CHAPTER 5: WHY PHOENIX CASES GO COLD
(PART 1: Gina Guthrie and Sandra Jakubowski were both last seen in Phoenix on Oct. 13, 2007. Their bodies were found within 17 hours of each other, about four miles apart. A decade later, their cases remain among the many hundreds of unsolved murders in Phoenix alone. Today: A look at why these cases go cold.)
Investigators develop relationships with the dead. It motivates them.
Mike Meislish, a retired Phoenix homicide cop, keeps a quote from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on his wall.
“Being a homicide detective can be the loneliest job in the world. The friends of the victim are upset and in despair, but sooner or later — after weeks or months — they go back to their everyday lives,” author Stieg Larsson wrote. “Life has to go on. It does go on. But the unsolved murders keep gnawing away and in the end there’s only one person left who thinks night and day about the victim: It’s the officer who is left with the investigation.”
“Unfortunately, that’s true sometimes,” he says.
Dr. Laura Fulginiti, forensic anthropologist at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, thinks about the people who died alone as she prepares their bones.
“The case that I think about more than any other case in my career is an elderly woman who died. She had a heart attack sitting on her toilet and she skeletonized on the toilet,” she says. “She had no family to care about her. Nobody came and looked and nobody checked. And that, to me, is the epitome of why we do what we do.”
But even the most dedicated detectives run into brick walls.
“Traditionally, it’s always been said if you can’t solve a homicide within the first 48 hours, it’s not going to get solved quickly. That’s pretty accurate,” says Meislish, who helped catch the Baseline Killer in 2006 with the Phoenix Police Department and now works for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Cold Case Team.
The first 48 hours of the Gina Guthrie and Sandra Jakubowski investigations after both were found dead in October 2007 were typical.
Police canvassed neighbors and talked to anybody around. They tried to figure out who these women were and how they met such an awful end. They gathered any forensic evidence they could from the clothing, the debris, and the bodies.
Then they waited. For a lab result. A tip. A reluctant witness. A guilty conscience. Anything.
Nobody reported seeing or hearing what happened to Sandra in the alley behind 909 East Mohave Street. Her case would have to be solved by forensics.
Police collected DNA from her breast and genitals, fingernails and more. They ordered a rape kit. Detectives requested lab tests on October 30, more than two weeks after she died.
Of the 17 pieces of evidence police technicians took from the murder scene, one offered the most promise. Police found a piece of brick with a clump of hair on it near Sandra’s left hand.
Detectives didn’t request DNA analysis from the brick until June 2009. The next month, the lab found male genetic material on the brick, but it came from a lab technician. Results from the brick and everything else were inconclusive.
Human sources proved worse.
Police never got the full names of all the men at the party at Chuey Ortega’s home. Half they never interviewed. Nor did police interview anyone at Los Arcos, a popular bar on Mohave Street in Phoenix, about 700 feet from where Sandra’s body was found. Officers did talk to the clerk at Star Liquor across the street, but she only reported seeing her hanging around.
Sun Kang has owned Star Liquor 30 years. He says the police never spoke to him.
Across from Chuey’s house, the homes of Dan Daniels and Luis Ortega are gone now. The city condemned them and replaced them with crushed gravel and “no trespassing” signs. Chuey Ortega died, says his former landlord, who moved back into the bungalow.
The shack across the alley has fallen into disrepair. Vagrants and dopers burned part of it and collapsed the roof. Taggers got the rest.
Phoenix detectives investigated the murders of Gina Guthrie and Sandra Jakubowski as linked, but by then they were clutching straws. The cases petered out years earlier.
Detective Matthew Verthein investigated both.
In February 2009, he sent a subpoena to Desert Vista Behavioral Health Center in Mesa, demanding the files of both women. He wanted “to learn who they had been associating with and/or was having problems with” at the state psychiatric hospital.
The mental-health records came back in March. Verthein reported that he read one of 10 entries seven months later. He looked only at the records for October 2007, which ended five days before Sandra’s murder. They dealt with her mental health and lifestyle choices, nothing useful.
A few inconclusive lab results trickled in, one in 2011, another in 2013.
The Jakubowski murder investigation never really took off.
That was less true after police found Gina Guthrie in the alley behind 2837 West Melvin Street the next day.
