Late on a cold Monday night Jose Griego took his place on a pile of weeds outside his small apartment in Golden Hill, the seventh of what were to be nine San Diego murder victims in the month of March. The ninth, six days later, would be Police Agent Thomas Riggs, but because of all the publicity and the far-reaching effects of that case, it was an aberration tor the San Diego Police Department’s homicide unit. Violent death wreaked by human beings has become so commonplace as to be almost a private affair between the victim’s family, the suspect, and the detectives, and most murders now merit only a brief mention deep in the back pages of the daily papers. Griego’s killing was typical of the everyday death that homicide investigators encounter, and as his body lay there in its own congealing blood, out on the street the detectives gathered and dealt with their first crucial question: who was going to make a coffee run?
One of the morgue workers, who wouldn’t be busy until the body was ready to be moved in a couple of hours, was elected. Then Lieutenant Paul Ybarrondo, who is in charge of the homicide unit and supervises at most murder scenes, called his detectives and three uniformed police officers together for a briefing. The eight men moved into the middle of Grove Street in Golden Hill to begin the investigation, away from the anxious television reporter who was waiting to go live on the eleven o’clock news. Homicide team III was called out on this one, and most of its four members, including Sgt. Ted Armijo and detectives Gene Back, Paul Olson, and Ron Newman, had to get out of bed to put on suits and ties. Still fatigued by their handling of the murder of David Huffman, the actor found dead in a canyon in Balboa Park on February 27, and by subsequent cases that have kept them busy for the past week, the team III detectives manage to maintain the customary wry disposition that seems to prevail at most San Diego murder scenes. A uniformed officer, the second on the scene, gives a rundown on what happened as the detectives, including Ybarrondo, take notes.
“I received a call at 2138 and was the second officer here; another officer was already giving CPR when I arrived. I contacted our witness, Boyle.” (This witness’s name has been changed.)
“Which home is the scene in back of?” asks Ybarrondo.
The officer points.
“What was that radio call we heard on the way over?” asks one of the detectives.
“We broadcast the name of the suspect, Jim ‘Bim’ Hope, five feet ten inches, thin build, brown cowboy hat, Levi jacket, Levi’s. Driving a possible ’73 Datsun pickup, light green, with two tool boxes on the side.”
“How do we know he’s a suspect?” asks Detective Newman.
“Boyle says there was a fight,” the cop continues. “The victim, Griego, gets a baseball bat and goes for Hope. Boyle sees Griego hit Hope with the bat on the left shoulder. He saw Hope stab Griego in the side. Griego falls back, drops the bat, then picks it up and hits Hope again. Boyle saw Hope stab Griego again. He fell back down. Boyle saw Griego still moving, and then Hope put a motorcycle in his truck and drove away.” As the cop gets to this point in his narrative, a man on a motorcycle roars past -the parked squad cars and the spectators and the group of investigators. The detectives all look at each other, turn and point in the direction the motorcycle went, and burst out laughing. “What kind of motorcycle was it?” demands Ybarrondo, grinning. It wasn’t the kind that just drove by, but nobody in the group would have been surprised if it had been. Stranger things have happened in the course of murder investigations.
Ybarrondo says, “Did you guys get the victim's name?” The cop spells it out. “I got a cousin with that name,” says Sgt. Armijo, the man in charge of team III.
“He’s been drinking,” the cop continues.
“Who has? Hope?” asks Armijo.
“No, my witness.”
Another officer gives the group information on Griego’s address, his car, and some other details. Armijo makes him go through it twice to ensure that his men have it down. Then he asks which of two squad cars Boyle is in (the other contains another of Griego’s friends). The officer tells of other witnesses, who said a dope deal may have gone bad, and there may have been a property dispute. “Have any weapons been found?” asks Ybarrondo.
“Just the baseball bat.”
“Has anybody checked out the property?” Ybarrondo inquires, alluding to the possibility that a search warrant may be required. “It’s Boyle’s sole residence,” says Detective Gene Back. “We have good cooperation.”
As the group begins to disperse, two detectives shine flashlights on a red address book Boyle has given them, looking for telephone numbers and addresses of Jim Hope, the suspect. Armijo asks if the police have access to a phone, which is a necessity at all murder scenes, and is told that the people in the house in front of where Griego lies have offered their telephone. Then Ybarrondo, Armijo, and Back move carefully up the driveway, shining their flashlights on the ground before they step forward, to inspect the crime scene.
Blood spatterings in a location some distance from the actual murder victim are always considered important evidence, and the detectives step over the little red dots as they approach the body. They methodically look over the area where the crime occurred. To the right is a low cinder block wall, over which the branches of a fig tree extend. To the left is the converted garage where Griego and Boyle lived. Near the door is a garbage can. On the cement patio is a broken lamp. The baseball bat, a hoe, a shovel, and a camper shell lie near the body, which is sprawled on its back on top of some pulled weeds. Griego’s T-shirt is soaked with blood, and there’s a puddle of blood on the concrete beside him. The detectives bend over and illuminate the body in their flash light beams. He was young (twenty-seven), and though he’s of medium height and build, he looks as though he was strong.
