Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MY FIRST HOMICIDE SCENE: 'Write what you Know.'

Last night I took a short break from my scheduled reading and opened a Linda Fairstein crime thriller.  Thr protagonist in her blockbuster series is a female assistant district attorney with expertise in sex crimes and homicides.  I was traveling on very familiar ground.  I'd been there and done all that, but not in New York City.  I prosecuted homicides in the Morongo Basin area of the San Bernardino county high desert.

Not all prosecutorial agencies encourage or even permit prosecutors to visit crimes scenes, but New York County does, and as television audiences worldwide know, so does L.A.  County.  Remember the shot of Maria Clark walking down the sidewalk toward Nicole Simpson's Brentwood apartment?
Did Johnnie Cochran get her kicked off the case for visiting the scene? No he did not. The  noise made by defense attorneys suggested deputies who visit scenes must recuse themselves from trial, is because there is no police report that equals a visit to a homicide scene. Homicide scenes carry a message.  My first one screamed.

I remember my first homicide scene vividly. It was the final weekend of a month's vacation I had taken after a thirteen victim child sexual assault case, twelve little Boy Scouts and one of their baby sisters. We arrived home from a trip to Colorado on a Rocky Mountain high on the evening the call came. We were had not  unpacked our suitcases.  I was still wearing my travel clothes, a pair of DKNY  jeans and a button down shirt. My sons were sitting on the sofa with my husband watching television when the telephone rang.  I was in the kitchen with the popcorn, closest to the phone.
'If it's Mother, tell her I fell out of the car somewhere in Arizona.'
It was not my mother-in-law. It was my boss and he wasn't looking for me. He was looking for another Morongo felony deputy who was not answering his pager. He apologized for disturbing me on the last days of my vacation, but wondered if I had a different number or some idea where my colleague  might be reached.
'Unless, of course, you are willing to go to the scene of a double in 29.'
Of course I was.

The information he provided over the telephone was sketchy. If I responded I would be briefed by officers at the scene. He had the address, a general description of the location, and the added information that both victims were female and  probably rape victims. Local law enforcement  and NCIS were controlling the scene. The homicide detail from Specialized Detective Division in San Bernardino was meeting at the Morongo Station while the crime lab processed the crime scene. The designated case agent  had requested the presence of a deputy district attorney and would be returning to the crime scene as soon as he doled out assignments to his team. Because of our proximity to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at 29 Palms, California, all CID and NCIS agents had been cross-deputized to assist in investigations that might involve personnel on the base. I was happy to hear they were involved.  Most had equivalent training to FBI agents and in 20 Palms,they knew who most of the players were.

It was a very warm summer night. I drove to an  apartment complex a block off the highway just beyond the center of town in an area of small apartments in the city of Twenty Nine Palms. I knew the area well. The murder scene was in a small single story court just behind one of our favorite family burger joints, Andrea's. I pulled up behind the substation commander's personal vehicle. His wife was in the car. He had only stopped by on his way home from dinner to thank the military agencies for their support. He pointed to an apartment where two white vans were parked. Before political correctness came into vogue, they were referred to as meat wagons.The scene was still being processed and the bodies 'had not been rolled.' The coroners men were standing by, waiting for something to happen. So was half of the population of central Twenty-nine Palms. Until the bars closed, the crime scene was the only show in town. I had to elbow my way through a crowd to get to the evidence tape.

 The perimeter was  being manned by a detective who had recently transferred to the Morongo station from Narcotics. He did not recognize me in my designer jeans and shined a flashlight in my eyes as if he were conducting a horizontal gaze nystagmus test. As soon as I was confident he would not shoot me for reaching into my fanny-pack, I produced my District Attorney's office. I.D.

''The only  good thing about this one,' he said once he was convinced I was who my I.D.said I was--'is someone left the air conditioning on.'  Up until he made the remark, it had not sunk in that I soon would be entering an apartment where there were dead bodies. I had heard my share of gut-wrenching  crime scene stories.  I have since arrived at an untested theory that many women handle murder scenes better than most men. Motherhood and our physiology make us immune to feces, blood and body fluids. Nothing protects us from the pathos.