The white or cream-colored van with the chevron trim seen backing out of that alley was a real lead. But there were no plates to go on. Police never checked MVD records and nothing ever came of the tip.
Ditto the tip about an angry man at the gas station who bragged about killing hookers and vowed to clean up the streets. Video of the encounter was too grainy to use. The attendant forgot the name of a scared prostitute who asked his help. He did remember the street name of another hooker who talked to him about Gina’s death. “Star” was so common in a police list of known prostitutes that detectives dropped the inquiry.
The neighborhood canvas turned up next to nothing. “Officers did not locate anyone who had any information to help further this death investigation,” one report said.
Two days after the murder, police spoke with a man in house at the corner of the alley. He told them he didn’t know anything and didn’t know anybody who did. Police asked about a man named Javier, a neighbor, but got nowhere.
Police reports never said who Javier was or why they were interested in him. They never mentioned him again.
Johnny Moron, a convicted drug dealer who identified Gina’s body, also told police that she had been in rehab and where. Police never interviewed Moron again.
But he had led detectives to Magellan Health Services, where caseworker Iola Reed had helped Gina with rehab. She had dropped Gina off three days earlier, after checking her into Room 22 at the Sandman Motel on West Van Buren Street.
Gina told Reed she was planning to shack up with her boyfriend, Vernon, who she’d known for several years. Reed never met him. There was no sign of Vernon at the motel, only a pile of neatly folded clothes, a loaf of bread, and some iced tea. The bed was still made up. She hadn’t been there.
Guests hadn’t seen Vernon or Gina. The Sandman was the kind of place where expensive sedans drove up and women hopped in or out, guests said. They kept to themselves.
Over the next two days, police talked to the owner, Czeslaw Gajor, and his brother Joe, the manager. They recognized Gina from a photo. They had told Gina she could stay with Vernon; Joe never saw Vernon or Gina get in any car. He had seen her the day before, when she came to lobby, grabbed a coffee, and went to wait for a bus.
The current clerk at the Sandman says the Gajors no longer run the place. Iola Reed did not return a request for an interview over LinkedIn.
But she had provided detectives with the names of Kevin and Lois Earley, Gina’s brother and sister-in-law.
Police told Lois Earley about the murder. She told them she never heard of Vernon, but that Gina had a boyfriend named Steve. She didn’t like him. Then the police left.
They never came back, Lois Earley says. She was not impressed.
“If they weren’t telling me that Gina was murdered, I probably would never have remembered even talking to those two people that were here,” Lois Earley says. “They don’t even go through the motions of trying to tell me that they’ll find out who did it, or anything.”
Steve was Gina’s live-in boyfriend about 10 years before she died. He had a rough demeanor. His tattoos matched his gritty, macho, over-the-top street talk. During a Christmas visit with Gina, Steve joked about how he would kill Kevin Earley if he took his photo. Kevin remembered remembers thinking he’d better count the silverware.
But the Earleys thought: At least Gina had a man and roof and some semblance of stability. It didn’t last. Gina returned to the street, the only place she ever really felt at home.
Police never ran down Steve or found that in 1999 Gina signed over power of attorney to a man named Steve.
They didn’t follow up with Lois Earley. She would have told them that sometime after she last saw Gina, at Desert Vista in March 2007, she called in a panic. Gina was at the check-cashing joint at 35th Avenue and Van Buren Street. Frantic, she said people were trying to kill her. Lois chalked it up to meth mania, or the delusions of a bipolar mind.
Detectives were sent down blind paths, too.
In one, they pulled partial prints and DNA off empty Bud Lite and Coors bottles found next to Gina’s body. The DNA on one bottle gave them a hit on one man, but the DNA didn’t match the other bottle or DNA found from swabs of Gina’s breast. It ruled the man out, but detectives didn’t learn that until July 2009.
Three months after the murder, in January 2008, somebody called in an anonymous tip about a man bragging about killing a woman in a parking lot, molesting kids, and enjoying “torture sex.” The caller thought he was connected to Gina’s murder.
Police interviewed the “very cooperative” man with no criminal record. He said a relative was upset about an inheritance, and a nephew had been making false police reports against him. He volunteered a DNA sample, which police collected four months later.
