Yellow Cab driver's death by Camp Pendleton Marine solved 40 years later

DNA vs. the overlooked cocktail napkin

Police collected many fingerprints, but didn’t have the database technology to match them to anybody.
  • Police collected many fingerprints, but didn’t have the database technology to match them to anybody.

On January 29, 2019, before Superior Court judge Louis Hanoian, six women and six men stepped into the jury box to begin hearing evidence in the trial of Jeffery Duane Cauble on charges of murdering Yellow Cab driver Craig Woolley in his home a week short of 40 years earlier. Back then, Cauble was a 21-year-old Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton. The cold case had been one of the oldest recorded in the history of the San Diego Police Department.

The knife severed a carotid artery resulting in massive blood loss.

The knife severed a carotid artery resulting in massive blood loss.

The killing at 2029 Broadway (the house is no longer there) was estimated to have occurred during the early morning hours of February 5, 1979. A neighborhood acquaintance of the deceased discovered his nude body after entering the house. The two were scheduled to meet, but Woolley wasn’t answering his door.

After a few weeks of investigation, including interviews of employees at Yellow Cab and a bartender and patrons of Green’s Bar on Fourth Avenue that Woolley frequented, police concluded they had no suspect. In October 1979, they declared the homicide a cold case.

Police had collected plenty of fingerprints inside Woolley’s home but did not match them to those of any individual. In 1979, fingerprinting was not advanced enough for police to plug what they had into databases to get a match. Nor had DNA technology then been developed sufficiently to be of use in the case.

Right away in this year’s trial, the prosecution repeatedly solicited emphasis of these disadvantages from expert police testimony. Since no third parties were found who witnessed Woolley’s killing, the physical evidence inside his home is of paramount importance. Deputy district attorney Melissa Vasel made use of this evidence, delivered by those who had collected it on the day the death was discovered. From the witness stand, evidence technician Al Start, who was 30 at the time, recounted searching the house and photographing everything relevant to the investigation. He took fingerprints where he could find them, from two bottles of hard liquor, for instance, one labeled Popov Vodka, and from two glasses on a small coffee table. He took liquid from the glasses and sealed it inside vials.

Lloyd Cox, the “scene man,” who wrote the comprehensive description of the evidence in the house, was not available for testimony. He died several years ago. But he left a thorough description he had written at the time of the 1979 investigation.

The photos Start took of Woolley’s body, lying partially under a cover sheet and two blankets, were shocking. Woolley lay curled up on his right side with his hands crossed high up near his neck, and an enormous amount of blood covered his face, neck, and chest. The reason became clear when Miguel Losada, the coroner who had examined the body 40 years earlier, testified that a steak knife that had been found in the bathroom by Start and Cox, had been jammed into Woolley’s neck, entering it from the right side and emerging out the left. The knife, said Losada, had punctured one of the victim’s carotid arteries and severed the other. The wound would have caused him to “bleed out” and kill him in a very short time.

“Did it hit his voice box?” asked the prosecutor. “Yes,” Losada replied, adding that Woolley would unlikely have been able to scream or call out.

The prosecutor called David Cornacchia to the stand. Cornacchia is a police “criminalist” specializing in the use of DNA testing. He testified that the old swabs of Woolley’s penis and mouth showed mixed DNA from at least two people. “There was a robust sperm cell sample,” he said.

By now, police had acquired Cauble’s DNA. In Cornacchia’s analysis, the DNA found on Woolley’s penis and in his mouth had been contributed substantially by Jeffery Cauble.

Early last year, police arrested Cauble and detained him in Colorado, where he had long been living. Since the incident, he had married and raised two children. They then sent a San Diego County Sheriff’s officer to occupy a jail cell with him. Conversations between the two men were videotaped. For two hours in the courtroom, the prosecutor played the recording for the jury. Cauble could be heard telling the undercover officer that he was being charged with a San Diego murder that happened long ago. He said that he’d been drugged and raped in the victim’s home. But they got into a fight over it and “I got the better of him.”

Later, in a jailhouse phone conversation with his wife that police recorded, he confessed that long ago, “I killed a man. He drugged me and raped me and stole my money.”

In prosecutor Vasel’s theory of Woolley’s demise, presented during closing arguments, she reminded jurors of a small pile of clothes that had been found in a corner of the living room near the couch and coffee table. Craig Woolley’s wallet containing no money was found in a pair of pants. The small pile of clothing showed, she said, that after the two men sat and talked while Cauble alone drank alcohol from his glass, “they began to get intimate before going into the bedroom.” There they engaged in sex. In the aftermath, Vasel contended, Woolley went to sleep, while Cauble, perhaps experiencing disgust and regret, went back through the living room to the kitchen where he grabbed the steak knife in a silverware tray. He came back to the bedroom and, as Woolley slept, Cauble stabbed him in the neck and, through a cover sheet and 2 blankets, into the victim’s left upper back, a total of 12 stab wounds in all. There was no evidence on Woolley’s hands that he fought back.