'I'll let  them know you're here.  You'll need to put on some booties, and wait for one of the techs to walk you in. The front room is pretty well processed. There's an open kitchen off a living-dining room, and remnants of a party. The pizza looks to have been there since the night before. I think it was one of the party guests who came by today with a buddy and discovered the bodies. The ugly stuff is in the bedroom and bath behind, and from the looks of it, they'll be lucky to have it processed before the middle of next week.'

We were waiting for one of the crime lab people to come outside to collect me when Detective Dick Bunn came up the walk. In those days, Dick was a math teacher at Yucca Valley High School where my daughter taught English.   Each afternoon as soon as the bell rang, he was out the door and on his way to the sheriff's office annexed to the Joshua Tree courthouse.  Somehow he managed to put in a full forty hour shift per week at his second job as a reserve and he had enough experience and smarts to get  assigned as a substation detective. I do not know how old Dick was when his hair turned silver, but for all I know he was born with it, and when I see him out in town since we have both retired, I  think it's actually getting thicker. Not once in the thirty years I've known him have I seen Dick when he wasn't wearing cowboy boots and a western shirt. He and his wife Rex got married on horseback on the O.K Corral movie set in Pioneer Town. I am always glad to see him, but never more than on that night.

'One of the victims is Mandi Scott,' he said.
 I knew her mother. Almost everyone I knew from the Morongo station knew Debbie. She was a popular bartender with an open, pleasant demeanor.   I had met her daughter Mandi in the course of a bicycle theft in which the victim was a highway patrolman's step-daughter. The bicycle had been recovered hidden on Debbie's porch. Mandi  said  it had been given to her by one of her mother's boyfriends. Maybe. I did not prosecute juveniles, but we did go forward on a charge of receiving stolen property with Debbie as a defendant.  The next month she called me to help her with a problem with neighbors who objected to her keeping her pit bull in the front yard. She had also called a reporter from the L.A. Times who did a story on discrimination against owners of pit bulls. Debbie wanted me to give the reporter a statement.  Debbie had excellent marketing skills, and I liked her. She added a touch of glamour to the community.I did not want to believe that the Mandi Scott in the splayed on the bedroom floor was the same girl I had interviewed a couple of years earlier in the bicycle case.
'Not Debbie's Mandi?' I asked with a prayer in my voice. My usually surly cowboy detective friend merely nodded and one of the female criminalists came and tapped me on the shoulder.

From this point it, it is appropriate fto mention  there are no privacy issues in what I am about to describe. There were two syndicated television reenactments of what follows and with Debbie's stage management and promotional skills,  a true crime book was authored by a writer named Deanne Stillman which sold well. It took an editorial stand condemning the United States Marine Corp as much as  the serial rapist who butchered Debbie's daughter, a USMC named Valentine Underwood.
I declined to be interviewed by Ms. Stillman because the case was still active and I took exception to its editorialization. Whether I agree with its message, it is a well written true crime book.

I harbor no doubt as to  defendant Valentine Underwood's guilt. He has recently been extradited to an eastern state and convicted of a brutal 1988 rape in what had been a cold case until  a lab in Massachusetts matched a rape kit in the  crime to the DNA of Valentine Underwood, who is serving two California sentences  of life without parole for the murders of Mandi Scott and her friend Rosie,whose family has repeatedly requested that her last name be withheld.

I had seen dead bodies in viewing room in funeral homes. I had never attended an autopsy and blamed the omission on my trial schedule and an incident in  high school science lab when I suffered a severe reaction to formalin while dissecting a cat.. I always took the time to drive to San Bernardino to confer at length with the forensic pathologist, the late  Irving Root, who did not mind if I missed the autopsy as long as I understood his theory of how death occurred and stayed for lunch.Many of the cops I worked with thought Irv and  I were cousins.  We worked well together. The double in 29 was my first crime scene, but not my first homicide.