While the detectives get their first look at the crime scene, the evidence technician, Randy Gibson, who is a civilian employee of the police department, takes pictures of the driveway and the house in front. Penne Hammerstead, the deputy coroner who will later view the body, declare the mode of death (natural, accident, homicide, or suicide), take possession of the victim’s property, and notify his next of kin, waits on the street and passes the time talking with police officers. “You learn how to sleep on a picket fence in this job,” says Hammerstead, who formerly worked as a trauma nurse.
Armijo, Back, and Ybarrondo return to the street and have some coffee while the other two detectives on team III, Paul Olson and Ron Newman, go up to inspect the scene. Newman and Olson are the team’s two interviewers, and as such will be the ones who do most of the legwork in tracking down Hope, the suspect. But, as they always do, before they set out they familiarize themselves with the scene and the body, recording valuable details that may come in handy later during interviews. It’s nearly midnight when they walk back down the driveway. “This doesn’t look very complicated,” Newman tells me. “It’s just a matter of getting the suspect. A lot of times we don’t get to start out with a good suspect.” He says he and Olson will begin by interviewing Boyle, the witness sitting in one of the squad cars, after taking him downtown to the homicide unit’s offices inside police headquarters. (Actually, they used Ybarrondo’s office.) “You want to get the witnesses out of the area, in a more relaxed atmosphere,” says Newman. “When they’re under less stress they remember more.” As for suspects. San Diego homicide detectives always work in two-man teams when they conduct interviews. “Do you play good cop/bad cop?” I ask. “Never. Hate it,” replies Newman. “We’re just very honest with people. We treat ’em with respect, and we get a lot of confessions. You never browbeat. You just sit them down, give ’em a cup of coffee, and talk about it. A lot of times people want to know how we'll feel about what they’ve done. If you’re going to ridicule him for a homosexual murder, he’s not going to talk to you.”
Newman and Olson take Boyle and the friend of Griego’s downtown to get started. Though it’s after midnight and they’ve already worked a full day, the two detectives won’t sleep for another twenty-four hours. After they leave. Detective Back, who is the “scene man” for team III, goes back up to the crime scene with the evidence technician and begins collecting evidence such as blood, the baseball bat, the shovel and hoe, and other items. “Most people expect to get hard-nosed, yelled at, and screamed at when we interview them,” says Ybarrondo, leaning back against a squad car. The police officers are in their cars filling out reports that go exclusively to the homicide investigators. Forty-eight-year-old Ybarrondo, who's spent fifteen years in homicide, says that most suspects are shocked when the interviewer “comes on with respect and understanding.” Sgt. Armijo joins the conversation. I ask if interviewers ever get angry with suspects over the sometimes heinous crimes they commit. “Why should we be angry?" says Armijo. Ybarrondo, who is soft-spoken and tends to talk out of the left side of his mouth, adds, “If you are, you’re not going to get very far. Most killers want to excuse their actions. You play on that, and allow them to open up, and pretty soon the guy’s talking himself right into jail.”
By 12:30 Detective Back and evidence technician Gibson have collected most of what they want from the immediate vicinity of the body. After the body is removed they’ll measure and sketch the scene, noting the exact location of every piece of evidence. At 12:37 Back calls for the morgue workers, who wheel in a gurney. By now most of the police cars are gone, and aside from the occasional dog barking into the lonely overcast, the homicide team seems to be the only sign of life in the neighborhood. Before the victim is moved, plastic bags are placed over both hands and the head, standard practice in order not to lose potentially important evidence. Deputy coroner Hammerstead slips on a pair of rubber gloves and bends down to examine the body. She pulls up Griego’s T-shirt, which is stuck by blood to his cold skin, and examines the wound. A wide gash in the left side of the chest. “There it is,” she says in a hushed voice. The autopsy the next day will show that the knife sliced into the lower part of Griego’s heart. Hammerstead pulls the shirt back down, covering the tiny pond of blood that fills Griego’s navel, and gives the two morgue men the okay to take the body out. A chair is in the way, and one of the men asks Detective Back if he can move it. Back shines his flashlight on it, examines its position in relation to Griego, then picks it up. The gurney is folded to ground level. Back tells Gibson he wants pictures of the bottoms of Griego’s boots before he’s moved. The camera's flash eerily freezes the yard, the people, the fig tree, the split-leaf philodendron next to the body, and the body itself, which is lifted onto the gurney and wrapped in a plastic sheet and wheeled quietly away.