Vasel argued further that Cauble deliberated the decision to kill enough to qualify his actions as murder in the first degree.

Defense attorney Ray Vecchio, on the other hand, countered that Cauble killed Woolley in self defense. Cauble was 21, “just a kid,” said Vecchio, 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 140 pounds to Woolley’s 6 feet, 3 and 185 pounds. Being drugged and raped provoked the young marine to confront Woolley.

In her rebuttal, Vasel countered that no physical evidence in the house indicated the presence of a “date rape” drug. And where was the “provocation” if Woolley had been asleep when he was killed? “Regret is not provocation,” she told the jury.

On Monday, February 4, the jury returned a verdict of second degree murder. Vecchio immediately filed a “motion to dismiss” on the basis of a due process issue called “pre-accusatory delay,” in this case, of 40 years. On February 13, an additional hearing was held, in which Vecchio tried to convince the judge that police should have done much more follow-up investigation of people who had known Woolley. Asking what good would that have done, Judge Hanoian denied the motion. During a lengthy summary of the case from the bench, he declared that the 40-year delay was justified and had not been “prejudicial” to the defendant.

After the trial, I spoke with Vecchio who was adamant that the 40-year delay prevented Cauble from receiving a full investigation early enough for him to remember everything relevant to his case.

“Memories fade, evidence is lost, and witnesses die,” Vecchio told me. “Every one of those things affected the outcome of this case.”

There had been one strange piece of evidence police had found in Woolley’s house. On a cocktail napkin was written Cauble’s full name and his birth date. It was one of many pieces of paper, in addition to an address book full of phone numbers, found at the scene. But the cocktail napkins contained more (written, according to recent handwriting analysis, in Woolley’s hand). It had Cauble’s driver’s license number, the letters “camp pen” — and his social security number. But not his phone number. In those respects, it stood out and, in Vecchio’s opinion, should have screamed out a demand to be investigated further.

But “nobody was interested,” says Vecchio, and police did nothing to follow it up. Not, that is, until a new detective pursued it with a vengeance in the late 2000s.

On December 3, 2008, the police department assigned the cold case to detective John Tefft, who then wrote an affidavit to the court in Adams County, Colorado, requesting that he be permitted to visit Jeffery Cauble at his residence to collect “fingerprints, palmprints, DNA buccal mouth swabs, and photographs.” As part of his explanation to the Colorado court, Tefft wrote that he had “recontacted the original investigators who worked this case…. Each of them had some vague recollection of the case. In particular I talked to them about the recovery of the cocktail napkin with the name of Jeff Cauble. All available police reports failed to reflect any type of follow-up regarding the name Jeff Cauble.

“None of the detectives had any independent recall as to what if any follow-up was conducted regarding the cocktail napkin.”

True, Tefft had the advantages, not available in 1979, of advances in fingerprinting and DNA technologies. Still, says Vecchio, the police might have found Cauble in the beginning had they contacted the Marine Corps and pursued the drivers license number and the social security number. Capturing Cauble then would have given him the chance to remember more clearly what happened and defend himself better than he could 40 years later.

Due to limitations stipulated during a pre-trial hearing, Vecchio could not introduce all the points he wanted to at trial. He hinted at them, however, during his closing argument. “Woolley was playing a dangerous game,” he said of the cab driver’s reputation of bringing young Marines back to his home for sex. Then, to me, he stressed that Woolley knew the danger. “That’s why Woolley kept the knife underneath his mattress, as Cauble maintains, and brought it out when the struggle started. It wasn’t just sitting in a silverware tray in the kitchen, as the prosecutor maintained.”

Vecchio emphasized a trip Woolley made to Yellow Cab at 5:30 in the morning to pay his lease, returning home a half hour later. The driver, who made little money on his shift the previous night, likely took the payment out of Cauble’s wallet, Vecchio tells me, while the Marine was passed out in the bedroom.

Vecchio ended up second guessing himself over the prosecution’s victory. “I probably should not have put Cauble on the witness stand... he was prone to getting upset and lashing out.”

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Mr. Cauble will spend the rest of his life in prison.

I realize that attorneys need to make every effort to defend their client. But after the evidence shot down Vecchio's conjectures, the best he could come up with is, Cauble got away with murder for forty years, so he should continue to get away with it, because unfair? And that the victim had it coming to him, because gay?

Thanks for letting us know who not to hire if ever needing a lawyer.

According to the State Bar, Vecchio was disciplined by the state licensing authority in 2010.

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