Officer Derek Harvey was waiting at Lindbergh Field last March when the plane carrying the Mexican fugitive landed. The Carlsbad police officer couldn’t help grinning when he saw the prisoner brought toward him. Harvey had been looking for this man for almost a decade, and now the suspect was in the custody of U.S. Marshals.
Harvey is 43 years old now. His family was preparing to celebrate his 34th birthday when he was called to a murder scene in Carlsbad in 2001. “It put a damper on the party and the plans that my wife had at the time,” Harvey remembered. He spent the next 10 or 12 days “processing the scene” at the Carlsbad by the Sea Retirement Community, where the body was found.
“I would go home for a few hours of sleep, then I was back at work,” Harvey said.
Eighty-four-year-old Gladys Conrad was killed either Friday night, August 31, or Saturday morning, September 1. Her friends in the retirement community became concerned on Saturday morning when she didn’t show up for their regular card game. One friend, a retired dentist, opened the unlocked front door of Conrad’s apartment and found her. Conrad had been raped and strangled to death.
“She had a ground-floor two-bedroom apartment. Her rear door opened out onto a patio, and there was a six-foot planter between her patio and the street, located in the 2900 block of Garfield,” said Harvey. “We collected shoe-print evidence, pictures of shoe prints on the wall.” Harvey believed the distinctive tread pattern in the prints made promising evidence, but this would not be what eventually brought the killer to them. It was DNA collected at the scene that made the difference.
The DNA profile of the suspect was entered into a national database, but there was no match. “It came up in CODIS as ‘unknown,’” said Harvey. CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System, allows law enforcement agencies across the country to compare DNA profiles. It is run by the FBI.
Years went by. The case went cold.
Conrad had two adult daughters, Natalie Goishi and Lily Siegel. “Natalie and her husband live in the Bay Area, and Lily and her husband live in Colorado,” said Harvey. “We kept in real close contact with them.” Several times the women traveled to Carlsbad on the anniversary of their mother’s death and met with Harvey and his partner, Corporal Jay Eppel. “And they sent us Christmas cards,” said Harvey.
Then in 2004, the officers got news. “We were notified there was a match — there was a CODIS hit,” said Harvey, “but the profile was ‘unknown.’”
On April 11, 2004, at about 11:00 p.m., a 64-year-old woman was walking home from her job at a convalescent hospital in Los Angeles when she was attacked. Ramira Joves said a man knocked her to the sidewalk and tried to strangle her and tear off her clothes. She screamed and struggled, and the man beat her, breaking her thighbone. During the struggle, Joves bit her attacker’s hand. Blood from his hand stained the front of her shirt. Los Angeles investigators obtained a DNA profile from the blood, and the profile was a match with the Carlsbad murder suspect. “That put us in touch with LAPD homicide-robbery division,” said Harvey.
But neither Carlsbad investigators nor Los Angeles police had a name for their suspect.
The man both police departments sought was brought into a Los Angeles courtroom in 2007. On June 24, 2007, Alejandro Fernandez appeared before a judge on a drug-related charge. The sequence of events is unclear, but Fernandez may have been released into a Prop 36 program, which allows nonviolent offenders to get substance-abuse treatment instead of jail.
Prop 36 is a voter initiative approved in 2000. Skeptics complain that fewer than half of the people released into this program show up for any treatment at all. Fernandez may have failed to show up because three months later, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant, according to Harvey, and while Los Angeles police had him in custody, they “collected his DNA per the nature of the warrant.”
The DNA was processed and put into CODIS. “That was October of 2007,” said Harvey. “Got a hit. We get notified by the FBI. Then we touched base with LAPD. Pretty quick we found out he wasn’t in the country. We got a name, but he’s not in the U.S. anymore.”
Harvey speculates that Fernandez was found to be an undocumented alien and deported. “That would be my guess,” he said in a phone interview.
“But now we had a name to work with,” continued Harvey. “We did the computer work and legwork to see what we had to work with. It was ‘find out all we could about him’ time.”
U.S. Marshals were sent to Mexico to retrieve Fernandez. They found him in the nation’s capital.
Asked how U.S. Marshals can work in Mexico, Deputy District Attorney Jeff Dusek explained, “There are treaties that allow U.S. Marshals to operate down there. We have no authority down there — we work with Mexico.”
“After we found out where he was in Mexico City,” said Harvey, “what I did was, with the DA’s office in San Diego, we got a provisional warrant for him to be arrested.”
Mexican authorities took Fernandez into custody on January 23, 2009. Harvey said he did not inform Gladys Conrad’s daughters of the arrest. “We knew he was in custody, but we didn’t want to let them or anyone know he was in custody until he was back on this side of the border.”
Extradition was “a very long, detailed, tedious process,” said Harvey, involving the Carlsbad Police Department, San Diego Police, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Crime Lab, the district attorney’s office and its extradition and cold case units, the Los Angeles Police Department and its homicide-robbery division, the Los Angeles district attorney, the U.S. Marshals, San Diego Harbor Police, the FBI, and the Serological Research Institute, which processed the DNA.
Thirteen months after Fernandez was arrested, U.S. Marshals took him into custody and flew him to San Diego, where he arrived on March 2, 2010. “We met them at Lindbergh Field. The marshals and the San Diego Harbor Police brought the defendant over to where we were waiting at harbor police headquarters, and that’s where I took custody of him,” said Harvey.
“And I had a grin on my face like you wouldn’t believe,” he added.
Fernandez was driven to Carlsbad police headquarters. That night, Harvey wanted to do two things: conduct “an interview and collect evidence.” Carlsbad police took photographs and a DNA sample to compare with the evidence from the Carlsbad and Los Angeles crime scenes. “So everybody knows we are dealing with the same person.
“I got an interpreter from the DA’s office,” said Harvey. “This investigator is well traveled in Mexico and speaks very fluent Spanish. I had prepared about 13 pages of information to question him about, but he invoked his Miranda rights — his right to remain silent — at the time he was read his rights. Immediately. He didn’t seem scared. He knew what he was facing. He had 13 months to prepare before coming up. We had to give the Mexican authorities a complete copy of the case. He was aware of the evidence we had against him. He had 13 months to make a decision, whether or not he should talk to us, probably with the help of his counsel down there.”
Fernandez was held without bail. A photo taken in Mexico shows Fernandez is five feet five inches tall, and the San Diego Sheriff, upon admitting Fernandez to jail, estimated his weight as 180 pounds.
In June 2010, a preliminary hearing was held in the Vista courthouse. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office granted jurisdiction to San Diego County for the Los Angeles attempted rape case. The woman who survived the 2004 rape attempt and beating, now 70 years old, traveled to Vista to testify and identify her attacker. Superior Court Judge Harry Elias ordered Fernandez to stand trial on five felonies, including murder and attempted rape with great bodily injury.
Four months later, Fernandez’s defense attorney asked for a plea deal. “The offer came from his side,” said Harvey. “He and his attorney made the offer to plead guilty.” Fernandez feared getting a sentence of life without parole if the case went to trial, according to Harvey.
On October 7, 2010, Fernandez, now 34, pleaded guilty to raping and killing Gladys Conrad in 2001 and to the attempted rape of Ramira Joves in 2004 and to causing her great bodily injury.
Fernandez was sentenced on January 6 to 34 years to life in prison. “We figured it out. He will be eligible for parole when he is something like 71 years old,” said Harvey.
“We have a good idea as to what happened,” said Harvey. “But our question is why? We were asking it knowing we would probably never get a response. We asked anyway. We asked through his attorney. We never got a response to the question. He said that he would pass that along to his client and let us know if there was a response. As of right now, there has not been one.”