Unsolved homicides pile up by hundreds in California

03/10/2013 1:00 AM

08/09/2013 12:13 AM

Friends, relatives and neighbors gathered in the darkness to make sure Jessica Funk-Haslam isn't forgotten. They came with flowers and prayers to the picnic shelter at Rosemont Community Park, within sight of the ballfield dugout where, a year ago, 13-year-old Jessica was found beaten, stabbed and asphyxiated.

They also brought their fears that Jessica's killer still lurks in their community.

Kaitlin Raymond, a seventh-grader at nearby Albert Einstein Middle School, which Jessica attended, tearfully told the crowd she was afraid of what could happen to her.

Her mother, Andrea, believes it's possible that the suspect is a young person who might be going to a neighborhood school – and who might target another child.

"That's what scares me the most," Raymond told me.

Detectives with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department stood in the back, watching closely. It wouldn't be the first time a murderer showed up at a ceremony for their victim.

As about 150 people at Thursday night's vigil bundled up against the chill, Sheriff's Department representatives tried to reassure them that the investigation hasn't gone cold. They also pleaded for information, for residents to come forward if they remember someone who changed their behavior, or even moved away, just after the slaying.

"Anything will help," said Sgt. Jim Barnes, supervisor of the department's homicide bureau.

While investigators have interviewed more than 500 people and had the FBI put together a personality profile of the killer, the three detectives working the case have no active leads. The evidence from where she was found is only enough to include or exclude a potential suspect. The hope is that someone comes forward with a tip that breaks the case, maybe someone who knows the killer, maybe someone drawn by the $10,000 reward.

Tara Funk-Haslam is steadfast in her confidence that her daughter's killer will be found. "Unfortunately, it's not something that happens overnight, but it's going to happen," she told me.

The bitter truth is that it might take a long time.

Another hard truth is that Jessica's slaying is only one on an appallingly long list of local unsolved homicides.

The sheriff's department counts 140 uncleared homicides from 2000 through 2012. There are 16, including Jessica, from last year – the most since 2005. The Sacramento Police Department says it has at least 120 from 2000 through 2012.

It's sobering to glance just at the ones featured on Sacramento County's crime tip line's website. They include Joseph Long, 32, hit by stray bullets in midtown Sacramento last August; Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Atwal, 78, two elderly Sikh men shot in a possible hate crime while walking in Elk Grove in March 2011; and Jimmy Le, 16, an anti-violence advocate killed in a drive-by shooting in south Sacramento in October 2010.

Statewide from 2000 through 2009, there were more than 22,800 homicides, but only about 12,400 were solved during that decade. The ratio of unsolved homicides to total cases is much worse in other big counties – including Alameda, Los Angeles and San Francisco – than in Sacramento.

While the loved ones of all these victims try to cope with their losses, killers are literally getting away with murder – and continuing to be a threat to the rest of us.

'You want to serve justice'

Closing homicide cases is not as easy as it appears on TV shows like "CSI." High-tech analysis of microscopic evidence left at crime scenes doesn't quickly lead to the culprit, and suspects don't often confess right away. Solving homicides takes persistence, careful analysis and a bit of luck. It also takes manpower and money – both of which have been in short supply for local law enforcement during the recent budget crunch.

As the backlog of unsolved cases keeps growing, detectives have less time to devote to each one. Unless it's clear-cut domestic violence or a rare instance like the New Year's Eve shooting in Old Sacramento where dozens of police officers were on the scene and immediately made arrests, investigations can be painstakingly slow.

Unfortunately, says Sgt. Marnie Stigerts of the Sacramento police homicide unit, evidence is often scant and witnesses are unreliable or uncooperative. The longer a crime goes without an arrest, the more difficult it becomes.

"It's incredibly frustrating for any case," Stigerts says.

Even if the victim isn't completely innocent, there remains a killer who is a danger to the public and loved ones who mourn their loss.

"You want to give them that closure," she told me. "You want to serve justice."

Ironically, more money for solving murders and rape cases would be available now if voters had approved a measure on the November ballot that opponents labeled as soft on crime.

Proposition 34, which would have abolished the death penalty in California, also included $100 million in grants over four years for local police departments, sheriff's departments and district attorneys' offices to add homicide investigators, to add crime lab technicians and equipment, and to relocate witnesses in danger. Proponents, however, were unable to raise enough money to highlight that proposal during the campaign, and it has fallen by the wayside since the election.

More money to solve cases?

Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully, who opposed Prop. 34, had concerns about the proposal – whether the money would be pulled from elsewhere in public safety if savings from repealing the death penalty didn't materialize, how the money would be divided and whether local agencies would receive enough to make a difference.

But Scully would support additional funding for unsolved cases, as long as local law enforcement had a say in how to spend it. For instance, she says, investing in local crime labs could pay big dividends.

The crime lab in Scully's office has DNA profiles from nearly 900 unsolved homicides, rapes, robberies and other cases that are run through the state database weekly to check if any new samples match. That's how two cold-case murders were recently closed. In 2010, Christopher Rogers was convicted in the 2004 slaying of Juanita Johnson after his DNA was taken following a domestic violence arrest. Also in 2010, Donald Carter was convicted in the 1989 rape and murder of Sophia McAllister after a DNA swab from his drug arrest.

Since 2009, when DNA samples started being collected in California from suspects arrested for felonies, not just those convicted, the number of "hits" statewide with profiles from unsolved crimes jumped from about 180 a month to more than 400, aiding in more than 18,500 investigations in the last four years, according to the state attorney general's office.

Natasha Minsker, the campaign manager for Prop. 34, says her coalition has talked to some legislators about aiming more resources at unsolved cases, but there doesn't seem to be much interest.

That's really disappointing. The issue isn't as high profile as other proposals – like still more gun control measures. Yet, solving more cases could be a more effective deterrent to violent crime. Some enterprising lawmaker might want to actually champion this cause.

The Legislature is more focused on realignment – Gov. Jerry Brown's plan under way to transfer low-level criminals from state prisons to local jails and probation. Scully agrees that cities and counties need more money for supervision and rehabilitation programs, but she says they also need help on unsolved cases.

"I don't want to say one is more important than another," Scully told me, but she realizes that it's an easy choice for someone like Tara Funk-Haslam.

On the one-year anniversary of her daughter's murder, the Sheriff's Department could offer nothing new, only assurances that it is pursuing every tip. On the six-month anniversary, it released a 30-second video of Jessica walking near the park. It's eerie watching the grainy images, knowing that within a few hours, she had been murdered.

Despite the unimaginable pain of losing a child to violence, Funk-Haslam has an optimistic message for others like her: "Don't give up hope."

If law enforcement had more resources to bring killers to justice, that hope would be far more real.


Sacramento Crime Alert: (916) 443-4357, (800) 222-7463, www.crimealert.org

Sacramento Sheriff's Department: (916) 874-5115

Sacramento Police Department: (916) 808-0650, www.sacpd.org/contact/crimetips Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.


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