On July 30, the results came back. His DNA did not match any from the crime scene. Police eliminated him as a suspect.
The wait for a break continued.
In February 2014, the lab reported that DNA from Gina’s breast led to a Hispanic man, who was two years into an eight-year stint in prison for armed robbery.
The prisoner refused to talk and demanded to be returned to his cell. He said he didn’t recognize Gina’s photo.
“Does it look like I mess with hookers?” he said, ending the interview. “I would rather go to trial.”
Police named him as a suspect, but did not have a full DNA match, only material that 1 in 1,100 Hispanic men share. Police reports never mentioned him after that.
The case grew colder.
Kevin Earley didn’t feel driven to find out who killed his sister or seek vengeance. As a Christian, he figured the murderer would get justice on Judgment Day. That, and the thought that Gina was at last at peace, was enough for him. At first.
Something about it never left Lois Earley’s thoughts. It nagged at her like a debt collection notice.
“She’s disposable,” Lois Earley says. “There’s no public outcry over who killed Gina. There’s not even a family outcry over who killed Gina because she was so sick.”
CHAPTER 6: IT’S NOT LIKE TV
The murder investigations of Gina Guthrie and Sandra Jakubowski typify those that stall.
Witnesses are absent. Evidence is scant. Other cases have more leads. These are tough cases to make. Time makes them tougher.
“If there is no evidence to link to a suspect, it may not ever get solved,” says Mike Meislish, the county prosecutor’s cold-case investigator.
In 2007, the year Guthrie and Jakubowski were killed, Phoenix’s challenges were acute.
It was the homicide squad’s busiest year. Hundreds of officers had just spent a year tracking down the Baseline Killer and the Serial Shooters. The clearance rate plummeted.
“When Baseline Killer was going on, with so many hours, we were working 15-, 18-, 20-hour days sometimes just to do what we had to do on a case. And, you know, you go home, you think about it. Wake up in the middle of the night. I can’t tell you how many times (the case agent) called me up and we’d run stuff by each other at two o’clock in the morning or 11:30 at night. It’s how you do things,” Meislish says.
“If you have two detectives and you have one on homicide, you can work it forever,” he adds. “When you have 30 detectives and you get 240 a year, it’s pretty hard when each one of you is carrying 18 or 19 and you’re just going from one fire to the next.”
It’s not like TV, says Sergeant Jon Howard, Phoenix police spokesman.
“When we have a crime occur in the real world, the entire rest of the world does not stop and allow any police department to focus every bit of energy on that one,” he says.
Other, more solvable cases came, and leads on the two women in the alleys went cold.
Leading criminology experts around the country agree that institutional barriers halt progress, too.
Scant resources, political pressure from inside and outside the police department, poor community relations, careerism, and mediocre training or expertise can all scotch a murder inquiry.
“Evidence can be lost, missing, or stolen after sitting in lockers for decades,” says Enzo Yaksic, a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston who has helped detectives and reporters solve cold cases.
“Deficits in government funding can impede progress on unsolved homicides,” Yaksic adds. “Triaging can often lead to the prioritization of one type of homicide over another. Some cases go cold due to societal indifference, when the victims are not looked upon as being upstanding members of the community.”
Victims like Gina Guthrie and Sandra Jakubowski.
Former Mesa detective Bill Richardson says he’s seen discrepancies first-hand. He investigated two dozen murders and two serial killers before he retired in 1989.
“Homicide should be the ultimate equalizer. Every dead person should get the same treatment,” Richardson says.
The quality of the initial response and early investigation can vary, he says. A high-profile victim, such as a wealthy couple or a fallen officer, can get more attention than a teen runaway, a drug pusher, or a prostitute, Richardson says.
“You have to wonder, if they find a dead prostitute in an alley or beside the road next to a used condom, like in one of the Serial Shooter cases, is the assumption right off the bat that it’s another dead whore who was killed by a john? And does it get the same attention again as, say, the double murder in Paradise Valley?” Richardson asks.
Lois Earley, Guthrie’s sister-in-law, does not wonder.
“Gina’s disposable. I already know that. She was a drug-addicted, mentally ill prostitute. Who gives a crap?” she says. “She was treated the same way in death as she was treated in life. Nobody cared.”