Paul Ybarrondo became a homicide investigator in 1967, a year when sixteen people were murdered in San Diego. The number doubled to thirty-two in 1970. Last year Ybarrondo’s unit handled 103 murder cases, but he hastens to point out that the twenty-two killed in the San Ysidro McDonald’s skews the actual murder rate. In 1984 the figures show a rate of 10.7 murders per hundred thousand people, which is about even with California’s overall murder rate. But the local rate for 1983, which is probably more accurate because it doesn't have the bizarre case of a McDonald’s to inflate it, was 8.29 per hundred thousand. Not bad for this violent age, but still almost double what it was in 1970.
Back then Ybarrondo was on the department’s only homicide team, which included a sergeant and five investigators. And although then, as now, homicide was considered the plum of the department, the place to be for a detective, it was still combined with “crimes against persons,” such as assaults, batteries, and kidnaping. “You’d be in the middle of a hot murder case,” Ybarrondo explains, sitting in his sparsely decorated office next to the cubicles occupied by his detectives, “and Mrs. Jones would call asking what you’re going to do about her husband punching her out.” The department finally sectioned off homicides and their investigators into their own unit in the late 1970s, mostly as a reaction to increasing homicide rates. Now Ybarrondo has four teams of four men each, consisting of a sergeant and three detectives. Each team is on call for a week at a time, beginning on Thursday morning, and whatever murders occur in that time frame are that team's cases until they are solved (the teams that aren’t on call are on reserve and are working on their open cases). But if the team on duty gets busy with a complicated case, its sergeant has the option of taking his team off call so that the team in reserve gets the next murder. There have been days, such as October 5, 1983, when as many as five killings took place and all four teams were called out.
When his team is on duty and is called out, each team member goes to the scene, and even if the team receives three call-outs in a week, each member works every case. The cases tend to come in streaks, with certain teams, such as team III, getting an inordinate number of well-publicized cases (actor David Huffman; police officer Kirk Johnson, who was shot in 1983 by a teenager wearing a sheriffs uniform and driving a sheriffs squad car; Leon Lauterbach and his girlfriend, Gloria Liebrentz, whose knifings in 1979 were planned by Lauterbach’s own son and carried out by the boy’s best friend), while others, such as team II, get a string of practically unsolvable border murders.
The four-man team approach is unique for a big city in California. Far more common is the two-man system used in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose. L.A. uses a decentralized system in which various numbers of two-man teams are stationed in the eighteen outlying divisions. These teams, which also investigate major crimes like armed robbery, go to the murder scene and direct the activities of evidence technicians and photographers, but the detectives are primarily interviewers. They’ll work each case for a few weeks, and if it looks like a mystery, they’ll pass it along to the central homicide unit downtown, where twelve detectives handle those cases as well as all serial murders, multiple murders, VIPs, and high-notoriety cases. Ybarrondo, a stickler for going all out on cases in the first forty-eight hours after the killing, doesn’t believe this is the ideal system for solving murders. “By the time the case gets kicked downtown you’ve lost something,’’ he says. “You’ve got a new set of detectives who didn’t interview the witnesses, didn’t view the scene, don’t have a gut feeling for it, and by then the case is colder than hell.”
Los Angeles police claim to solve (by arrest of a suspect) about sixty-three percent of their murder cases; San Francisco, which had 160 murders in 1982 but only seventy-five last year, has about a seventy percent “cancellation rate.” San Diego police department statistics analysts say the local homicide unit has a cancellation rate of eighty-two percent. Though differing circumstances make it hard to compare the cancellation rates of different cities (Los Angeles, for instance, has close to 1000 murders a year), it is safe to conclude that the local homicide team is highly effective. “I think we devote more time and effort to our cases than some agencies do,” says Ybarrondo. “Some agencies have cases they consider more important than others. We don’t do that. Each person that’s murdered, you have to start from ground zero, put yourself in their shoes, and find the person that did it. Even though some of our victims are rotten, rotten people. The investigator stands in the dead man’s shoes against the world, no matter who the guy was. You have to stand up for him.”
Standing in dead men’s shoes is probably the most grueling, demanding job in police work. Sometimes they have to do what’s almost unbearably painful, like Gil Padillo, team I’s scene man, who was in charge of the murder scene on March 31 where his good friend. Police Agent Thomas Riggs, lay dead. They have to see women who’ve been mutilated and raped, babies in trash cans who’ve been found half eaten by dogs, children with slashed throats, men bludgeoned to death, and not let it deter them from correctly performing the painstaking duties of an investigation that will be scrutinized in a court of law. “If it’s nobody I know, I keep personal involvement out of it,” says Detective Dick Thwing, who works on team H. “You can’t take this job home with you. If you did, you’d go crazy. You’re not a social worker, you’re a cop. If you let personal feelings get involved, you might skirt the rules.”
