A desolate stretch of highway near the Kern County line. A sprawling field of sugar peas in Nipomo. The wilderness near a campground in the California Valley. A home tucked away off a stretch of rural road in Templeton.
They are lonely places, many of them far from the day-to-day bustle of life in SLO County. Each is also the scene of an unsolved homicide. In most of these cases, years have passed since deputies and detectives from the SLO County Sheriff’s Office were called to those scenes. Leads dried up, witnesses went quiet, and suspects fled or disappeared. The names of the victims slowly but surely faded from headlines and media reports.
While most of the public has moved on, the cases remain open, and the sherrif’s investigators remain determined to try and solve them, no matter how long ago they occurred.
“Obviously it can be frustrating when the investigators want to solve these crimes,” SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “These are cases where a family has lost someone, and [the investigators] want to do everything they can to bring them some kind of closure.”
When he was elected sheriff in 2011, Parkinson inherited a number of unsolved and so-called “cold” homicide cases. He’s quick to distinguish between the two categories: An unsolved case is still active with leads but hasn’t been fully resolved, while a “cold case” means all leads have been exhausted, and the case remains unsolved. In response to a request from New Times, Parkinson’s office identified six homicide cases designated as either unsolved or cold. The oldest occurred nearly 20 years ago.
The oldest case is also one of SLO County’s most notorious. Cal Poly student Kristin Smart, 19, went missing on May 25, 1996. According to information from SLO County Crime Stoppers, Smart was last seen around 2 a.m. that morning, walking to her dorm room with Paul Flores, a 20-year-old male student who reportedly met her at an off-campus party a few blocks away. Flores said he separated from Smart near his dorm and she walked the short distance to her own dorm. Smart never returned to her room. The case drew international media attention. Despite efforts by law enforcement, the public, and even the FBI to find her, the case grew cold, and Smart was declared legally dead in 2002. A little more than 19 years later her body has yet to be found, and no one’s been charged or convicted in connection with her death.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- NO MOTIVE: Jerry Greer, 71 at the time, was murdered in his home, located on this quiet rural Templeton road, in 2009. His death remains unsolved and is one of the SLO County Sheriff’s Office’s cold cases.
Smart’s may be the most high profile of such cases, but it’s far from the only one. On May 4, 2001, deputies were called to a field of sugar peas located off Thompson Road in Nipomo. There, they found the body of 27-year-old Victor Jurado Cruz of Santa Maria. According to reports from the Santa Maria Times, Cruz was shot multiple times following an argument with another field hand, Hector Robles Aguirre, also known as Tomas Hector Aguirre, 35, of Santa Maria. Aguirre reportedly escaped in a vehicle after shooting Cruz and was never apprehended.
While investigators believe they know who killed Cruz, the identity of the person who shot and killed 42-year-old Alvaro Duenas on Aug. 14, 2004, is unknown. The public details of Duenas’ death are relegated to a little more than 100 words in the Santa Maria Times, which reported that he was shot while deer hunting with his nephew in the Carrizo National Monument Area’s Selby campground. The article stated that an unknown person shot Duenas in the torso. Investigators believe the death was accidental but were never able to identify the person who fired the shot.
Sheriff’s investigators have even less to go on when it comes to the death of Thomas “TJ” West. West’s skeletal remains were found in an area near Highway 58 close to the Kern County Line on Nov. 9, 2004. The bones were fragmented and scattered by animals, and investigators called in a forensic anthropologist to assist them with the case. Based on an abnormality of Thomas’ skull, the man’s death was likely a homicide, officials said. All available leads were investigated, but the case went cold.
Five years after West was found, sheriff’s investigators had a case where they believed they’d caught their suspect, only to have him slip away. The Sheriff’s Office was the lead investigative agency in the Jan. 6, 2009, death of 19-year-old Oceano resident Roman Bickford. Bickford was found stabbed to death outside the entrance of the Pismo State Beach Golf Course. The following day, detectives arrested Michael Scott Recio in connection with Bickford’s death. He was eventually charged with the young man’s murder, according to the Lompoc Record. In February of that same year, SLO County prosecutors dismissed the case against Recio, stating that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the murder charges against him, according to a report in the Santa Maria Times. No one else was arrested or charged in connection with the case.
Mere months after Bickford’s death, deputies were called out to the home of 71-year-old Jerry Greer. Greer was found shot to death inside the home, located in a rural area of the county off Santa Rita Creek Road. According to the SLO County Crime Stoppers website, Greer’s body was discovered after he failed to show up to a planned luncheon. Investigators weren’t able to determine a motive for the murder, which shocked Greer’s family and Templeton residents. No suspect was arrested or charged with the murder. According to an article printed in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Greer’s son placed a sign outside the home directed at the unknown person who killed his father, calling the act “sad and criminal.” Today, the sign is gone.
Parkinson said all six cases remain on the minds of his investigators. But as days turn into weeks and weeks turn into years, the emotional toll of an unsolved case can wear on the victims’ families and loved ones, according to Will Marling, executive director of the nonprofit National Organization for Victim Assistance.
“We don’t use the word closure in our work,” said Marling, whose organization advocates and provides resources for victims of violent crime. “These are people struggling with a loss that lasts a lifetime. The added dimension of a cold case adds another layer of trauma.”
Cracking the cases
While cold and unsolved cases can haunt law enforcement agencies and the victim’s family for years, there’s always hope that the case can be brought to a resolution. Many times, big breaks in old homicides are developed thanks to improvements in technology, particularly in the realm of forensic DNA evidence. Parkinson said DNA evidence was at the “top of the list” when it comes to solving older cases.
“DNA technology is better than ever,” he said. “Most of the times, when you see [a cold case solved] in the news, that’s what they are talking about.”