Meislish says he’s never seen detectives stymied by superiors, but sometimes they dial back naturally.
Some “may not be willing to go 100 percent,” Meislish says, “because they’re either burned out, they’re tired, or got too much stuff going on, or they just don’t care anymore.”
Howard says detectives treat all cases the same and are dedicated to the task.
Still, in the Guthrie and Jakubowski murders, police knocked on only a handful of doors, many without answer. Last year, when a witness survived being shot at by the Serial Street Shooter, police canvassed dozens of homes and addresses on that block. The man was unscathed, but the stakes were higher.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery sees the limitations.
“The degree to which law enforcement is successful in resolving cold cases is, in many ways, directly proportional to the level of effort that law enforcement can put into solving a cold case,” he says.
Lack of professionalism also harms Arizona’s track record in cracking cold cases, Richardson says.
“In a state like Arizona, there are no standards to be a homicide investigator,” Richardson says. “You’re a police officer. Anybody can investigate a murder.”
The Phoenix Police Department requires officers to become detectives of other felonies and to take community college courses before they can join the homicide squad. Not all departments have such policies.
Investigating murder does not carry the prestige it once had, detectives say.
“When I went to homicide, detectives went to homicide, retired from the department out of homicide. You spent your career there because that’s what you wanted to do,” Meislish says. “This isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. Some people just can’t handle the lifestyle, so they don’t stick around.”
“In other agencies, there are people who may only spend a year or so there, get a line on their resume, and — poof — they’re off to do something else. Not because they can’t do the job, but because they don’t want to,” he adds, echoing Richardson.
Howard doesn’t see that at Phoenix P.D.
“It is a very slow turnover rate here,” Howard says. “The vast majority of them, when they achieve that position, they stay in that position for many years, most of them for the life of their career.”
In 2007, the barriers to solving cold cases prompted the Legislature to order then-Attorney General Terry Goddard to study the problem.
The findings did not inspire. Only one law enforcement agency in six had a cold-case unit. Only one in 10 had written protocols for pursuing cold cases. One-quarter had no written policies for preserving evidence.
The Cold Case Task Force said participating agencies reviewed 38 percent of their known cold cases. Of those, they solved just 6 percent.
Goddard’s task force recommended 21 improvements, including minimum standards and training for crime scene investigators, evidence retention standards, and annual reviews of all cold cases.
The state never issued a follow-up report.
“I was disappointed in the lack of protocols and inconsistencies, but I wasn’t surprised,” says former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who chaired the report. “My biggest disappointment was the lack of follow-through by a number of entities: law enforcement, medical examiners, the Legislature, the state criminal justice commission.”
CHAPTER 7: HOW DO WE MAKE COLD CASES HOT AGAIN?
Criminologists, detectives, researchers, prosecutors, and forensic investigators all agree on what could help close cold cases.
In the last five years, they have seen progress. Phoenix’s closure rate has bounced back a little, as the murder count fell, but also as technology, methods, and teamwork improved.
Still, experts widely agree, police need more resources. More training. Better access to shared data. Better coordination among agencies. Better relations with the communities they patrol. Closer connections with the families of the slain.
“Inadequate resources have been put to the problem of murder. There aren’t enough police. There aren’t enough trained police. We don’t pay our police sufficiently to get good police,” says Tom Hargrove, the executive director at the Murder Accountability Project.
“Instead, what happens in all too many communities is we inadequately train someone, we pay him only a little bit better than a janitor gets paid, we give ’em a gun on his hip and send him out onto the street and we hope it comes out okay," Hargrove says.
"Well, it’s not going to come out okay in a lot of places and we’ve seen that in the last few years. We need to support police adequately through sufficient manpower, sufficient salaries, and sufficient training. And we’re just not doing it,” he adds.
Researcher Mike Aamodt of Radford University in Virginia thinks, as many do, data can be critical when resources are tight.
“There really is no excuse for not having a central point of accurate data,” Aamodt says. “The more that you can share data, the more you can learn about serial killers and crime in general.”
Richardson points to the 2015 arrest in a Phoenix cold case, the Canal Killings from the early ’90s. The suspect dumped decapitated women on the banks of Phoenix canals.