“Working homicide is just like cleaning the toilet; if you do it enough, you get used to it.” So says Ed Stevens, who was the homicide lieutenant for several years before he retired in 1978, and who shaved every night before he went to bed. “You have to be willing to commit yourself totally to the job, which means giving up most weekends, when most murders occur. You have to look at violence in its worst form, block it out, and go get the son of a bitch that did it. And at the same time, hope to keep your own family together. It cost me mine. I used to tell my detectives, ‘I’m not interested in how you deal with your wife, you just deal with her. I want your commitment.’ It’s a shitty deal when you have to tell a guy his job is more important than his family.... But we’re not talking about hubcap thieves; this is cold, hard murder. And you’re talking about the best detectives you have, guys putting people away for life, and into the gas chamber. There’s no room for error.”
Ybarrondo is married and has three children, the youngest eighteen. He says that most of his detectives still have their marriages, and that, like him, the fact that most of their children are of college age is a real advantage. “Everybody understands that there’s a bigger commitment here,” Ybarrondo says. “If you have family plans and get a call-out, you drop the plans. But we’re also freer in allowing for time off, and juggling vacations.... I don’t let it worry me. If my wife and I want to do something, we do it, and if we get interrupted, well, okay. Eighty percent of the time you get away with it. But if we go to a ball game or something, we go with somebody else so my wife has a sure ride home.”
Ybarrondo says the blood-and-guts part of the job has never bothered him. “You have to look at the body as a piece of evidence, rather than a human being. If you let yourself get emotionally involved, you find yourself stressing out, and leaving the job.”
The demands of the job finally got to C., who retired in 1982 after sixteen years on the force, eight of them in homicide. (He asked that his name not be published.) The word around the police station is that he saw one too many child corpses and cracked. Well respected by both his former colleagues and local defense attorneys who have had to examine his work, C. says his job as a homicide detective led to a complete physical, mental, and spiritual breakdown that consumed three years of his life. He now works in private security. “There were times I thought I was capable of suicide,” he says. “There were tremendous nightmares; in fact the whole thing was just one big nightmare.” The beginning of the end for him was when he was on the detail that collected the bodies after the September, 1978 plane crash that killed 144 people in North Park. After that, it was never easy for him to think of corpses as merely evidence. “It eventually gets to you, and you either work with it day to day, or find hobbies or relationships to relieve the intensity the job requires,” he explains.
His co-workers said C. cared too much about his cases, that he returned too often to the murder scene, searching for some clue that may have been missed before. “The time, the pressures of working three homicides in a twenty-four-hour period; a couple of shots like that and you’re devastated,” C. continues. “You just get worn out. You’re getting older, you work the walk-throughs (simple cases in which the killer is apprehended at the scene) quickly because you know another case is coming down the line, you’re eating junk food because you’re always on the run, your system gets screwed up, and after being up for seventy-two hours straight, the day you’re supposed to sleep you can’t sleep. You lie there with your eyes like two burn holes in a blanket.”
C. worked the Robert Nevill case in 1981, and says that case was “the handwriting on the wall.” Nevill was an attorney who killed his wife in the bedroom of their Tierrasanta home with a burst of ten bullets from a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle. “It was particularly brutal,” C. recalls. “She was hit in the chest, but the bullets also tore her arms all up, and she was submerged in the water of their waterbed, which had been punctured. A very grotesque scene.” I ask him if he hadn’t seen worse before. He stares off for a moment. “Yeah,” he says finally. “I’d seen a lot worse. Axe slayings, bludgeonings, shotgun blasts.” His voice trails off. Nevill was convicted of manslaughter and may soon be freed from prison.
Paul Ybarrondo and C. were on the same team for a while when Ybarrondo was a sergeant. “Paul’s a unique individual… excellent investigator.” But C. says Ybarrondo’s competitive drive and desire to prove himself capable of taking over the entire homicide unit contributed to C.’s breakdown. “We used to joke that Paul would volunteer his unit for anything. There was rivalry among the homicide sergeants, and for political or career advancement they’d take on as many cases as possible. But you should not take on three homicides in a twenty-four-hour period. There were times when other individuals [on the team] just wouldn’t go out, and the workload would fall to the rest of us unevenly.” Other detectives say that one of the first rules of survival in homicide is to learn to pace yourself and recognize the symptoms of impending exhaustion before you collapse. “Paul [Ybarrondo] does like his image of the workaholic,” says one homicide detective, “but C. just stayed around too long. He’s the only one that has happened to. He genuinely felt for the victims and their families, and you just can’t function that way for very long.” Ybarrondo says that friendly rivalry does exist among the sergeants, but that the numbers of cases taken by each pretty much evens out over time. When he was a sergeant, Ybarrondo contends, “I wouldn't take on more cases than we could handle. I took what my lieutenant assigned to me.”
Though C. says a fifth homicide team should be added to ease the workload, most of the detectives in the unit clearly enjoy the job. Those who cannot handle the pace or the constant exposure to death and tragedy leave for other parts of the department before it’s too late. “The attitude in the department is, you never say no,” C. explains. “But there’s a fact that sometimes you have to say no.” The important thing is knowing when to say it.
