Unsolved murders of Ernesto Dominguez, Tilda Phipps, David Stevens, Tsunao Saitoh

Look harder at the cross-border picture

— Birds chirrup in the canyon where Ernesto Dominguez's car exploded in flames. a month after someone shot the 21-year-old and rolled his Oldsmobile Cutlass over a 30-foot cliff on Otay Valley Road, a new meadow of thistles begins to camouflage the tires, car doors, and rusty mattress springs where Dominguez's car landed. Soon you'll never know a man was killed here. is shoot-and-burn the perfect crime? Dominguez was just the latest shoot-and-burn victim to be discovered in San Diego. as in this young man's case, the bodies are often charred beyond recognition and nearly all the evidence is destroyed so much so that San Diego police are stumped.

Perhaps Ernesto Dominguez was first shot in the quarried area where Otay Valley Road splits, before his murderers released the Cutlass's emergency brake so the car would roll down the slope and fall into this 30-foot ravine. Lt. Glenn Breitenstein, who heads SDPD'S homicide division, said a preliminary investigation showed the Oldsmobile Cutlass was set afire only after landing in the ravine. a month later, the police still have no clues, except those the coroner is now supplying. Dominguez, says a draft investigative report written by Dr. Christopher Swalwell, was 21 years and one month old when he died. He was single and lived at home with his parents. But Swalwell's report has a long way to go. So far it hardly expands beyond the coroner's fact sheet. One thing it has determined: Ernesto died of a bullet wound, not from the car's plunge or the fire. Nor was the wound self-inflicted. "Manner of death," reads the report, "Homicide." "How occurred: Shot by another person."

For Ernesto's family, who didn't want to talk about his death, this is doubly tough. They have already lost Ernesto's older brother Luis to a violent death. They've just finished paying to give him a decent burial. Now they need money to lay Ernesto beside him. as to why, his sister hints Ernesto might have had trouble with drugs in the past, but she says he had set himself straight and had recently earned certificates of merit working as a security guard. But, a month later, police don't have great hope of finding his murderer. What is it about car murders? at least three of them have happened in San Diego in the past year. Two of them have involved the drivers being first shot, then incinerated with their car. None has been solved.

It is nine months since the case of Tilda Phipps perplexed SDPD's Homicide Team 4. "The 40-year-old married caucasian female resided in Texas," says the Coroner's investigative summary. "She was visiting San Diego driving a rental car when she was shot in the head."

The police got a call at 10:02 p.m. on the night of September 9 last year. it was dubbed a "no detail accident" at 465 Coast Boulevard in La Jolla. Coast Boulevard is one of the most exclusive areas of La Jolla, a street that can command $6 million for a house, where residents pay to be free of the fear of violence.

"When officers arrived at 10:06 p.m.," states the summary, "they found the decedent seated in the driver seat of a [rented late-model Ford Mustang] slumped over the steering wheel with the driver door window blown out....There was a large hole in her forehead.... Officers found an area in the street approximately 100 feet from the vehicle where there was glass. Other evidence indicated she had accelerated away from that point, straightened a curve in the roadway and ended up in the yard at 465 Coast Boulevard.... [at Scripps Memorial Hospital] she was diagnosed with a non-survivable head injury." after her husband allowed doctors to remove her heart, liver, pancreas, spleen, and kidneys for transplantation, she was taken off life support. Her life's "history," says the coroner's stark report, was "unremarkable." "Lived in Texas and was visiting her son in San Diego."

What happened? Police don't know, although informants did testify to Phipps's flamboyance. Her name was even mentioned in connection with black magic circles. She was here alone. Her husband was in Texas the night she was killed. Sgt. Bill Holmes told reporters that witnesses mentioned hearing a gunshot just before the car crashed. "She had been in the University City area visiting for several months from Texas. We have no idea on a motive as to why she was shot. it's still a mystery," he said.

Two weeks ago the murders were reenacted on TV for Crime-Stoppers. it didn't do any good, according to Lt. Breitenstein. Today, nine months later, Tilda Phipps's murder remains a mystery. So does the mysterious killing of David Stevens. Friends say the 5'6", 200-pound body-builder and dating-service employee didn't have an enemy in the world. Then last December 23 firefighters were called to an early-morning car fire on affluent La Jolla Scenic Drive. Only after they had doused the flames did they discover there was a body inside. Stevens's corpse was charred beyond recognition. it lay across both front seats of his burned-out 1995 Chrysler LeBaron. Medical examiners later informed police Stevens had already been shot twice in the head. "We're stumped," said Sgt. L.D. Martin of SDPD homicide. Five and a half months later, despite help from America's Most Wanted, they're still stumped.