“Is there any place you can go to look for decapitation murders? No,” Richardson says. “The problem is there is no repository for information.”
A year ago, he said as much during the peak of the Serial Street Shooter hysteria, when he wrote a guest column for the Arizona Republic.
He described a 2004 initiative by then-Governor Janet Napolitano to establish a violent crime-tracking program like one in Washington state. She sought $470,000 for the Arizona Department of Public Safety to implement it.
“No one recalls it,” Richardson wrote, quoting from a DPS email.
He told readers that after Phoenix caught the Baseline Killer and Serial Shooters in 2006, acting police chief Mike Frazier wrote Napolitano in strong support for efforts to develop an information system for criminal justice agencies.
Frazier said, “I am extremely proud of the dedication and commitment that occurred. However, one has to wonder whether these episodes could have been solved, or even recognized as serial crimes, more efficiently if criminal justice entities had a system of information sharing?”
Plenty of good data exists to curate. The FBI collects data on the murders that police departments report. Many do not, and the Murder Accountability Project successfully sued to get states and large agencies to report their homicides, adding 24,000 cases to the FBI list.
But that doesn’t capture the full universe of murder.
Medical examiners and coroners report more medical homicides than are investigated criminally. If a badly damaged and unidentifiable body is found with obvious signs of murder, there’s not always much a detective can do.
The case of dead 3-year-old Crystal Reyes was like that. In 1998, somebody found a fragment of a child’s skull in the desert.
A year later, a detective on a cold case called Laura Fulginiti at the Medical Examiner’s office and asked if she had any dead kids. She ordered a DNA test, but had nothing to match to its results. Detectives had a tip about Crystal’s murder.
The girl’s mother had locked Crystal in a dog kennel much of her life. She died, so Crystal’s mother and her boyfriend dumped her the desert in 1997. Nobody reported Crystal missing. It took until 2014 to match Crystal’s DNA to her long-lost father’s. Two years later, the mother’s boyfriend was convicted. The mother fled and remains at large.
Every year, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office takes in 150 John, Jane, and Baby Does, completely unidentifiable at first. Last year, forensic experts there put a name to nine cases, up from recent years. That’s because detectives, government agencies, and families share information, says Christen Eggers, who helps the medical examiner’s office identify bodies and find their families.
Fulginiti says the number of open cases year-to-year is falling, as is the overall number of unidentified bodies. Between 10 and 20 percent were murdered.
In 2002, the federal Centers for Disease Control began compiling statistics from coroners around the country. It created the National Violent Death Reporting System. In 2015, Arizona joined 41 other states contributing data, but keeps the victims anonymous.
Also, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains a searchable database of missing persons, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known to investigators as NAMUS.
For Eggers, NAMUS is invaluable. Anthropologists, dental experts, and forensic sketch artists develop a description of a missing person and enter it into the database.
It helped Eggers track the identity of a woman who was shot and left in a car in 2006. Police never solved it because nobody could identify the body. A family in Mexico saw the information on NAMUS and contacted Eggers. With DNA, the medical examiner’s office could confirm the identity and open an investigative lead on a cold-trail murder.
“It’s getting better, because families know to go to these websites to review this information,” Eggers says. “DNA is only good if you have something to compare it to.”
It’s also slow. Fulginiti says it can take “years and years. So we’re getting, like, 2005 and 2006 cases right now.”
Yet another tool is the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program or ViCAP. The FBI maintains what it calls “the largest investigative repository of major violent crime cases in the U.S.” to “collect and analyze information about homicides, sexual assaults, missing persons, and other violent crimes involving unidentified human remains.”
Detectives can search online but the database is not released, and Hargrove says ViCAP is badly incomplete.
The FBI also maintains a database of mobile killers called the Highway Serial Killer Initiative. It logged more than 200 offenders who dumped bodies along the nation’s highways. This is an important finding because, for years, profilers assumed serial killers stayed close to home, where they felt comfortable and safe.
State and federal prison data would help close cold murders. Many cases go cold when a killer is imprisoned, often in a state different from where the unsolved murder occurred.” Tracking and documenting methods of convicts would help, detectives and researchers say.