After measuring and sketching the patio where Jose Griego died. Detective Back and his evidence technician, Randy Gibson, take samples of dried blood near the driveway. Gibson does this by squeezing drops of distilled water onto the blood spot, and then soaking up the mixture onto filter paper. At about 1:30 a.m. they head down to the morgue to go through a specified procedure on Griego’s body, including photographing and describing it fully clothed and unwashed, then unclothed and unwashed, then washed. They take fingernail scrapings, samples of head hair, body hair, and pubic hair, as well as saliva. They obtain the clothing, note the height and weight, hair color and eye color, and get Polaroid shots of the face, hands, and wounds. The next day they will return to witness the autopsy and photograph the internal wounds.
Meanwhile, Detectives Olson and Newman have been at the police station Olson running background checks via the police computer, and Newman interviewing the witness, Boyle. Olson found that the suspect, Jim Hope, had had other run-ins with the police. That information, as well as pawn slips and field interrogation slips kept on file, listed Hope's various residences, who his friends were (if they were with him during a field interrogation), the address of his place of work, and the names and addresses of his immediate family. While Olson took all this down, Newman asked Boyle about the killing, why Hope had come over, and how the fight started. “He said he didn't know why Hope came over,” Newman recalled later. “But I felt he wasn’t being completely candid about it.” Newman talked to him for almost two hours, had him give a blood sample (“in case there was something in his blood that might influence what he told us”), and had him fingerprinted. Olson updated the “all units- broadcast,” adding the four addresses where Hope’s green pickup might be spotted. At about 2:30 a.m. the two detectives drove out to check the addresses themselves, didn’t see the truck, and then returned to their enclosed cubicle in the homicide office. It was four a.m., time to start calling the Hope family.
“You want to get a rapport going with the family," says Newman, whose soft voice and gentle nature buck the stereotype of the hard-bitten murder investigator. “You don't want the relatives to do something foolish. We tell them honestly that their son is going to have to go jail to straighten this thing out.” Olson, who’s worked as Newman’s partner for three years, explains, “You deal with the family by saying, ‘This is your problem. I’m in the middle of this thing, please help me straighten it out.’ Sometimes the family is real nice, and they’ll bring the guy in; other times they’re a bunch of ex-cons, and they tell you to go pack sand.”
The detectives called Hope's grandmother, his mother, his sister, and other relatives, trying to enlist their aid in finding him. They all said they'd help, if they saw him. Then at 8:00 a.m. Newman and two police cars went to an air-conditioning shop on Ronson Road where Hope had worked. A green truck was parked out front. Newman went in alone carrying a walkie-talkie, but the people in the back said Hope hadn’t been there for weeks, and that the last time he was, he’d been kicked out. It was his father's business, and the truck he was driving was a company truck, identical to the one out front. The detective took pictures of the truck, and called Olson to update the all-units broadcast by more clearly identifying the truck, and canceling drive-by surveillance of the business.
By this time the two detectives figured that Hope wasn't going to turn himself in, so they called deputy district attorney Chuck Nickel to make arrangements for an arrest warrant. In the two hours between setting the appointment and going over to the courthouse, the detectives gathered together as many reports as they could on the incident and assembled them into a package for the D.A. “It wasn’t a slam-dunk premeditated,” says Olson. “You have to know what you're talking about when you get over there. You have a reputation to stand by; you can’t bullshit them.” The detectives spoke to deputy D.A. Denise McGuire, who put together an affidavit spelling out what the police think gave them probable cause to arrest Hope. After conferring with other attorneys in the D.A.’s office, the detectives were issued a warrant with the affidavit, both of which they took to Municipal Court Judge Laura Hammes. After discussing the details of the case, she swore Newman in and had him attest that the information in the affidavit was true, then had him sign it. Then she signed it. “Judges are very, very particular about what they’ll sign their names to,” says Newman. The detectives have been through this procedure countless times, at all hours of the day and night, sometimes in judges’ homes, sometimes even in bars, and it’s often almost a social occasion. “A lot of times they ask you about really interesting cases that they remember signing for, but after that never heard another word about,” says Newman.
By the time the detectives carried the paperwork to the second floor of the courthouse to get a number assigned to it, and then to the marshal’s office on the first floor to have it entered into the computer, it was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon. Olson filled out another teletype updating the all-units broadcast to include the arrest warrant, and because they had some indication that Hope might be heading to see other relatives on the East Coast, the broadcast was expanded first to the western states and then nationally. The detectives figured that if Hope were going to show up at any of his local relatives’ homes, it would be his sister's. Why there? “You have to make a choice who he’s going to go see. If he doesn’t get along with this person or that person, you can eliminate them. And if you kill somebody, you probably won’t go home and tell your mother about it.” Also. Hope had been staying there off and on. The detectives wanted to put a stake-out on the sister’s house, so they asked detectives from robbery and special investigations to help out. Those units have good undercover cars And they’re used to that kind of work. But before the stake-out could begin, Newman got a call from Hope’s mother, who was panicked and crying. She explained that Hope had come to her daughter’s house and swapped cars with her, and that she was worried that the police would now arrest the daughter for helping Hope. Newman assured her that they weren’t going to arrest her daughter, and was in turn assured that if Hope came back, as he’d said he would, the detectives would be called.
