got away with it, and the next thing, you are hitting them up with questions,” said district attorney investigator Dean Fulcher.
Time doesn’t just mess with a suspect’s memory. Over time, the weight of a homicide also can become life-changing for the perpetrator or people who saw it happen.
“One of the great things about human nature is our conscience and our guilt,” said prosecutor Yellin. “It may have gnawed at them for five years; it may have gnawed at them for 15 years.
“Or it may have gnawed at them to where they ask, ‘I wonder if they are coming to get me?’”
LITTLE BECOMES BIG
In cold cases, time can turn little things into big things – little things like an empty beer can.
Two years ago, DNA collected from an empty beer can solved the 1991 slaying of Salvador Guillen Murillo. The beer had been sipped by one of the men who saw Murillo before Murillo was found dead, shot in the head and stomach, under an orange tree in Yorba Linda.
The motive was a drug deal gone bad. The beer was a Budweiser.
Another big little thing was the shoelace used to tie up the son of Ariet Girgis in 2004, on the night she was shot dead in her Westminster home.
In 2010, DNA found on the shoelace eventually led investigators to change their theory about the crime. Initially, they thought it was a home invasion. But by 2014, when prosecutors convicted Magdi Girgis, the husband, they argued that the killing was a murder for hire so that Girgis could dodge an expensive divorce.
But if time can turn seemingly inconsequential things into evidence that can make or break a case, it’s also an ally for investigators.
Task force detectives say their best resources often are the original detectives in the case – the people who, in theory, couldn’t solve it the first time but who rarely forget the little details.
Eric Wiseman, a district attorney supervisor with the cold case unit, recalled taking a phone call from an investigator who had retired more than a decade earlier. He called to ask if a specific piece of evidence in a particular case had ever been checked. The question had been gnawing at him.
In another case, task force investigators reached out to a retired detective, asking if he knew the whereabouts of a particular case file.
“Yeah,” the detective said, “I have it right here.”
Investigators often keep information on cold cases for decades, hoping that one day they’ll find answers.
“We all have boxes in our garages,” Wiseman said.
Courtesy of SEAN EMERY and KELLY PUENTE, Orange County Register