Darkness Falls: A young girl walking home from a Halloween party is snatched from the street by two lowlife brothers. What happens next is pure evil.
The Lemon Orchid: An ill-advised late night stop puts a young woman directly in the path of a killer. He’s done this before.
Attack of the Killer Clown: A woman is gunned down on her doorstep by an assassin in a clown suit. The clues point to an unlikely suspect.
Haunted: Thirty years after a teenager’s death, her killer finally breaks down and confesses, claiming he’s being tormented by his victim’s ghost.
The Drifter: A casual Sunday drive to the store turns into a nightmare when a young woman encounters a serial killer.
Killing Ground: It was a short walk, along well-lit streets, through a quiet English village. But evil can lurk anywhere…and strike without warning.
Your Sins Will Find You: Killing was his business, rape and robbery his stock in trade. Eventually, though, your sins catch up with you.
Cold Cases: Solved! Volume 2
Just after 3:30 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, March 11, 1979, a police dispatcher in Oxnard, California received a frantic phone call. The caller said that his name was Enrique Zuniga and that he was calling from out of state. According to Zuniga, his ex-wife, Alma, had called him from a payphone in Oxnard. They had been talking on the phone when Alma suddenly said, “That guy came back.” Before he could ask which guy she was talking about, he heard the phone booth door open. Then Alma started screaming that someone was hitting her; then he heard the door close again and there was only silence on the line. Zuniga didn’t know the location of the phone booth but begged the dispatcher to find Alma. “She’s been raped before,” he pleaded. “This can’t happen again.”
These days, we take 911 for granted but back in 1979, the 911 emergency system did not exist in California. It was still four years away. The dispatcher therefore forwarded the call to the city of Oxnard’s after-hours line. From there, patrol officers were informed of a possible abduction. A unit soon located a payphone on J Street with the receiver hanging off the hook. But they found no trace of the missing woman or of her car, described as a ‘rusty, blue Pontiac.’ They would not locate Alma Zuniga that night.
At around 10:00 a.m. the next morning, another distraught man was on the line to the Oxnard police. His name was Jesus Gutierrez, and he had a disturbing find to report. According to Gutierrez, he’d been driving home with his family from church when he’d spotted a human hand protruding from the dirt on the lemon orchard where he lived. The site was in El Rio, a small, semi-rural community on the outskirts of Oxnard. Officers immediately rushed to the scene. There they found the sight that had so distressed Jesus Gutierrez, a slim hand, reaching through the layer of dirt as though trying to escape the makeshift grave.
The burial site was about 83 feet from North Rose Avenue. Carefully evacuated, it turned out to contain the body of a petite, dark-haired woman. Whoever had buried her here had done so in a hurry, evacuating a shallow grave and then pulling a rusty bedspring and part of an old, corrugated water tank over it. The victim’s bra, blouse, and jacket were pulled up to expose her breasts. She was naked from the waist down, with her pants buried beside her and her underwear placed on top of the water tank. The police found a purse containing nearly $100 in cash. There was also a dry-cleaning receipt made out in the victim’s name. Alma Zuniga had been found.
Other evidence found at the crime scene included two .22-caliber casings and one unexpended round. The casings were from two bullets that had been fired into Alma’s head. One had buried itself in her right temple, the other had shattered her jaw. In addition, the young woman had been stabbed. A long-bladed knife had been thrust into her lower back, slicing through flesh and perforating her liver. Since this was obviously a sex crime, a rape kit was prepared and retrieved a semen sample. Back in 1979, this was not the game-changer that it is today. All that it told investigators was the blood type of the killer.
But how had Alma Zuniga ended up here, in a shallow grave on the outskirts of town? Tracking her movements, investigators learned that she’d been out clubbing the previous evening with a couple of friends named Christine Oregon and Sergio Valdez. The trio had worked their way through the nightspots of downtown Oxnard and had eventually ended up at the Army Navy Café on Fifth Street. That was around 2:00 a.m. and they’d stayed for an hour before eventually calling it a night. Christine and Sergio had walked Alma to her car. They’d watched her drive away and turn left onto Oxnard Boulevard at its intersection with Fifth Street.
A short time later, Alma had made the fateful decision to call her ex-husband and had stopped at a payphone. It was here that her killer found her and dragged her from the phone booth. He’d then forced her into her car and driven away with her. How had he subdued Alma, a woman known for her feisty temperament? That question would be answered when the police found the missing Pontiac. The passenger seat was thick with congealed blood. Now investigators understood that terrible knife wound to Alma’s lower back. It appeared that the killer had stabbed her here, in the car. This was a deep, debilitating wound, potentially fatal. After that, there would have been no fight left in her. The killer had driven her to the lemon orchard and pulled her from the vehicle. He’d raped her on the ground as she lay dying. Then, after taking what he wanted, he callously executed the 23-year-old, making an orphan of her 18-month-old son.
This theory was validated when the police canvassed the area around the lemon orchard, looking for potential witnesses. Bonnie Winters lived next to the property on Simon Way. She reported hearing a car idling in the dark after three in the morning. Sometime later, she heard two loud pops, one following the other in quick succession. However, she didn’t recognize them as gunshots and went back to bed.
