Chuck Gaylor sits surrounded by the dead. People abandoned by time.
In most cases, only he speaks their names and looks at their faces. In every case, their story ends badly. If there are restless ghosts in our society, they live behind his door.
He is a cold-case cop, the rear guard of justice. It is his job to remind those who murder that they, too, will not be forgotten.
Gaylor, 58, is a semiretired Escondido Police Department detective sergeant whose job is to tie up the loose ends of police work, the residue of failure.
He is a law school graduate who decided that he’d rather collect criminals than take them to court. He’s been an Escondido resident from childhood and has spent 36 years with his department, most prominently as lead homicide detective. As the father of two daughters, he is sometimes ill at ease thinking about the predators he and his colleagues have swept off the streets — and those who have slipped away. They are the ones he wants.
After retiring, he agreed to return part time in 2007 and attempt to close cases that rest accusingly in the records shelves. Many he remembers from his long career. He is physically unimposing, with gray hair and a cordial manner that has lulled many bad guys into lowering their guard. They’ve had plenty of time to rue that lapse in prison.
Watching him work, it occurs to me that his weapon is not the Glock at his side, but the computer on which he is constantly tapping, searching for fake identities, whereabouts and incriminating events that suspects thought they had safely hidden. He has the patience of the unmoving eyes waiting beside a rabbit run. He likes to catch his prey when they’re not looking.
Along with the occasional assistance of Norm Wight, a retired FBI agent, Gaylor is the lonely shepherd of 52 open cold cases. Five have been resolved during his tenure. He is delighted to talk about his most gratifying one.
The detective reaches for a file and opens it. He looks at it in a way that tells me this is an old friend of good memories. He opens it and spreads the contents across his desk.
“In May 1977 a guy named Laborio Landin-Vallin, a 24-year-old undocumented worker from Mexico, is picked up at a bar, taken out to a secluded construction site and murdered, maybe for sexual reasons. The fact that he’s found with his pants pulled down, I think he was molested. At least there was an attempt to humiliate him by leaving him like that. He is discovered in the early morning by an officer on patrol checking for construction theft.
“The circumstances indicated a probable serial killer,” Gaylor says. “He was strangled, beat to death, and his body was abused. I was two months out of the academy and working that night. I remembered it well.”
Gaylor says that on a wall, 18 inches above the victim’s head, there was a clear bloody fingerprint. It didn’t match any in local records, and since there was no state or national computerized latent fingerprint system at the time, the wallboard with the print, along with the case itself, remained in storage.
The California Department of Justice computerized fingerprints in the early 1980s, and it was then that a photo of the bloody fingerprint was sent to Sacramento in search of a match. But a match didn’t happen. It was then assumed that identification would happen once the perpetrator was arrested for another crime. That didn’t happen either, so the case was left to the dust of the years.
A quarter-century later, the dust was stirred.
“When I got involved in cold cases in 2007,” Gaylor says, “this was the first case I looked at. I saw a letter from (the Department of Justice) that said there was no match for the print. I said to myself that something didn’t add up. Whoever does this kind of murder goes on to do other murders, or at least gets arrested for something, so his fingerprints should be on file somewhere.”
He contacted the department and a person eventually called back with the bad news: The file with the print photo was gone, lost over the years.
No problem. Gaylor figured that he’d just go to the evidence locker, take another picture of the print and resend it.
There was a problem. A big problem. The physical evidence had been thrown out, including the wallboard with the bloody print. Apparently, rodents had chewed up enough of the evidence that someone assumed everything was ruined. All that was left were case notes and photographs of the crime scene.
Gaylor could see the bloody print image in one of the photos, so he had a CD made of it and sent the disc to Sacramento in May 2007.
In police work, the joy of Christmas is equaled on any day that someone shouts out the hosanna, “We got a match!”
That August, Gaylor got a phone call that sent whoops echoing down the hallways of the Escondido Police Department’s headquarters. It was a thumbprint, and it belonged to Michael Moon, who had been convicted of the 1978 stabbing murder of a woman in Reno. The failure to identify him in the early ’80s was because the justice department record for Moon showed only part of his thumb. When the agency later sent Moon’s record to the FBI, it showed the thumb clearly.
The next part gets a little eerie. “Talk about a small world,” Gaylor says. “Moon spent most of his life in Escondido, and I used to see him around town when I was a kid and later when I was a young police officer.
