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Law enforcement: A look at how murder cases are investigated in the Santa Clarita Valley

Posted: March 4, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 4, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Lt. John Corina works at his desk inside the Homicide Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Corina was in the Santa Clarita Valley twice this past summer providing updates on two local murder-suicides — one involving Martin Strassner, who shot and killed his in-laws, and the other involving Dusan Klein, who killed his wife and t...

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COMMERCE — On the steps of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau, detectives are unveiling information about a mystery victim.

Sgt. Shannon Laren stands beside an artist’s easel and points to the sketch of a man whose body was found behind the WalMart in Lancaster last July.

“All efforts so far to identify this man have failed,” the sergeant said.

An artist working with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office constructed a composite based on scant clues the skeleton revealed — fragments of muscle, a strand of red hair, an old, healed scar on the left side of the victim’s face, a nose broken long ago.

Hopefully, the image will be enough for someone to recognize the man, Laren said.

The same methodology worked five years ago, when detectives unveiled a similar artist’s sketch in the hope of identifying the remains of a teenage girl whose naked body was found in a shallow grave by the side of bike path in Acton.

The sketch prompted parents of a missing teen to submit dental X-rays that identified the victim as Danielle Hutton — one of the Santa Clarita Valley’s unsolved murders.

Although her case remains unsolved, if there’s any hope of it leading to an arrest, those connections will be made at the Homicide Bureau.

Warehouse/office

Behind the doors of the homicide bureau, past a plaque commemorating alumni detectives, a poorly lit hallway funnels into a vast warehouse-like office with high ceilings and rows of desks placed end to end.

Hundreds of murders are immediately recognizable, each murder packaged into manageable ochre-colored accordion file folders, each folder containing at least part of a documented profile of a homicide.

They’re everywhere inside the unobstructed L-shaped office.

Many of the folders are stacked against the walls, side by side, top to bottom, on metal storage shelves.

Some folders dot the desks of detectives, some buttressed by loose pieces of paper, others hiding desk phones.

Many folders, arranged like sandbags, skirt the bottom of desks near the ankles of detectives working at them.

Somewhere in the maze of these brown folders are unsolved homicides that occurred in the Santa Clarita Valley:

* Danielle Hutton, 18, whose body was found May 21, 1999, in a shallow grave on an Acton biking trail.

* Edward Politelli, 72, killed by a machete-wielding man June 12, 2006, behind Mama Mia Pizza in Stevenson Ranch.

* LaWana Clary, 50, bludgeoning to death inside her Castaic home April 5, 2007

* Bryan Miranda, 18, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Newhall on Dec. 2, 2007.

* Anthony Lombardi, 55, who was found drenched in blood, shot in the front seat of his car during a robbery in Valencia Sept. 16, 2008.

* Alonso Andrade, shot and killed Sept. 26, 2008, during morning rush hour in the middle of Lyons Avenue at Apple Street.

The number of homicides in the Santa Clarita Valley constitutes a tiny percentage of those handled by the Homicide Bureau. The high was 465 during the years 1992 and ’94, though numbers are considerably down — to 216 in 2009, and 181 in 2010.

But for each homicide in the Santa Clarita Valley, detectives have to drive more than 40 miles north along Interstate 5 to get to the murder scene.

Not ‘First 48’

Asked if he would prefer to have a homicide division at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station to gain the advantage of expediency, Capt. Paul Becker’s response was a decisive “no.”

“I worked Homicide Bureau and understand that the expertise and resources at that bureau are incredible,” the Santa Clarita Valley’s top cop said.

Homicide detectives point out their jobs are quite different than the rapid-paced portrayal on TV crime show, such as “First 48.”

“People are caught up with the ‘First 48’ theory, and under the impression that investigators are in a rush within that ‘First 48’ time period,” said Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

“Creative editing is how the ‘First 48’ is accomplished for purposes of the show. Not taken into consideration is the processing of evidence by the crime lab; reports written by patrol, crime lab and homicide investigators; and most importantly, (the) autopsy conducted, which usually never occurs within the ‘First 48.’”

“Homicide detectives do not rush the average investigation, but if a suspect is identified, they will take all measures to locate, arrest and prosecute that suspect,” Nishida said.

Preserving scenes

“Even though a homicide case is assigned to homicide, it doesn’t mean that our local detectives and field deputies don’t work the case immediately,” Becker said. “We secure evidence, pursue suspects, interview witnesses, etc.”

Likewise, detectives inside the homicide bureau said they have faith in the job assigned to local deputies in securing their murder scenes.

On the morning of September 2008 when Andrade was shot and killed as he sat in a car stopped at a traffic light, it took detectives more than 90 minutes to arrive on scene.

“The most important form of preserving a crime scene lies in the hands of the first responders, the patrol deputies,” said Nishida.

“Their main function is to properly secure the scene at the moment they respond,” she said. “The preservation of the scene is incumbent upon them and their processing of the scene once they have arrived.”

“When evidence is identified, marked and secured, it is the patrol deputies’ responsibility to maintain the integrity of the scene and keep it free of contamination,” she said.

“If the elements are such that evidence may be damaged, such as rain, water flow or other related issues, it is their responsibility to properly preserve it. They normally will not move evidence, but preserve it accordingly.

“Shell casings, blood, shoe impressions, prints won’t deteriorate within a couple (of) hours, as long as (the scene) is secured properly, which is done by on-scene deputies,” Nishida said.

“Homicide detectives don’t rush their investigations and are commonly on a crime scene in excess of eight to 10 hours and do not have issues with deterioration.”

Securing witnesses

One key component of evidence-gathering by homicide detectives is obtaining the testimony of witnesses.

Local deputies take special steps to ensure witnesses are available to homicide detectives.

“Witnesses are identified and immediately transported to the nearest station,” Nishida said. “Their statements are taken by patrol at the time of arrival and preserved in a report.

“If they do not wish to be transported, then they will be identified, interviewed and advised that detectives will be contacting them at a later time.

“This can be beneficial, as well, as some people are more willing to talk away from police stations or crime scenes,” she said.

No maps needed

And while the Santa Clarita Valley lies a considerable distance from the Sheriff’s Department’s Commerce homicide headquarters, homicide detectives don’t need a map to find it, they said.

“Santa Clarita — that’s where we live,” one detective said during a tour of the homicide bureau last week.

At least a handful of detectives working in Commerce live in the Santa Clarita and make the daily commute of 40-some miles each way.

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