Three days before starting a new job, a La Palma woman was killed 41 years ago; arrest could finally solve her case
A young divorcee from Tucson, Arizona, Patricia “Annie” Ross moved to Orange County in the 1970s with plans for a fresh start. The 30-year-old quickly became friends with neighbors at the Brookside Apartments in La Palma and opened a plant shop down the street called Anne Green Things, where she sold potted plants in macrame hangers.
But the little shop struggled and Ross eventually sold the store taking a job at Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles County. Three days before she was set to move to Los Angeles for her new job, she was found strangled to death in her bedroom. Her violent death has remained unsolved for more than 40 years, but investigators now have a break, thanks to DNA technology and old-fashioned police work.
In March, Larry Stephens, a 65-year-old retired postal worker, submitted a DNA sample after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in Sonoma County. The DNA matched blood collected from the crime scene in Ross’ apartment, authorities said.
On Tuesday, Orange County prosecutors charged Stephens with murder. For investigators in the La Palma Police Department, it was a major crack in the city’s oldest unsolved killing. “This case has pretty much haunted every single detective here, because for years there was just nothing,” said Capt. Jim Engen, who worked on the case for a decade along with Detective Paul Bracciodieta.
On the night of Dec. 11, 1974, Ross was supposed to meet friends for a double date in Huntington Beach but she never arrived. Her nude body was later found face down in her bedroom and police discovered her small dog, unharmed, inside a drawer. Orange County Prosecutor Larry Yellin said it’s possible the dog bit the killer because small spots of blood were found at the crime scene. Investigators interviewed scores of neighbors and friends, but with few leads the case went cold.
In La Palma, with a population of around 16,000, violent crime is rare and the case was never far from detectives’ minds, Engen said. In 1996, La Palma police began re-examining the case and submitted items with potential DNA to the Orange County Crime Lab. “DNA was still pretty new back then but we were able to come up with a profile,” Engen said. “We knew we had an unknown male, and that was it.” The investigation was officially reopened in 2008 with help from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Cold Case Homicide Task Force.
Engen and his partner, Bracciodieta, hit the streets and began interviewing and re-interviewing dozens of old neighbors and friends, building on the original investigation. Through interviews and background checks, they said they narrowed down Larry Stephens as a person of interest.
Authorities said Ross and Stephens were strangers but he was living in the area at the time and was possibly friends with residents in her apartment complex. While investigators had their eye on Stephens, his arrest for domestic violence in March and the subsequent match of the DNA sample gave them the evidence they needed to make an arrest.
Prop. 69, passed by voters in 2004, requires the collection of DNA samples for all adults arrested or charged with a felony. Stephens, a veteran who served as an Army medic in Vietnam, has a record of arrests for domestic violence in Sonoma County, Engen added. He was taken into custody outside his Santa Rosa mobile home on Monday.
“I’m still totally in shock,” his wife of 11 years, Susan Stephens, told the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa on Wednesday. Stephens retired in 2009 after 30 years as a postal worker, she said. He had a violent temper, especially when drinking, the wife said. The couple was evicted from another Santa Rosa mobile home park two years ago after neighbors complained about their loud fighting, she said.
His wife said she visited him Tuesday in the Sonoma County Jail and questioned him about the murder allegations. He told her he didn’t know Patricia Ross but a couple of friends did, she said. Susan Stephens said he had never spoken of the slaying before. “I never had any clue in the world,” she said. “None.”
Those who knew Annie Ross were shocked and relieved by the arrest. “I can’t believe it, after all this time,” said her ex-husband Frank L. Ross, a Phoenix-based attorney. Frank Ross said the two met while students at the University of Arizona. “She was very outgoing, bright and beautiful; everyone liked her,” he said.
Former neighbor Wayne Jaszarowski, 69, who lived in the La Palma apartment complex at the time of the murder, said he’s thought about Ross for years. At the time, the complex had a group of young people, including Ross, who would frequently barbecue, shoot pool and socialize, he said.
Jaszarowski was stunned when La Palma investigators showed up at his doorstep in Temecula a few yeas ago asking for his DNA sample. He said he was happy to help with the investigation. “We’re thrilled there’s finally been an arrest and hopefully it looks like it’s coming to an end,” he said.
The La Palma police also hope the case will finally be closed. “We really got to know the victim and we grew to love her,” Engen said. “We hope she can rest in peace.”
Stephens is being held at the Sonoma County Jail and is expected to be transferred to Orange County. An arraignment date is pending.
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