“One of my jobs in high school was working in a 7-Eleven. Moon used to come in and buy beer. He was an average guy. In fact, most killers like him are pretty average. You wouldn’t give them a second thought. Later, when I talked to him, he didn’t seem to remember me. I’ll bet he does now.”
Moon was in prison for the Reno murder from 1981 until about 1990. Next, he served nine years for an attempted murder in Illinois. Then Nevada locked him up again for parole violation until 2005.
Gaylor recaps where they were on the Moon investigation: “We had no physical evidence, but we had a print of his at the scene. So, what could we do to nail this down? We figured we’d try to deprive him of his only possible alibi.
“He could have claimed, ‘Yeah, that’s probably my print. I’m a carpenter, I was working that job and I cut myself, and that’s why my print was on that wall.’ ”
Gaylor and other detectives decided to go to Reno, where Moon was living, and pay him a visit. Trying to allay his suspicions, they greeted him like a visiting Rotarian. “I said, ‘I’m Detective Gaylor, Mr. Moon. I talked to your parole agent and he says you’re a great guy, and always cooperate with the police. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions because I’d like to eliminate you as a suspect in a case I’m investigating.’
“I had a button-size camcorder on my shirt. We sat in my car and I nice-talked him to put him at ease. I let him smoke. I told him we knew he had a murder conviction and had lived in Escondido, so we’d like to clear him of this crime so we could move on to the real suspects. After some more chitchat, I casually asked if he ever worked on the job site where the body was found.
“Then, without thinking it through, he claimed he had never worked there. ‘Nope. Never been near that place.’ ”
Bingo! Scratch one potential alibi.
What was he like?
“Like many other construction workers, and no offense intended. He was gruff, not particularly educated, about 60, sitting there smoking. Here’s a guy I know spent close to 20 years in prison for killing or trying to kill other people. I’m playing him, and he’s fishing me, wondering, ‘What does this cop know?’ And at this point I’m giving him nothing. This is a seriously bad guy who’d just as soon kill you as look at you. He’d talk like, ‘Yeah, back when I was drinking, I did stuff. But I don’t do that anymore.’ ”
Gaylor says they weren’t ready to make an arrest, so, “I ended it friendly. I didn’t want to slam the door in the event I wanted to come back to him.”
Moon was charged with first-degree murder in December 2007 and spent a year in the county jail. While there, he had plenty of time to scheme.
Gaylor says one ploy a criminal will commonly try is to pin the crime on a dead person. Moon also knew his phone calls would be recorded.
The detective continues: “So, we start listening to all of Moon’s telephone calls. Well, one day he calls up his sister who has since died, and he also had a half-brother, Royce Williamson, who was dead at that point. Moon says to his sister, ‘Hey, you remember when Royce came over to the house and told us about this guy he killed, and then I went over to (the scene) ... Do you remember Royce telling us that?’
“ ‘No, Mike. I don’t remember that.’
“‘Wait a minute. Theresa, don’t you remember Royce coming to the house and telling us about this guy he killed?’
“ ‘No, Mike, I don’t remember that.’
“I have a bunch of cops around me listening to this recording, and we’re cracking up.”
Gaylor remembers that Moon next called a parolee friend in Reno and said, “Hey, Les. You need to get hold of my sister and remind her about the time Royce came over to the house and confessed to committing a murder and then I went over there.”
Toward the end of Moon’s time in county jail, Gaylor says, the District Attorney’s Office came to Escondido police and asked if the department would be amenable to letting Moon plead guilty to second-degree murder. The fear was that the lack of physical evidence would weaken the case for the jury. The big problem was Moon would be sentenced under the lenient 1977 laws, but, they figured, a few years would be better than no years.
In December 2008, Moon pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He was out of prison after four years and now lives in Reno, where he is on lifetime parole.
Do you think Moon is a serial killer?
“I think there’s plenty of evidence to believe that, based on his being convicted of two murders, convicted of trying to kill another man, and another out-of-town incident I’m not free to discuss at this time.
“Now, do I think the police were lucky enough to catch Michael Moon on the only two murders he ever committed? No. I think he’s killed other people. The fortunate thing is he’s spent a lot of his life behind bars.”
Do you think Moon is done killing?
“My sense is that most people grow out of that life. He’s 65. You get tired. And you know what, it’s hard work to chase down a guy in a bar and stab him to death. And it gets harder the older you get.
“What’s frightening is not that Michael Moon is running around loose, but that there are many, many Michael Moons out there. Maybe even one hidden in these files on my desk.”
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions. Contact him at [email protected]