At about 7:30, after the detectives from robbery and special investigations were briefed and sent out to watch the house, Olson and Newman were exhausted. Olson called the sister’s house to tell her that if Hope came back, she was to call the detective at home. But while they were on the phone, Hope returned, and the woman was able to get him to take the phone. He agreed to turn himself in, but not until three o’clock the next day. As he said this, the undercover detectives entered his sister’s house, and Hope added, “Well, I guess I better give myself up now; the detectives are here.” After a forty-minute interview with Newman and Olson, in which Hope confessed, he was processed for homicide: his clothing was confiscated, he was fingerprinted, photographed, a handwriting sample was taken, it Was determined whether he was right- or left-handed, breath, saliva, and urine samples were taken, as were head, body, and pubic hairs, and fingernail scrapings. He was given a physical exam at San Diego Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in Golden Hill, then he was booked for murder into county jail. Newman and Olson finally got to go home at about 1:30 a.m., or approximately twenty-seven hours after they arrived at Griego’s murder scene.
About one-third of the murders that take place in San Diego aren’t solved so quickly, even though the police become aware of who the probable killer is. “In about one-fourth of our open cases, we think we know who did it but the physical evidence linking them to the crime just isn’t there,” says Lt. Ybarrondo. The rest of the open cases are mysteries. One such killing took place in mid-March and was handled by team III. It occurred in an apartment complex in Paradise Hills, and was the first case Sgt. Armijo’s team had handled since the David Huffman murder. The victim, Gannis Thompson, was a forty-five-year-old male who’d been stabbed in the groin and who was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment by the complex’s manager and a neighbor. He’d been dead for three days.
When Armijo arrived he was told by the police officers on the scene that the dead bolt on the victim’s door was found to be locked when the manager came to investigate. (Neighbors had heard water running in the apartment for a couple of days, and became suspicious.) After getting a copy of Thompson’s rental agreement and determining that he was the only person paying rent for the apartment (which meant the police could enter without a search warrant), Armijo and Detective Gene Back walked up the stairs to examine the scene. Judging by the blood spatterings on the wall in a corner of the bedroom, the detectives figured there was a struggle. Bloody clothing on the bed was an immediate item of interest, as was the knife found near the bed. But even after they examined the body, which was in a sitting position against the wall opposite the toilet in the bathroom, Armijo still wasn’t ready to assume a homicide had been committed. The victim was wearing only his undershorts, which were soaked with blood. (Later autopsy revealed his femoral artery had been cut and he'd bled to death in about twenty minutes.) “To assume is to blunder,” is a common refrain repeated by the detectives. After viewing the scene, Armijo said, “I'm not assuming anything. We found a body one time with his hands tied behind his back, lying on a bed, with a plastic bag over his head. Turns out it was a suicide. He had first tried to slice his wrists, there were hesitation marks all over them. and then he tried to stab himself in the neck with an ice pick. There must have been twenty puncture wounds behind his ear, but that didn’t work, so he tied a bag over his head, then tied his hands with a slip knot behind his back, and suffocated himself. We didn't know it was a suicide until we talked to his mother, who said he’d tried to kill himself several times before.”
Papers on Thompson’s dining room table showed that he was involved in acquiring female models for a fund-raising event in Coronado. Nearby neighbors told police that Thompson, using the modeling angle as a lure, may have tried to force himself on a woman who lived in the apartment complex. The woman's husband, according to the neighbors, had subsequently flattened the tires on Thompson’s car. (Police have noted that the cuts in the tires are similar to those that killed Thompson.) The detectives were thus very interested in the husband, as well as other people in the complex, and women whose names appeared on the papers on the dining room table. Armijo wanted to start eliminating suspects by first finding out who had a key to the dead bolt, and also by attempting to establish, through fingerprints, who may or may not have been inside the apartment. Evidence technician Randy Gibson dusted the apartment for prints, but two days later Armijo had one of the police department’s criminalists spray the walls, doors, and cabinets with a substance called Ninhydrant, which forms a film on which fingerprints stand out. The criminalist also vacuumed up fibers in various parts of the apartment. “Trace evidence” such as hairs and fibers often becomes important in mystery cases.
The department’s crime lab employs ten criminalists, who are crime analysis specialists with degrees in the sciences. In some police agencies, the criminalists go to the murder scenes immediately with the homicide detectives, and until the early 1970s they did so in San Diego. But now, according to crime lab director Jim Miller, his criminalists are kept too busy in the lab doing blood grouping, enzyme analysis, firearms testing, and the other lab work necessary to keep up with the enormous crime case load. He says the work is already backed up further than he'd like (some cases aren't “worked up” until the eve of the trial), and it would be very hard to put criminalists on call with the homicide teams, because “we don’t have any excess manpower at all.”
