Chuck Gaylor, the investigator of cold-case murders for the Escondido Police Department, leafs through a long box of files and hands me a well-thumbed one. Its label reads, “FINNEY, RICHARD.”
“Most victims are in the criminal life themselves, but this man was an innocent victim,” Gaylor says.
Gaylor, 58, was a fixture of the Escondido PD for 36 years, serving many of those years in homicide and finally retiring as a detective sergeant. In 2007, he took over cold cases as a part-timer. He was an obvious choice because he had no intention of filling a recliner or going fishing, and as a longtime homicide investigator, he knew the territory. He currently has 52 cases, and five have been resolved in the past six years.
I put the Finney file aside for the moment and ask how he works a case.
“In Escondido, we mainly have murders of people engaged in dangerous lifestyles: gangs and drugs. The unsolved murders we have are mainly of these people. If it’s a domestic-type murder, those are usually resolved, and quickly.
“In most of our cases, witnesses are often people who won’t come forward or are not inclined to cooperate. The longer a case is unsolved, the less likely it gets solved. In the hours after a murder, if the police can get to them quickly, the perpetrator is more likely to confess. But if they elude detection for 15 years, they’ll likely say, ‘Well, they haven’t got me in 15 years, so I’m going to continue to lie.’ ”
Describe a typical murderer.
“Most people who kill others are not like you and me. What’s made them like that? Who knows? But they don’t see things the same way 98 percent of society sees things. There are people out there who would kill you without blinking.”
Do you feel revulsion when you deal with them?
“Yeah, but I want to get at the truth, and if this person sitting across from me murdered somebody, I want to get as much out of him or her as I can. If he wants to think of me as his best friend, fine. Talk to me, buddy.”
How do you proceed?
“I first study all the evidence, then talk to witnesses. The last person I want to talk to is the suspect. Because when I talk to that suspect, I want to already know everything I can about the case. When I confront him, the first time I say something that he knows isn’t true, I’ve lost my credibility. He thinks I’m fishing, that I don’t know anything, and it’s tougher to get his cooperation. He’s sitting there trying to figure out what I know, and I’m doing the same to him.”
Now, about Richard Finney.
Gaylor doesn’t need the file. “Before Nov. 13, 1986, Mr. Finney, age 75, was retired and living quietly alone in a low-rent apartment on east Mission Avenue, an area of frequent crime then and now. He was not an alcoholic or street person. A social worker came to his apartment on that morning and found him murdered. The scene was horrible. He was on the floor and had been stabbed 31 times. This man didn’t bother anyone. He had had a stroke and was just trying to live out his life in peace. Another elderly person victimized.”
Finney was said to have a feisty temperament, so Gaylor guesses he fought back or said something to enrage the attacker, which might explain the fury of the attack. That or the frenzy of a psycho.
Gaylor relates the familiar details: Finney kept his door unlocked, so there was no break-in. He had been warned about his lack of security, but he wanted to be reachable in the event of a second stroke.
Two kitchen knives were used; the first had been bent sideways, and a second had been grabbed to finish the job. Gaylor says that’s a common thing, because kitchen knives are made for slicing, not stabbing, and often break when used for murder.
A cash box was broken into and emptied of $300. Strangely, trivial items such as a bathrobe, bars of soap, a mustache trimmer and a boom box were taken. Investigators immediately surmised that the killer was a drug addict or an alcoholic living on the street to whom such items would seem to have value.
One person in the building heard something that sounded like a struggle. “But, you know, it’s apartment living, and domestic disturbances, loud arguments and maybe dish-throwing are not uncommon, and not events worth calling 911 for,” Gaylor says.
It’s a macabre point, but 31 stab wounds is a factor that aids investigators. Stabbing a human to death is difficult work, Gaylor explains. Not only is a struggle likely, but the knife will meet resistance from bone and sinew, and the hand will slide around in the blood, and small cuts to the murderer are almost predictable, and often provide what investigators hope for: the blood of the perpetrator. The investigation also revealed that defensive wounds proved Finney put up a fight.
Sure enough, there was a bloody handprint on the apartment wall, but analysis at the time revealed only A-positive blood, which was Finney’s type. That blood type is shared by about one-third of the public, so it did not preclude the possibility that the perpetrator’s blood was mixed in. But given the technology of 1986, the blood evidence became a dead end.
The impression on the wallboard did not render clear fingerprints, but the palm print was readable. However, that type of print was not in a database in 1986.
Though police thought they had zeroed in on the type of person who killed Finney, and scoured the area for witnesses and suspects, the case went nowhere. Officers gathered a list of persons of interest and hunches, but that was all. The cutout section of wallboard was a teasing reminder of futility and was eventually put into evidence storage.
When Gaylor took over the case in 2007, he ran the palm print through the state Department of Justice’s database that had included palm prints beginning in 2003. Nothing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation couldn’t help because it had no such database.
Gaylor then ordered DNA analysis of the wallboard blood. The report came back with two profiles; one was Finney’s and the other unknown — the killer’s.
Now we’re getting somewhere, he thought.
He ran the unknown profile through the national DNA database. No hits.
That knitted his brow, because usually a killer runs afoul of the law for other crimes. But not this time, at least not that he had yet found.
He was left with a box with 75 names of the people gathered during the original investigation.
That’s where what used to be called shoe-leather work comes in. Now it’s mainly keyboard and telephone work. Each of those people had to be tracked down and checked out, whether dead or alive, and DNA samples gathered.
This is work that would have the average person throwing the file out the window in frustration or boredom after about one day. But Gaylor soldiers on.
Thus far, he’s gone through three-quarters of the names with no luck. But he knows — and this stokes his fire — that the murderer of Richard Finney might be the last name in that file, just waiting to be found.
The case remains unsolved, but whoever killed Finney, if he’s still alive, would be well advised to keep looking over his shoulder.
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@example.com