“You have to also look at the ones that are solved,” Richardson points out. “Because they may be linked to the ones that are cold and nobody knows.”
The problem is no trifle. The Radford University database shows that 20 percent of known serial killers were convicted of a murder, served prison terms, and killed again after being paroled. One offender killed nine times, was locked up, and then slew seven more people after his release.
Law enforcement agencies also share access to vast databases of fingerprint records, called IAFIS, and a growing repository of ballistic data, called NIBIN. With time, says Howard, those databases gain value as they are populated with more information, just as it took time for fingerprint and DNA databases to become useful.
But even great data is only a tool. It can’t replace quality traditional policing or a second look.
“You have to gather this data, and it’s got to be done scientifically,” Richardson says. “And then it needs to be analyzed by people who don’t have a horse in the race.”
Howard says the training and intuition of detectives finds patterns and cracks most cases.
“There still is no magic database. We are still going back to good old-fashioned detective work,” Howard says. “I think law enforcement has a tendency to be shy about new technologies until they’re proven. So we are not going to be early adopters.”
Numerous law enforcement veterans say community support is key. Without it, cases go cold because witnesses are afraid or unwilling to come forward.
“Victims of crime, witnesses to crime, people with information about a crime, will figure out in a matter of seconds if you give a shit. Are you just passing through? Or do you really care? And they’ll test you. And you have to pass the test,” Richardson says.
“You have to create a trust relationship with them. And so now you’re asking somebody with information about a crime that can get them killed if they cooperate to trust you,” he adds.
County Attorney Montgomery says that relationship is the foundation to any investigation. He says if he had one tool to lower what he calls a “frustrating clearance rate,” it would be “more beat cops.”
Montgomery set up the Cold Case Squad four years ago. Since then, Mike Meislish’s team has reviewed 118 cases and closed 18.
The group provides that second set of eyes. They always look for the same things.
“Is there any evidence that hasn’t been tested? Or is there any evidence that can be tested again with new technology?” Meislish says.
Even then, new evidence might not matter in court.
“The officer that collected it is dead. The crime lab person who worked on it is dead. The detective that worked on a case is dead. Unfortunately, time is against us on these cases,” Meislish says, noting 10 to 20 percent of the referred cases are just too thin to work.
Efforts to share files, like the county cold case team does, are catching on.
“At one time, many, many years ago, that would be unheard of: crossing agencies to get work,” Meislish says. “But it’s a different world now. Everybody seems to be cooperating a little bit more.”
“And we’re way better at it than we were 30 years ago when I started. When I started, there was no cross-agency talking about stuff,” she says.
There is still room to improve in a place like Phoenix. Killers don’t care about city limits.
“The next challenge becomes, okay, we can identify maybe some here in Phoenix? It’s sharing that information with adjoining agencies. So it is still a challenge for us. It’s something that we’ve identified, though we recognize that it’s one of our challenges and we are improving,” Howard says.
Technology is improving, but it’s only as good as the resources dedicated to its use.
Science is slow. Lab tests take time, and need to. Incomplete or sloppy results send detectives on a fool’s errand or get thrown out in court.
“The labs don’t have the time. They don’t have the manpower. They don’t have equipment to test everything,” Meislish says, calling the experience “extremely frustrating.”
“If I won a multimillion-dollar state lottery, first thing I would do would open up a crime lab, staff it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a whole bunch of people and I’d be solving cases like crazy,” Meislish says.
That’s not the world detectives enjoy yet. Nor did they in 2007, the year after that sweltering summer of competing serial killers, the year when a state task force suggested how to solve cold cases more effectively.
Ten years have passed. Ten years since Phoenix’s worst year, the year somebody murdered Gina Guthrie in an alley.
Her brother Kevin Earley still wants to know what happened.
“I hadn’t really thought much of it, other than justice will prevail one way or another,” Earley says. “I believe that someone is going to get what they deserve. I left it in the hands of Jesus.”
Now, he says, “This is unsolved. And this is my sister.”
He has started thinking about the other women like Gina, too, and their cases that ran cold.
“They are people. That have a history and they have a story. And I’m sure they didn’t all intend to be in the position they were in out there on the street,” Earley says. “No one should be out on the street and get murdered and not have it solved, not have it come to light.”
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