Two years before, La Jolla had already figured in the shocking car murder of world-renowned Japanese neuroscientist Tsunao Saitoh and his 13-year-old daughter Loullie. The aAzheimer's researcher and his daughter were ambushed and gunned down in Saitoh's driveway on Fairway Road in May 1996 as Saitoh and Loullie arrived home about 11:00 p.m. Saitoh had been helping Loullie with her homework at his UCSD laboratory. There was no robbery; just several accurate shots to the head. Saitoh's groundbreaking research into Alzheimer's didn't seem to be a factor that would provoke jealousy or violence, yet to some the night-shooting had the earmarks of a professional hit.

Lt. Breitenstein believes it was more likely the two interrupted a burglary, but he admits he has no clues. "it's a complete mystery," he says. Does this string of unsolved murders expose local police shortcomings? Or is it a problem larger than any single force can handle? The explosion of methamphetamine production in Mexico and its transport through San Diego to the U.S. market is a fact of life. So is the pressure at the border to bribe officials to allow big shipments across. and questions as to whether crime is spilling over from Tijuana are being asked more frequently. "We're certainly going through a crime-wave down here," says John Gise, an analyst at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, who recently had his car broken into. "i take the official figures for murders in this town last year with a grain of salt. i think they're way understated." even if they're not, the official figures are high. Last year's 357 murders, up from 318 in 1997, made it the most violent in Tijuana's colorful history, especially when set against San Diego's 42 murders last year. (The two cities have comparable populations.) But given that the major consumption of drugs is on this side of the border, most Mexican officials believe the potential for narco-violence is huge here too. "Los Angeles has narco-traffickers. New York has narco-traffickers," said Tijuana's ex-mayor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan recently. "Do they have capos in the United States? Of course they do. Who buys, who gives the dealers millions and millions of dollars? They do, of course." and where there's big, illegal money changing hands, he believes, there's trouble.

Perhaps a better indication as to how things are heating up here is reflected in an internal report issued by the National Drug intelligence Center in Washington, D.C. as reported last week in el Financiero (a Mexico City-based newspaper) and the Washington Post, the report links Agua Caliente track owner Jorge Hank Rhon, his brother, and their nationally prominent father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, with drug-trafficking and money laundering. Carlos Hank is a former Mexican agriculture minister and billionaire mayor of Mexico City. The report, which Washington D.C. sources say was commissioned by federal authorities here in San Diego, has caused a mighty ripple, from San Diego to Washington to Mexico City. in perhaps its most significant phrase, it characterizes the Hank family, whose influence reaches the Mexican presidency, "a significant criminal threat to the United States."

"Several years of investigative information strongly support the conclusion," the papers quote the document as saying, "that the Hank family has laundered money on a massive scale, assisted drug-trafficking organizations in transporting drug shipments, and engaged in large-scale public corruption." a Hank family representative in San Diego denies the accusations. "This is the same politically motivated misinformation that seems to be disseminated [every] election year," says Richard Stern, Jorge Hank Rhon's San Diego attorney, referring to the upcoming senatorial and presidential elections in Mexico and the U.S. "The family has indicated the allegations are totally untrue. The Washington Post is...quoting some unpublished report and unnamed sources. if you want me to respond, show us the report. El Financiero talked about wire-taps. Let us hear the conversation! Show me some of the evidence." But gathering evidence in Tijuana and Baja these days can be a hazardous business. every week, Zeta magazine publisher Jesus Blancornelas, who himself was lucky to survive a November 1997 assassination attempt by Arellano Felix organization gunmen, continues to print a full-page advertisement asking Jorge Hank Rhon about the murder of Zeta's star columnist and co-owner, Hector "el Gato" Felix Miranda in 1988. Felix was killed by Hank's guards at Agua Caliente after he had written some particularly strong columns taking aim at Hank. and the trouble is not just in Tijuana. Last week, Mexican journalists organized two "journalistic tours" to show solidarity with cartel-threatened editors and newspaper reporters along the border. The trips focused on the dusty town of San Luis Rio Colorado, 40 miles west of Mexicali, 30 miles south of Yuma, and now a busy drug crossing-point. Two years ago gunmen cut down Benjamin Flores Gonzalez, a 29-year-old editor of the newspaper La Prensa ("The Press"). He had been criticizing law authorities over their alleged "light hand" with Jaime Gonzalez Gutierrez, who was set free despite having been accused of killing a local cop and trafficking in marijuana. Last week's "tour" was framed to give moral support to Sergio Haro, editor of San Luis Rio Colorado's Siete Dias ("Seven Days"), and Jesus Barraza, editor of Pulso ("Pulse"). in recent months, both have received death threats for their coverage of alleged drug figures. in Mexico City last week the Inter-american Press association met with Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, urging him to press his law enforcement authorities to "do something" about the murders of 20 Mexican journalists over the past decade.

For those searching for clues into the murders of victims like Ernesto Dominguez, Tilda Phipps, David Stevens, or even Tsunao Saitoh and his daughter Loullie, perhaps authorities need to look harder at the cross-border picture for clues. Not to "blame Mexico," but to embrace the real dynamics of a narcotics trade that threatens to engulf both societies.

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