Thanks to Dick Bunn, I was aware  I would be seeing a young girl I had known when she was thirteen and very much alive.  I promised my escort to stay on the plastic and not to touch anything. I would  enter the bedroom when they were ready.  At the onset, I was to stand in the doorway and survey what could be seen from there.

And there was Mandi.
Dead on her back on the bedroom floor.
She had been stabbed thirty three times.
Her lace demi bra was wound around her head at the level of her mouth, perhaps as a gag, perhaps as a humiliation.  As I recall, bikini panties dangled from an ankle.I know they were present--colorful and sexy black and either red or yellow lace.  Her eyes were open, her hands and arms posed like a china doll. Her dark hair was hardly disheveled. She was a plump, pretty girl, even in death.
I could see into her chest cavity.
Her sixteenth birthday was a few days off.

Her friend Rosie, the tenant of the apartment, was in the tiny bathroom, nude in front of the toilet. Her eyes were open and her lips were pursed. As I recall, at least one of her hands was in a tight fist. It was difficult to process the bathroom scene because there was a a stain on a towel or blanket which the criminalists thought might include a footprint and they did not want to risk unfolding it. I viewed the slaughter from the bathroom door.
Rose was in her twenties, a good deal older than Mandi, a tiny Southeast Asian of remarkable beauty. She had two children but I do not recall where they were staying the  weekend of Rosie's party.
She, too, had been stabbed thirty-three times, the number on Valentine Underwood's basketball jersey. Valentine was a basketball player.

The lead detective on the case had been at a briefing. He arrived in time to offer me a cup of warm black coffee. The reason why he had summoned a deputy d.a. to the scene had to do with evidence preservation. I finished my coffee and returned with him to the scene.  Even though the time of death had been many hours earlier, the room had been kept so cold that the smell of death was faint, subtle, like flowers at a funeral.

"Did you happened to notice the stain on the wall?'
I had. It had been pointed out to me by the criminalist, but it would have been hard to miss.
'The bloody handprint,' I said.
'As I see it, we have two choices: We already have taken photographs of  the print, and if we process the print where it is,  we will take more photos and videotape every stage. The alternative is to remove a section of the wall, do the testing at the lab and preserve the print as a trial exhibit.  But to do that, someone from your office is going to have to request it.'

It didn't call anyone above my pay grade and I did not hesitate. For me, the decision was a no brainer. The room was ruined anyway. The carpet was saturated.  There were blood spatters everywhere. Hanging a new section of dry wall would be a minor item. A hung jury and retrial would cost the county more than compensating the owner for the entire apartment complex.The only salient question was whether a jury would  be as convinced by an expert with a videotape and photographs as opposed to one with a laser pointer and a bloody hand print preserved on drywall for jurors  to see and examine in the deliberation room.
'Take the wall,' I said.
Those words of mine were memorialized on an episode of The Prosecutors. I have a copy of the director's cut on a useless old VCR in a cabinet in the same room where I am writing this post.
The immortal words of Linda Root: "Take the bloody wall."

Afterthoughts, Vents and Procedural Notes:

1) Dick Bunn was the first person to place Valentine Underwood in the neighborhood on the night  of the crime. His was a name known to the two of us because of a rape prosecution that went nowhere when the victim refused to cooperate and recanted. Her father was a high profile military officer and her parents did not want her to participate.  We could not find her to serve her and  she had made it known she would not come to court voluntarily. At that time, our office had a policy not to take a case to a jury with a victim whose testimony would have to come in as impeachment  testimony from a police officer. That was prior to rape shield legislation and new interpretation of the hearsay laws. Dick Bunn and  I and the two NCIS officers who assisted in the investigation always thought Underwood was a serial rapist and likely a serial killer, but we could not interest other jurisdictions where Underwood had lived where there were  unsolved  crimes with the same M.O. in pursuing it. But this post is not about the Underwood case, about which I could write a book. Mine would be different from Deanne Stillman's and probably would not sell nearly as well.

