It was the first day of summer vacation, and 16-year-old Jake Bush had just taken his driver’s test at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Ventura earlier that morning.
After shopping with his mother and getting something for lunch, they returned to their Swift Avenue home and immediately noticed something amiss: The screen was off Jake’s bedroom window.
Once inside, they discovered everything had been disturbed. As Jake’s mother, Gail Shirley, called 911, Jake canvassed the rest of the house.
Still hiding in the house, the burglar surprised Jake, stabbing him three times before rushing out the front door. Police arrived to find his mother giving him CPR. Jake died at a hospital later that day.
Although police officers found the burglar’s knife where he had dropped it not far from the Bush home, it could not be traced to anyone in particular.
That was in June 1997. The murder went unsolved for almost 17 years, when investigators acquired a new tool that let them take advantage of a calling card that the burglar had left behind.
“During the burglary the suspect had defecated,” into a laundry hamper, said Det. Arnold Aviles, an investigator with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Cold Case Task Force.
Aviles says the gross stunt isn’t unusual; burglars do it to add insult to injury. But in 1997 the burglar’s spiteful act didn’t help investigators.
In March 2014, however, forensic science technicians were able to do something they couldn’t in 1997 — develop a DNA profile from the burglar’s stool.
The burglar had also left a palm print, which also didn’t help at the time because palm prints hadn’t been catalogued in any database — at least, not until 2014.
One month after the stool sample yielded a DNA profile, a newly built database of palm prints yielded a match with one left at another break-in committed by the same burglar — one he did prison time for.
The print had been left by convicted thief Marco Casillas of Port Hueneme, and the DNA profile matched his as well.
Besides the print and DNA, two girls said Casillas was the man that they had seen running from the Bush home in 1997. He was convicted of first-degree murder on Feb. 10 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Wednesday, March 15.
Aviles says that the case is a good example of how investigative techniques and analysis of evidence are constantly improving. New advances in methodology have helped detectives solve cases that had been dormant for years.
Ventura County’s Cold Case Task Force — made up of sheriff’s deputies Aviles, Jim Panza, Steve Rhodes and Carlos Macias — works with detectives from local police departments who single out unsolved cases from 1970 to 1995 for another look with modern techniques. The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office also assigns an investigator to work the task force.
“We have every police agency designate a representative; those representatives examine their cases and submit ones that could lead to a DNA profile of a suspect,” explained Aviles. “When we get these cases, we work hand in hand with the investigating agency.”
“Evidence that could possibly have DNA, but no guarantee,” Aviles emphasized. “Then we submit those to the crime lab for analysis; the crime lab will get back to us tell us whether there is DNA or not.”
As improvements in forensic pathology have paired law enforcement with genetics, Ventura County investigators have embraced DNA profiling.
Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. If temperature were a barometer of crime investigation, many cases would go cold to warm to hot, all due to DNA.
“Each case is significant on its own; it all depends on what was collected at the crime scene,” explained Bill Therrien, who supervised the task force. “It’s like Forrest Gump would say: Each case is a box of chocolates; you have to open it up and see what you’re going to get.”
“We can get DNA from other sources hair follicles, skin cells, oil from fingerprints, something we know the suspect had to have touched,” said Aviles. “Sexual assault cases offer the best chance of DNA evidence from blood, saliva or other bodily fluids.”
The murder of teenager Stacy Knappenberger is an example, said Aviles.
In July 1980, 15-year-old Stacy Knappenberger was found inside her Oxnard home fatally beaten and stabbed multiple times with a shard from a broken ashtray.
Investigators also suspected the Hueneme High student had been sexually assaulted, but despite an exhaustive investigation, were unable to identify a suspect.
Oxnard detectives initially focused on Knappenberger’s boyfriend as the culprit — a suspicion shared by her father — and even arrested him once, but the District Attorney’s office declined to file charges.
“That case stayed unsolved until we got a hit on a DNA profile in 2011,” said Aviles, through CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), an FBI database of DNA profiles of violent criminals.
