Television audiences love cold cases. But in real life, these long-standing unsolved crimes bedevil detectives and haunt families. Often there are no clues, no evidence, no indication of foul play, and no note suggesting suicide. A person has simply gone missing, and no one knows why.
Families and friends suffer great anguish. They wonder if their loved one was murdered or wanted to escape an old life. They wonder if detectives are searching as aggressively as they could be. They wonder if they could have done more to prevent the disappearance. They wonder if sightings were mirages.
Here are four of the most confounding Orange County cold cases, plus a woman who has successfully used DNA to solve a number of intriguing disappearances.
Her body was discovered 49 years ago, but her identity is still unknown. A woman dressed in purple capri pants and a colorful blouse was discovered in 1968 in a Huntington Beach strawberry field; she had been beaten and her throat had been cut. The case is Orange County’s oldest unsolved homicide involving an unidentified victim.
Steve Fullmer, who was then 10 years old, was looking for lizards and frogs in the ditches near his house when he saw two boys hovering by a body covered in a black coat. He initially thought it was a mannequin. The boys ran to a nearby neighborhood, told residents what they had seen, and the police arrived. Fullmer later spent 20 years as a Huntington Beach Police officer. He would often patrol by the site where the body had been dumped and wonder about the case.
“I have a lot of pride in the fact that this case hasn’t been forgotten,” says Fullmer, who retired in 2003. “It would be easy just to say it’s unsolved and stuff the case in a file drawer. But the detectives are still investigating. They haven’t given up.”
DNA from a male suspect, obtained from the crime scene, was submitted to the FBI’s national DNA database, CODIS, but there hasn’t been a match. The Orange County Cold Case Homicide Task Force held a press conference in November 2016, sharing information about the case and releasing a photo of the woman, hoping to learn her name.
She was white or Latina, between 20 and 30 years old, with dark, shoulder-length hair. Investigators believe she was from the East Coast because some of her clothing was distinctive and only made in upstate New York. She was wearing an inexpensive silver ring with a light blue stone.
Don Howell, the retired Huntington Beach detective who works part time with the cold case task force and is working on the Theresa Baxter case, says identifying her is key because it will help him determine other details of her life: if she had a boyfriend, where she worked, and who her friends were, all of which might lead to the killer. So many detectives have worked the case for so long that when Howell calls the crime lab and asks about “Jane Doe,” they all know to whom he’s referring.
The suspect, who sexually assaulted the victim, fits the profile of a serial killer. Howell is surprised there hasn’t been a DNA match. He has few answers and many questions: Was the killer drafted and did he die in Vietnam? Did he flee to another country? Was he incarcerated before inmates were required to submit DNA? Did he never offend again?
He believes there must be a friend or a family member who could identify the woman. He wishes they would call him.