2) For anyone curious about the investigation and what turned out to be the most prolonged judicial event in the history of San Bernardino County, there is Ms. Stillman's book Twenty-Nine Palms, a True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mohave, available on Amazon, a worthwhile read for anyone who redacts the roasting of the United States Marine Corps. I would have written the same story differently.

2) Why I did not try People v. Underwood  myself is for another forum on the topic of interoffice back-stabbing. The defense brought a recusal motion based on my presence at the crime scene, an issue that has been litigated ad nauseum in California courts and other venues.. However, my supervisor told me had been informed by a member of our staff  that the judge was going to grant the motion. His Honor later told me he had prepared a ruling denying the defense motion, had hinted as much to both attorneys, and he soundly scolded me for recusing myself when there was no basis for it. Perhaps it was an innocent  misunderstanding on the part of a colleague, and perhaps it was not. Sobeit. Whatever the reason, the case was assigned to a fine prosecutor in the Victorville District Attorney's office, Gary Bailey. He got his verdict but it took years of spurious defense motions and shenanigans to do it, while my own career advanced. There was always another murder about to be committed.  Whoever thought they were robbing me of a plum was doing me a favor. I was the lucky one. While Mandi Scott's murder was languishing in the courts, I was assigned other cases, one of which defined my career.  In the television reinactments of that case, I got to say a whole lot more than 'Take the bloody wall.'



  1. We never want this to happen to us. That is why we really need to be very careful and if possible double our security. I share to you a helpful tool I got for the whole family. The SafeKidZone - a cell phone-based personal security network that enables parents to protect kids from harm, by giving them one-click emergency access to family, friends, and police. At the press of a panic button it simultaneously alerts and mobilizes a select group of friends and family when a child is in trouble and, if needed, gets the child’s emergency directly to the nearest 911 emergency services dispatcher in seconds with complete information. Keep safe!

  2. I am a security professional, and that is good advice

  3. I agree it is good advice. In my case Mandi considered herself emancipated. That is another problem that needs to be addressed. I am going to suggest the SafeKidZone device to my daughter for my granddaughters.

  4. I thought the victim was you in that case...I kept having visions of you being stabbed 33 times in retaliation for the 85 Scout case or for some other bad person that was trying to get even with you, really, and I'm sitting at home and an episode of Arrest and Trial with Brian Denihee comes on and voomp! there you are on the Yawey Davis case, I about jumped out of my chair. I guess it follows how modern day TV crime dramas portray the detectives stepping into the victims identity in one way or another to try and figure out the
    MO of the criminal so they can catch em. The book sounds good to me; I actually thought you died in the story, yet it was you stepping into where death had been to figure out who the killer was. Idk, haven't read it. Rip Mandi and Rosie.

    1. I happened to cross paths with the criminalist who let me into the scene and she said it was the worst she had ever processed. I don't know that it was actually the worst of mine. I have vivid visual imagery from each of them.
      I turned down a TV gig last week because it was too up close and personal.

  5. Yay! You RITE!! Gotta lotta subtle, stupendous, supersonic, sassy, savvy elixers and electronic elegance on our YOUTHwitheTRUTH blogs. N'joym, dear.

    Meet me Upstairs
    for a Big-ol-beer...
    gotta lotta tok bout
    celebrating our eternal resurrection
    as we RITE thousands upon thousands
    of novelties in the Great Beyond,
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    God bless your indelible soul.

  6. Yay! You RITE!! Gotta lotta subtle, stupendous, supersonic, sassy, savvy elixers and electronic elegance on our YOUTHwitheTRUTH blogs. N'joym, dear.

    Meet me Upstairs
    for a Big-ol-beer...
    gotta lotta tok bout
    celebrating our eternal resurrection
    as we RITE thousands upon thousands
    of novelties in the Great Beyond,
    in God's Magnificent Kingdome
    for the length and breadth of eternity.

    God bless your indelible soul.