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  • Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Booking photos of Ryan Douglas Roberts are distributed Thursday at a news conference.

  • Jessica Funk-Haslam

  • Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Sacramento County sheriff's Detective Tony Turnbull, center, and sheriff's Sgt. Jim Barnes discuss the arrest in the March 2012 slaying of Jessica Funk-Haslam. "It's a good feeling, obviously, for a tragic situation," Turnbull said of the arrest.

  • Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

    A pink ribbon hangs on a fence in March at the baseball field where Jessica Funk-Haslam's body had been found a year earlier.

DNA match brings arrest in 2012 slaying of girl, 13

Published: Friday, Aug. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 - 8:14 am

As classmates and staff members at Albert Einstein Middle School grappled with the loss of a 13-year-old girl, they assembled a time capsule – a memento that would one day be unearthed and remind its finders of the tragedy that had occurred just beyond the campus playing fields.

Students gathered photographs of Jessica Funk-Haslam and notes of love written after her violent death. They set aside a yearbook. But even as the Rosemont community gathered in March to commemorate the first anniversary of the girl's death, they still couldn't bury it – not quite yet.

"They were waiting for closure," said Principal Garrett Kirkland.

On Thursday, Sacramento County sheriff's detectives announced an arrest in the case – and Kirkland began thinking of finally burying 17 months of mourning and fear.

"We're relieved that we have an answer," he said. "No matter how unfortunate of an answer it is, it still helps, I think."

The previous morning, detectives had received a long-awaited call: The Sacramento County District Attorney's Crime Lab had been alerted to a match to a DNA profile pulled from evidence at the March 2012 killing scene.

The hit led detectives to 23-year-old Ryan Douglas Roberts of Sacramento, according to authorities. By Thursday morning, Roberts had been booked into the Main Jail on suspicion of murder. He is scheduled to be arraigned on the charge today.

Roberts declined to be interviewed by reporters at the jail, where he was separated from other inmates, likely because he's accused of killing a child. A woman who answered the phone at Roberts' home said her family declined to comment. Efforts to reach other relatives were not successful.

Elsewhere, though, law enforcement and community members were thrilled to talk about the arrest, a welcome development in a heart-breaking and nerve-fraying case.

"Today is a good day," said sheriff's Sgt. Jason Ramos, as he began the most well-attended press conference at sheriff's headquarters in recent memory.

Detectives recalled the dark morning of March 6, 2012, when a woman walking her dog in Rosemont Community Park came upon Funk-Haslam's body. The eighth-grader had been stabbed, beaten and asphyxiated in a baseball diamond's dugout in view of her middle school.

The harrowing discovery sent ripples throughout the Sacramento region and received national attention. Initially, hundreds of tips flooded in before sputtering to a halt, leaving detectives entrenched in the painstaking, laborious process of interviewing hundreds of students and community members.

The case tested the patience and emotions of investigators, some of whom have children the victim's age.

"While we treat all homicides as the most serious of offenses, there are a few that require an extra special measure of attention," said Sheriff Scott Jones.

He said the case "not only affected friends and family of Jessica, but an entire community."

The break in the case stemmed from a much lower-profile arrest three months back, one that didn't even amount to any criminal charges.

In May, sheriff's deputies arrested Roberts on suspicion of domestic violence. The felony arrest triggered the provisions of California's Proposition 69, and Roberts' DNA was collected. That profile was uploaded into state and national databases, leading to the alleged match.

Authorities said Roberts' name had never come to their attention until the DNA hit, and District Attorney Jan Scully said she was "confident" Funk-Haslam's killing would not have been solved without the DNA evidence.

As for the domestic violence case, Scully said her office never filed charges because of a lack of evidence, and Roberts was released.

Detective Tony Turnbull said Roberts lives in Rosemont and frequented the park, as did Funk-Haslam. However, he said there is no indication they knew each other before their paths allegedly crossed.

The young teen had fought with her mom that night, and took light rail, then a bus, to the park. She arrived about 6:30 p.m. and likely was killed between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. that night.

Detectives are not sure who arrived at the park first, or whether Roberts and Funk-Haslam spent time with anybody else there that night. They hope anyone who recognizes Roberts' face from the park will contact investigators.

Detectives said their work is not finished, despite the arrest. But the relief among authorities was palpable.

"It's a good feeling, obviously, for a tragic situation," Turnbull said.

In Rosemont, word of the arrest appeared to provide some comfort and hope that the community can continue healing.

The neighborhood's fifth annual Celebration of Community will be held Saturday at the park where Funk-Haslam died. That gathering could be the start of the release.

"Last year's celebration – it was difficult to be celebratory with that cloud, so to speak, hanging over the community, not knowing who or why," said Doug Haaland, president of the community association. "We've now gotten one of the answers – we suspect we know who. Why may come, but I think there will be … a little more relief."

The park, and the greater community, are better places now, Haaland said, after Funk-Haslam's death prompted more cooperation between residents and authorities.

"We don't know the circumstances as to what led to this tragedy, but certainly the community coming together … has at least taken a step of ensuring there's less of a chance of another Jessica in the future," he said.

At Einstein Middle School, where staff members are preparing for the coming school year, Kirkland said discussion of the arrest dominated his emails and text messages.

When school resumes next month, no students on campus will have been classmates of Funk-Haslam's, and the impact will be more subtle, he said. But the school nonetheless will finally bury the capsule and plant a tree in her memory.

"It's not something we're ever going to forget," Kirkland said.

Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Kim Minugh



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