The newly re-examined DNA collected at the crime scene matched that of a disabled Vietnam veteran, Thomas Young, who had been living in Oxnard at the time of the murder.
In fact, at one point Young lived in the same apartment building just down the walkway from the Knappenbergers, where he probably saw her before the family moved, not long before her death.
Young had subsequently gone to Illinois — where he committed the sexual assault that earned him his CODIS entry — then south, where he lived with a woman in Fairfield, Alabama.
The seemingly mild-mannered and religious Young was arrested in 2012 as he prepared for one of the prayer meetings that he held twice a week in his home.
“We ended up going to Alabama with Oxnard PD detectives,” where Jefferson County deputies were holding Young for extradition on a Ventura County warrant said Aviles. After a jury trial in February 2015, he was convicted of the murder.
Yet sometimes even DNA won’t help investigators get the whole story. Investigators believe they know who killed two women in July, 1980 — but not whom he killed.
Jane Doe No. 1 was found in an almond orchard in Delano in Kern County and Jane Doe No. 2 was found three days later in the upper parking lot of Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks.
Jane Doe No. 1 was 25 to 35 years old. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes, and is thought to have been Hispanic or Native American.
Both women had been raped, stabbed and strangled to death in another location and dumped elsewhere. Jane Doe No. 2 was four to five months pregnant.
The murders remained unsolved until a 2012 check with CODIS linked Wilson Chouest to DNA collected from the victims and their clothing.
Chouest was already serving a life sentence for an August 1980 robbery and the September 1980 rape, robbery and kidnapping of another woman at College of the Sequoias in Tulare County.
Chouest would have been eligible for parole this year had he not been arrested on suspicion of the 1980 murders. He is in the Ventura County jail awaiting trial.
“What we’re looking at is, the families of the victims have been wondering for 30 years who did it,” said Aviles. “There’s really no closure when a family member is killed, but we can at least say we know who did it. I think that’s critical.”
But perhaps the most perplexing cold case is the double murder that Jim Panza has been investigating —that is, investigating the ones that occurred in Ventura.
Variously called the Original Night Stalker, Golden State Killer and East Side Rapist, the killer remains unidentified 40 years after he began his gruesome crime spree in Sacramento, before moving south through Oakland, Santa Barbara and Orange Counties.
He is believed to be responsible for 12 murders, 45 rapes and more than 120 residential burglaries between 1976 and 1986, including a 1982 double murder in Ventura.
On Saturday, March 13, that year Charlene Smith, 33, a decorator and jewelry vendor, and her husband Lyman Smith, 43, an attorney who was reportedly about to be appointed a judgeship, were found murdered in their High Point Drive home in Ventura.
Charlene Smith had been raped; a log from the fireplace was used to bludgeon both to death.
Their wrists and ankles had been bound with a drapery cord, using a decorative knot called a diamond knot. The unusual knot is among details linking the murder to the series of rapes in the Sacramento area.
A friend and business partner of Lyman who had visited their home the day before the murders was briefly a suspect and was even arraigned for the crime.
But Ventura County prosecutors were skeptical of his confession — given to his pastor during a family counseling session — and charges against him were dropped after a preliminary hearing.
The task force is funded through federal grants with individual agencies contributing money from other grant sources, but that funding runs out in March, and the task force faces being deactivated for now.
But the Sheriff’s Office remains cautiously optimistic that federal funding will be made available again, said Asst. Sheriff Bill Ayub, noting that the Trump Administration is reportedly law enforcement-friendly.
“We’ll be without a cold case unit for a time regardless of what happens at the federal level but I’m an optimist. I’m always hopeful opportunities will present themselves again,” said Ayub.
Bill Therrien asks anyone who has information about an unsolved murder to call him at 384-4724, Carlos Macias at 384-4761, Arnold Aviles at 384-4733, James Panza at 384-4734 or Steve Rhodes at 384-4736.
“You never know, that little piece of information might make the difference,” said Therrien. “If an unsolved murder is out there and you haven’t told anybody, please call.”