A year later, Rosemont 13-year-old is mourned as detectives search for her killer

03/07/2013 12:00 AM

03/07/2013 7:08 AM

A year has passed since Jessica Funk-Haslam was found crumpled in the corner of a ball field dugout just yards from her middle school. She had been suffocated, beaten and stabbed in the neck, then abandoned beneath the bench of the visitor's dugout.

Detectives say she died quickly. She was 13 years old.

In the months since, the staff and students at Albert Einstein Middle School have mourned and begun to heal. Residents in her Rosemont neighborhood have arranged volunteer park patrols and better secured the ball field. Detectives have assembled a personality profile of her killer.

But a year later, they have yet to identify with any certainty who attacked her and why.

"A year out, it's definitely not cold," Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Ken Clark said of the case. "It's just time-consuming."

The Rosemont community will gather tonight to remember Jessica and mark the first anniversary of her death, hoping renewed attention might prompt someone to come forward with answers.

"It's a little girl. That's not right – not in our neighborhood," said Treva Kelly, a family friend and a board member for the Rosemont Community Association. "We're not going to just stand by and watch (another year) pass .

"At the funeral, we said we'll never forget, and we're not going to forget."

Principal Garrett Kirkland got the call about 7:30 the morning of March 6, 2012. His school resource officer said a body had been found in the park next to the Albert Einstein campus. Kirkland assumed it was a man, possibly a drug user or an alcoholic – somebody "who had had his chance at life."

By 8 a.m., authorities were saying the body belonged to a teenage girl. Given the proximity, they thought she might be a student from Albert Einstein or nearby Rosemont High.

Kirkland asked for a list of girls who had not shown up for school that day. One by one, staff members called their families to check on the reason for the absence. After the last call, Kirkland had two possible names. One of them was Jessica's.

Later that morning, Kirkland stood at the crime-scene tape with the resource officer, Frank Ley. He asked if either girl on Kirkland's list was known for her distinctive clothing.

An assistant principal mentioned that Jessica often wore a black-and-white hat. No, Kirkland remembered, it was a sweatshirt with zebra stripes.

"At that point, the officers changed their expressions," Kirkland recalled. "(Ley) says something like, 'We might have an issue there.' "

That afternoon, sheriff's authorities took the unusual step of releasing Jessica's name even before the girl's body, still clothed in her zebra-print hoodie, had been carried from the scene. They wanted to put the public on alert that a killer was loose, and to jump-start the flow of tips.

Over the months, detectives have chased down hundreds of leads, trying to separate the facts of a young girl's life from the drama and angst of her middle-school world.

Clark, the sheriff's detective, said investigators have interviewed roughly 150 students and as many as 400 people who live near the park. They have cleared the "usual suspects," including family members and sex offenders living in the area. They used cheek swabs to rule out a few dozen teens who frequented the park or acknowledged seeing Jessica before her death.

Some of the youths interviewed are affiliated with the Juggalos – the name adopted by avid followers of the rap group Insane Clown Posse. The group is known for its violent lyrics, and its fans for their face paint and partly-shaven hairstyles.

Clark said Jessica sometimes hung out with Juggalos from the area, and that she tried to "fit in with counterculture." But so far, he said, they have not found a connection there to her killing.

According to detectives, on the night she died, Jessica and her mother, Tara Funk-Haslam, fought over her desire to see her father, Allen Porter, who lived nearby. Jessica left home angry. Based on surveillance footage, detectives know she rode the light rail to Rosemont Community Park.

She and other youths often hung out there, sometimes after dark. On this particular night – March 5 – detectives suspect Jessica went to the park not to meet any particular person, but in hopes of finding people already there.

Based on what they have learned about Jessica and the activities at the park that night, detectives say they believe she spent time with the killer before the attack. They suspect the killer is a boy, possibly Jessica's age, or a man in his early 20s.

Though she probably did not know him, they said, she felt comfortable and stayed even as night fell and Little League families headed home.

The detectives believe the attack occurred between 8 and 9 p.m., in part because of a short, startling scream heard by a neighbor.

A recent profile crafted by the FBI offered some insight as to how the killer might have behaved in the days after the crime: He may have begun drinking or using drugs, and ignoring commitments, such as work or school, Clark said. He may have had a sudden interest in washing clothing, or in the news. He likely grew more reclusive.

"This is not a socially acceptable crime," Clark said. "There is shame involved."

Detectives are confident that somebody close to the killer has a strong suspicion about his involvement and might even have questioned him. He likely was evasive, or gave answers that did not ease fears, Clark said.

In studying their victim, detectives discovered two seemingly contrasting personas.

There was Jessica the outgoing young girl, with a smile that her mother said "would warm your heart if you were feeling down." She wore bright clothes and had a series of "schoolgirl" crushes on boys the detectives found to be nice kids.

There was also the lonelier Jessica, who brooded during some lunch periods and sought solace among other teens who didn't quite fit in.

"Jessica was an interesting kid. She could be gregarious or very somber," Kirkland said. "Sometimes she'd be in the hub of her friends at lunchtime; other times she'd be sitting quietly, somberly reading a book."

Kirkland said Jessica came to his attention in October 2011, when she became emotional during an anti-bullying exercise on campus and another adult expressed concern.

Talking with Jessica that day, Kirkland said, he learned "she was dealing with emotions about happiness." But he said it did not appear she was bullied at school, and her mother said she was making progress with a counselor.

"She was very cheerful, very happy," her mother said in an interview. "No matter what kind of questions people (have) out there, she and I had a really close relationship."

Still, she was 13 and pressing for independence. Her rebellion had escalated in the month or two before her death: She ran off at night to join friends, sometimes ending up at the park and other times at "seedy motels," detectives said.

Nonetheless, Clark and fellow Detective Paul Belli said there is no evidence that Jessica was engaged in anything illegal, nor that she was sexually active.

Her mother said she routinely checked in with Jessica's counselor. She said she was told, "Welcome to teenage world, Mom. Put your feet down hard."

As the months have passed, Jessica's mother, Tara, has struggled to deal with her grief while weathering the judgment of others.

In online comment threads and family confrontations, she has been accused of killing her daughter, though detectives have ruled her out. She has fought the temptation to rage back.

"Whether you're here or up there, I just wanted you to know I didn't strike back," she says aloud to her daughter.

She has heard other accusations, too, including that she was a bad mother for not contacting police when Jessica did not come home the night she was killed.

Jessica had gone missing before, her mother said, but had always come home. Still, the question haunts her.

"I think about that even today. Why didn't I?" she said. "I'm paying the ultimate price."

Tara has cerebral palsy, and does not work or drive. She lives with her mother, whom she helps care for. And she lives with loss.

"There really are no words," she said.

A year has passed, and Jessica is still gone.

VIGIL TONIGHT

The public is invited to a memorial vigil for Jessica Funk-Haslam at 6 o'clock tonight at Rosemont Community Park. The park is next to Albert Einstein Middle School, 9325 Mirandy Drive, Sacramento.

TIPS SOUGHT

Authorities are offering a $10,000 reward for information about the case. Anyone with a tip is asked to call Sacramento County sheriff's detectives at (916) 874-TIPS.

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

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