John Simms, a criminalist who supervises much of the lab’s work, says he and his colleagues have raised the issue of criminalists “rolling” with the detectives on certain murder cases. “With the mysteries, there comes a point where you need to be there to see things firsthand,” says Simms. “It’s different when you know the last person there before you was probably the killer.” Simms says he’s obtained Jim Miller’s okay to write a formal memo to present to Ybarrondo laying out the reasons criminalists should attend some fresh murder scenes. “We don’t need to be at every scene,” he says, “but for some, we’d like to be there as consultants to make suggestions about what items to collect, and certain things to look at.”
Some local defense attorneys who have handled murder cases, including Milt Silverman, George Booth, and Bob Grimes, believe that criminalists should be required at certain murder scenes, because it would help the police in their analysis of what actually occurred during the killing. A group of defense attorneys meets regularly to discuss defense issues, and they all know each other’s horror stories about the police lab, stories they say might have been different if the criminalists were present at the scene of the crime and if their work in the lab had been more competent. Last December, for example, George Booth had a case in which he won an acquittal for his client in the March, 1984 killing of Wayne Hanford. Booth’s client, Mario Brucoli, had been Hanford’s landlord, and the two had had several arguments. During the final altercation Brucoli had pulled a gun, a scuffle ensued, and Hanford was shot and killed. Witnesses said the gun was one and a half or two feet away from Hanford when the gun went off; Brucoli maintained that he had first pulled the gun in self-defense and that Hanford went for it, and during the struggle it accidentally fired while it was in direct contact with Hanford's jacket. Firearms experts in the police crime lab did test firings against strips of leather, and testified in court that their tests corroborated witness accounts that the gun was some distance from the body when it fired, meaning Brucoli’s contention of self-defense was invalid. But Booth went out and bought the same type of Harley-Davidson leather jacket that Hanford had been wearing and had his own criminalists do test firings, and when these bullet holes were compared to Hanford's jacket, the hired criminalists said the gun had to be in contact with Hanford when it was fired. Booth showed both jackets to the pathologist who’d done the autopsy (and hadn’t seen the jacket Hanford was wearing), and he testified that the bullet hole was consistent with those made when muzzles are in contact with clothing. The testimony devastated the prosecution's case, and the jury was convinced that the police lab was wrong in its analysis. Brucoli walked.
The crime lab’s Jim Miller argues that the distance between the gun and Hanford when it was fired is still a matter of opinion. “To me, it’s still not known for sure,” he says. “We both took cracks at it. and have a difference of opinion.” Defense attorneys can cite many similar cases in which juries felt the lab wasn't correct in its findings. One such case involved the lab asserting that the wadding from a shotgun shell (which was pulled out of a murder victim) indicated the gun was a twelve gauge, while the defense’s experts, who later analyzed the same wadding, testified that it was from a twenty-gauge shotgun. The police had confiscated a twelve-gauge shotgun in the defendant's home. That defendant, Frankie Boxx, was found not guilty because the jury was convinced that the prosecution had the wrong gun. “You get lulled into a sense of confidence in your police force,” says Booth, who defended both suspects. “You don’t think they could screw up like that. I just don’t trust that lab anymore. Innocent people are being dragged through trials because of a police lab that’s understaffed and overworked.”
Defense attorneys generally praise the work of the homicide detectives, though they feel the detectives are much more interested in obtaining confessions than in thoroughly analyzing a crime scene to reconstruct what exactly took place. If criminalists as well as pathologists were required at the scene, say the attorneys, the system of homicide investigation would more fairly serve justice.
“Criminalists are there when we feel we need them,” says Lt. Ybarrondo, meaning that they're called in after the initial inspection of the scene by homicide detectives. “They’re there either when we need to really reconstruct a scene, or when scientific analysis is required. But that isn’t always necessary. Why get another person at the scene when it serves no purpose? Check the track record: how many have been convicted, and how many have gotten off. If most of the attorneys’ clients are getting convicted, which they are, then we must be doing it right.”