The police now knew what had happened to Alma Zuniga. What they didn’t know was who was responsible. Over the days that followed Detectives Ricardo Rodriguez and Marty McCoy spoke to Alma’s relatives, some of whom seemed to believe that her ex-husband was involved in her death. They also spoke to friends and neighbors, trying to get a handle on the young woman’s life. That was how they learned that Alma worked on and off as a prostitute and that she sometimes boasted about robbing her johns.
So was that what had happened? Had one of these duped men tracked her down and had his revenge? It seemed like a promising line of inquiry but ultimately it led nowhere. So, too, did every other clue and suspect that the investigators looked into. Ultimately, the leads ran dry and the case went cold.
Over a quarter-century later, in September 2004, the Ventura County District Attorney’s office received a call from a lawyer who said that he had a client with information on a murder. According to the lawyer, the crime had happened in Oxnard in the late 70s and involved the killing of a prostitute who’d ended up buried in a shallow grave in El Rio. His client wanted to strike a deal for a friend, he said, if the D.A. was prepared to listen.
Such deals, of course, are commonplace within the justice system. And the authorities are always willing to negotiate if it will clear up a case and put a killer behind bars. Unfortunately, in this instance, the D.A. heard no more from the informant. That left investigator Scott Peterson with a puzzle to solve. Which murder had he been referring to? Going through the files from the era, Peterson eventually whittled it down to just one – the brutal slaying of Alma Zuniga. Peterson also noted that semen had been collected in the case, which made it potentially solvable. He immediately asked for the sample to be sent to the Sheriff's Department’s Forensic Sciences Laboratory. The result was a single-source male DNA profile. Entered into CODIS, it returned a match – to a man named John Clark Russell.
Russell was well-known to the authorities. He was a habitual criminal with an arrest record that went back to his teens. Much of his youth had been spent in juvenile correctional facilities and adulthood in no way mellowed him. He quickly graduated to more serious crimes. In 1973, he was arrested for snatching a 19-year-old woman from an Oxnard street and forcing her into his car. The trial ended in a hung jury, and Russell later pleaded down to a misdemeanor. That was only a brief respite, though. He’d be in and out of prison over the years that followed. His career would also continue unabated after the murder of Alma Zuniga.
In December 1979, just a few months after Alma was killed, Russell crept up on a couple sitting in a parked car at Mandalay Beach, and fired into their vehicle. Both of the victims were hit but both survived. Russell was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He served just six. In 2002, he was arrested in Kern County in connection with a stalking incident. It was at that time that he was required to submit a DNA sample. Now, six years later, that sample had found a match.
However, it would be a long four years before the authorities were eventually ready to bring Russell in. Those years were not wasted. They were spent refining the DNA evidence. The initial identification had been made using a DNA kit known as an IndentiFiler but it was low in quality and the D.A. feared that it might be challenged by the defense at trial. The sample was subsequently sent to Sorenson Forensics, a private laboratory in Utah and a world leader in forensic testing. Here a far more sensitive test was carried out using the MiniFiler kit. The result it delivered was indisputable.
On July 26, 2012, detectives tracked John Russell to a Bakersfield gym and arrested him as he left the premises. Interviewed at the Ventura County Jail, Russell was indignant about the charges against him. He flatly denied knowing Alma Zuniga or having anything to do with her death. Even the revelation that his DNA had been found on the victim’s body would not shift him from his denials. “I never seen this woman before,” he said. “Never met this woman before, never buried her in some shallow grave before, never took her from J Street.”
“How do you know that she was taken from J Street?” one of the interrogators responded. “We never said where she was taken from.”
Russell had slipped up here, mentioning something that had not been reported in the media, something that only the killer would know. However, he recovered quickly, relying on a tactic often employed by criminals. He accused the police of putting words in his mouth and trying to set him up. He also repeated his assertion that it wasn’t his DNA that had been found on the murdered woman.
And Russell would carry this denial into his murder trial. Right from the start, his lawyer, public defender Bartley Brown, attacked the DNA evidence, calling it, “low grade” and “decrepit.” Unfortunately for Brown, and for his client, that simply wasn’t true. The “MiniFiler” was the most advanced DNA technology on earth and Sorenson Forensics was the world leader in applying it. The extra time taken by the D.A.’s office had paid dividends. Far from being decrepit, the results were unquestionable.
In the end, the jury with left with a relatively easy deliberation. John Clark Russell was found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances that it had been committed during a kidnapping and rape. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Jaime Zuniga had been just 18 months old when his mother was murdered. He was 37 years of age when he saw her killer brought to justice. His dad, Enrique, who’d phoned in that desperate call on the morning of March 11, 1979, hadn’t lived to see justice done. He’d died a year before Russell was arrested. But before he passed, Enrique had told his son about his mom’s murder. He’d been highly emotional when relating the story. Even after all the years that had passed, it was still raw, it still hurt. Now that he finally had closure, Jaime wanted to honor both of his parents.
On the day after the trial, Jaime drove out to the lemon orchard where his mother’s life had been so brutally ended. He had brought a dozen red roses with him and he placed these, 10 feet apart, around the area where Alma had been found. Then he closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. For one of the relatives who had accompanied him on this pilgrimage, it was all too much. “It’s okay,” Jaime said, taking his weeping aunt in his arms. “It’s going to be okay.”
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