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- TAKEN TOO SOON: In 2009, 19-year-old Roman Bickford was stabbed to death near the entrance of the Pismo Beach State Golf Course. Sheriff’s investigators thought they caught the man responsible, but there was a lack of sufficient evidence tying him to the crime.
Both the state of California and the federal government keep databases of DNA. According to the California Attorney General’s Office, the California Department of Justice operates the largest working DNA data bank in the country, processing more than 200,000 DNA samples and matching them to old and unsolved cases. Those samples are taken from any person convicted of any felony and those arrested or charged with a homicide or sex offense in the state. The FBI’s National DNA Index includes DNA profiles of more than 11 million offenders. As those databases grow, DNA evidence from unsolved and cold cases can be run against the profiles for possible leads.
SLO County Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Aaron Nix knows first hand how DNA evidence can resolve an old case. Nix was one of two sheriff’s detectives who helped solve the 1985 rape and murder of Cal Poly student Mary Catherine Waterbury. Waterbury’s half-clothed body was found in Montaña De Oro State Park. It was later determined that the 23-year-old had been sexually assaulted and died from asphyxia.
The case went unsolved for 19 years until 2004, when Nix and his partner were assigned as lead investigators to the case. The pair used DNA evidence to connect the murder to a convicted sex offender named Peter Anthony Derks. Derks was arrested and charged with Waterbury’s murder. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in 2005, according to the Los Angeles Times. He’s currently serving out that sentence in a Lancaster prison.
“The Waterbury case was an instance of waiting for technology to catch up,” Nix said. “It was particularly rewarding when we brought closure to that case.”
More recently, another Central Coast law enforcement agency made news after it used DNA evidence to find a suspect in a 17-year-old cold case. On July 9, the Santa Barbara Police Department announced that it had arrested a suspect in the 1997 murder of Linda Louise Archer, a homeless resident of Santa Barbara who was 43 at the time. Police said Archer was beaten to death at her campsite located near the southbound Highway 101 off-ramp at Castillo Street. Investigators identified at least two potential suspects over the years, but neither was charged with the murder.
The case went cold, and eventually landed in the hands of the Department’s Major Investigative Team. According to SBPD Sgt. Riley Harwood, one of the team’s duties is to periodically review the department’s cold case homicides.
“Every month they review these cases,” Harwood said. “If they find something that looks like it needs a lead developed they can work on that lead.”
In Archer’s case, the team resubmitted DNA evidence in 2012. In 2013, the DNA was matched to Manuel Salmeron Manzanares, a 36-year-old federal inmate slated for deportation to Mexico in 2015. After more investigation, the department arrested Manzanares for Archer’s murder, and booked him into Santa Barbara County Jail in May.
Harwood said the officers who investigated the Archer murder, past and present, were excited to see the case result in an arrest.
“The DNA technology has advanced quickly in the last few decades, and it’s breathing new life into these cases,” he said.
Even though DNA’s opened up new possibilities for solving old cases, Parkinson, Nix, and Harwood all acknowledged that it’s not the be-all and end-all in cracking unsolved and cold case homicides. In some cases, there may not be any DNA evidence to compare to the databases, or a DNA profile from the suspect may not be in the databases. In those cases, investigators have to rely on other methods, such as ferreting out new leads, tips, and information.
“The reality is that you are only as good as the leads sometimes,” Parkinson said.
Looking for help
Whether it takes DNA evidence or old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground police investigation, working unsolved and cold cases takes time, resources, and manpower. Dedicating the personnel and man-hours to such cases can be challenging for any law enforcement agency. That includes the SLO Sheriff’s Office, which has detectives and deputies tasked with fighting crime over more than 3,300 square miles within SLO County. Over the last couple of years those deputies and investigators had their hands full with new cases, tackling everything from human trafficking, to drug-laden panga boats washing up on county beaches, to investigating a child abuse case that sent half of the county’s detectives to Los Angeles to interview multiple victims. Those new cases compete with the old, unsolved cases for time, attention, and resources.
“Our guys are extremely busy with current and active cases. When they get an unsolved or cold case, it can be very challenging,” Parkinson said.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- KILLING FIELDS: In 2001, Victor Jurado Cruz, a field worker, was shot and killed in an agricultural field similar to this one, located off North Thompson Road in Nipomo. The suspect who killed Cruz fled the scene, and remains a wanted man.
It’s also the reason Parkinson pushed for funding to hire a detective who would be assigned to exclusively work unsolved and cold cases. He requested the position be included in his department’s proposed budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year at a cost of $178,787. Parkinson appeared before the county Board of Supervisors in June to make the case for the position.
“I have a very busy detective unit, and they have to handle immediate calls,” he told them. “Any time you’re talking about an unsolved case, they have to work that in between their case load, which is very difficult.”
Despite his request, supervisors sided with county staff’s recommendation, opting not to approve funding for the position. In the end, the cold case investigator position fell victim to competing needs from other areas within the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the county jail, courthouse security, and coroner’s office in addition to its policing and investigative duties. Other items approved for funding in the budget included additional deputies in the North County to cut down on response times and five deputies and a sergeant to staff the new women’s jail unit, among others.
“It was purely money,” Parkinson said. “They understand the need [for the position]. But you have a significant number of departments. There was only so much to go around.”
But Parkinson isn’t giving up on having a dedicated investigator to help crack old, unsolved cases, and it shouldn’t be surprising if he again requests the position during the next budget cycle.
“For us, there really is the need to have someone that is very dedicated to doing that without carrying another case load,” he said. “I received indications that county management is in support of [the position].”
While the department does what it can, the cases remain open, and the victims continue waiting for justice.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @CWMcGuinness.