Still, in San Diego the power of confession sometimes overrides scientific fact, such as in the case of Johnny Massingale, the illiterate drifter who was held in county jail for ten months awaiting trial for the 1979 murder of Suzanne Jacobs and her son in Normal Heights. Though Massingale had confessed to the crime, he was released earlier this year after the arrest of David Lucas, who is being held for the murder of a USD coed who ran out of gas late one night on the road. Lucas has since been charged with the Jacobs murders. Several pieces of evidence in the case pointed away from Massingale since the beginning. For instance, the hair that was found grasped in the hand of the dead woman was definitely not Massingale’s, according to John Simms, the criminalist who did the hair analysis shortly after Massingale was arrested. “Ninety percent of the time, hairs clutched in a victim’s hand turn out to be the victim’s own,” says Simms. “In Jacobs’s hand, the hairs were definitely not hers… and they were as different as night and day from Massingale’s hair. You can eliminate hairs positively, but you can’t positively associate them to a particular person. I was telling them months ago that it wasn’t the same guy.” Ybarrondo, who can't talk much about the case because Massingale is in the process of suing the city, points out that a judge heard the evidence for and against holding Massingale, and decided there was cause for a trial. And there was the confession. “To say that we ignored contrary evidence is ludicrous,” Ybarrondo says. “We brought it to the D.A., and the D.A. brought it before the judge, and the judge decided to hold him.”
Ybarrondo is justifiably proud of his unit’s work, and can recite the facts in dozens of tough cases that have been solved. The recent case of David Huffman, the bizarre murder of police officer Kirk Johnson, the tragic 1974 strangling of Tanya Gardini in her dormitory room at San Diego State University, and countless others have been cracked through the usual combination of luck, finesse, and tenacity by the homicide detectives. But every investigator who’s ever worked homicide, including Ybarrondo, has a favorite unsolved case that he’d love to cancel. Some of those regularly re-examined by San Diego detectives include:
— John and Joyce Swindle, murdered by a sniper at the foot of Narragansett Avenue in Ocean Beach, February 5, 1964. Ed Stevens, homicide lieutenant who retired in 1978, is still working that case, and he swears he’ll solve it. “That case really pissed me off,” says Stevens, who now works security for Atlas Hotels. “It was so absolutely senseless.” About the only evidence investigators have are seven .22 caliber bullets.
— Barbara Nantais, a sixteen-year-old girl who was raped, beaten, and strangled on the beach near Torrey Pines State Park, August 13, 1978.
— Nikki Bedke, found raped and strangled in her white ’77 Mercedes on Ronson Road, March 31,1980. Bedke, the mother of five children, had gone to the nearby K mart to purchase film for a birthday party the next day. — Tamara Rand, the wealthy businesswoman shot, “execution style” in her Mission Hills home, November 9, 1975. It was San Diego’s first organized-crime-related killing, the reasons for which still remain a mystery.
But some of the most difficult cases to solve are also some of the most common: border killings. Every year there are about half a dozen of them; this year there have already been three. “Since 1980 this team alone has five unsolved cases in that same [border] canyon area,” says team II detective Jim Shively. “I bet there’s a dozen bodies down there right now lying in the bushes, skeletons with their clothes on.”
Shively has been in the homicide unit continuously since 1971, longer than any other detective. He was one of two investigators who was told by Brenda Spencer that she started shooting at people at her junior high school (killing the principal and a janitor) because she “didn’t like Mondays.” I ask him if the statement angered him. “No," he quips, “I don’t blame her. I don’t like Mondays either.” Has the gruesomeness of the job ever gotten to him? “Nah,” he says seriously. “The body’s just another slab of meat. You can’t look at these things like they’re people. You’d go crazy if you did.” He unlocks a desk drawer and pulls out his “gory book.” It’s a photo album filled with pictures of murder victims and suspects from cases he’s handled over the years. He goes through it page by page, giving a running account of each case. “Here’s a sixteen-year-old girl that killed her grandmother, and wouldn't talk to us before we gave her breakfast.” He laughs heartily. “So we fed her breakfast and she told us all about it.”
He chuckles without mirth at pictures of a woman lying dead in her living room and a mug shot of her husband. “They were fighting over what to watch on television, so he pulled out a gun and shot her.”
On and on went the photo album: a kid that killed his whole family, including the dog, with a hatchet; a homosexual stabbed eighty-one times; a schoolteacher who did away with his wife; a dope dealer who encased his victim in cement, then drove all over Southern California trying to find a place to dump the enormously heavy block (“Probably the funniest caper I ever had,” comments Shively). None of the pictures seem to bother him. until he comes across the children. He stops at a photo of a teenage girl, lying in a street with her throat cut. “Here’s a sad case,” he says. Then his jocular manner turns angry. “The dirty son of a bitch. This guy was a rapist, just out of the funny farm. He’s up in Tecolote Canyon, and here comes this cute little girl going home from school. He grabs her and tries to drag her off into the bushes, but she screams to these workers in the area. They come running, but instead of letting her go, the guy slashes her throat and runs. They caught him and held him until the police got there, but they shouldn’t have. They should have killed him.”
For a homicide detective, Shively’s moment of anger was a rarity. “You gotta feel something somewhere, but you never show it,” he comments. “You really have to be cold. You have to be." I bring up C., the retired cop who had a breakdown, and ask Shively if his own jailed emotions can be expected to return and haunt him. “We talk enough among ourselves so that we don’t need to talk to other people," he explains. “It’s a brotherhood kind of thing. And it really is a lot of fun”