Part II: In 1989, nurse’s aide Helen Roscoe, 52, was robbed of her purse and stabbed to death in her car in Chula Vista. The unsolved crime was finally put in the hands of a cold-case investigator.
As the years passed, the investigation was pushed into the background by more recent cases. But Chula Vista detective John Stewart never forgot it. He was troubled by a crime of great violence that made no sense. The cruelty of the small woman being stabbed to death lay in his mind like fog in a hollow.
Stewart’s career, however, moved on and up. He became a sergeant and transferred out of homicide, then returned to that department as head man. He was on a committee in 2001 to select someone to handle cold-case killings, a position new to the Chula Vista Police Department.
The man chosen was Bob Conrad, a 26-year retired Chula Vista sergeant who had worked in many areas but never in homicide.
Conrad, now 74, is an affable, quiet man who would be unnoticed in a crowd of retired schoolteachers. In 13 years, however, he has taken the lead or helped solve nine cold-case killings.
He’s the type of man one can envision spending hours blowing dust off forgotten files rather than chasing fleeing bad guys, although he did the latter in more audacious days.
Soon after Conrad started his half-time job, and when he was reading through the files of 40 cold cases dating to the ’50s, Stewart made it a point to pitch the Roscoe case for special attention.
After reading the Roscoe file, Conrad was affected by the cruelty to Helen. “I look at all the cases, but I was especially bothered by this one because of who the victim was. She was a true victim. Completely innocent. She worked hard for what little she had. …”
His voice trails off.
Conrad quickly learned that cold-case investigations go slower than normal police work. Old evidence has to have the cobwebs brushed off, and old trails have to be uncovered. Sometimes it can take years, and even then end up against a stone wall.
When Conrad read the Roscoe file, he found no starting point — no suspects, no witnesses, no leads, no fingerprints and no motive that made any sense.
One thing he had, though, that wasn’t a factor in 1989: He had DNA.
Using contemporary science, the most minute trace of body evidence can be converted in the lab to markers that give smug killers, who don’t know DNA from DMV, the shock of their lives when the cuffs snap shut.
Going through the Roscoe evidence, Conrad found two glittering jewels. One was the camouflage cap found in Helen’s car; the other was her fingernail clippings with tissue underneath. He knew that either might point to the killer if testable DNA could be found.
He had the cap tested in 2003, and it captured DNA from the sweatband. Much later (the delay was due to an evidence-room mix-up) test results on the fingernail clippings showed DNA from both Helen and the same man who wore the cap. It was proof that Helen had scratched her attacker in the struggle and that the owner of the cap was the killer.
The killer was pinpointed by his DNA. Now, it was just a matter of finding the guy who would be a match. Surely, the man who stabbed Helen to death would have committed other crimes. And such a man would have an arrest record, probably many of them, and his DNA would be on file.
Not so fast.
In 1998, the FBI created a nationwide DNA data bank of criminals called CODIS or Combined DNA Index System. However, states differed on rules of participation because of civil liberties concerns. In California, only certain heinous convictions were initially included, such as homicide and rape. In this state, it wasn’t until 2004 that every felon was DNA-typed, and not until 2009 that all felony arrestees were included.
Conrad’s main concern were those blacked-out years between the killing in 1989 and the CODIS creation in 1998. In that period, when the database did not exist, no DNA match would be possible.
In 2003, Conrad submitted the completed DNA profile to CODIS for a nationwide search, which remains permanently active. If our man had his DNA on file anywhere, the computer would pop it out.
Conrad’s frustration rose like mercury in a sauna thermometer. He really wanted this one. But no matter how the detective mumbled at the gods, the answer remained that immutable nothing.
There was, however, something else he could try. In 2011, he asked CODIS to run a “familial DNA” search on the samples. That procedure is a wider-net exploration of the database for related DNA. The objective is to find a relative with a criminal record who is in CODIS, hoping that the connection will lead police to the killer. A really good idea, but …
Where can Conrad go from here? He can only keep plugging and hope for the wisp of a lead. There’s always the chance of a surprise phone call with a tip, a guilty conscience that’s become too heavy or a drunk opening his mouth too wide in a bar. The Helen Roscoe file will never close.
Because you never know.
After 26 years, there’s a good chance Helen’s killer is himself dead. By police guesstimates, he’d be in his 50s now, a likely drug addict. That type of violent criminal has the life expectancy of about the 12th century. We can hope he stayed out of the gene pool. Certainly, his demise would elevate the quality of the human race.
Any man who would stab a woman to death for scratching him while defending her property is a botched-birth freak balancing on a very thin rail.
In the unlikely event Helen’s killer reads this story, I will tell him something about her, just so he knows: Helen Roscoe went to work every day and nursed old and infirm people in a most humble way. She raised two worthwhile children in great hardship. She took little and gave a lot.
The only defense she could muster against the despair of her poverty was pride in being strong in the face of it, and holding fast to her dignity. It was not only for the few dollars in her purse that she fought you, but the resolve that: No! I can’t defend against life, but I can against you.
Life was mean to Helen. And then you killed her.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]