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A Message From The Grave

Fifteen Years After DNA Scientist Helena Greenwood Was Murdered in Del Mar, the Science She Helped Advance May Have Snared Her Killer

 © 2001 By Fred Dickey

    Los Angeles Times Magazine

   Fred Dickey is a writer who lives in Cardiff by the Sea. His last article for the magazine was about Indian gaming in California.

      Headed south toward the English Channel, the industrial hard-scrabble of England begins to fade at Winchester. Passing Southampton, workaday gray gives way in winterís old-gold sun to the mossy browns and greens of Hampshire's New Forest. Deftly placed among its tufted heaths and spreading trees are well-groomed towns that border the long waterway that moved RMS Titanic and 10,000 other ships down to the sea from Southampton's docks.

   Appealing though the view from the train is, tourism is not my purpose. I am here about murder.

   My destination is Lymington, which faces the Isle of Wight, just across a narrow channel. It is there that an old man awaits me. I'm told that he also awaits his end, a victim of cancer and grief. The weight of this mission fogs the scenery before me.

    On Aug. 22, 1985, this stricken man's daughter, an esteemed 35-year-old British-born DNA scientist named Dr. Helena M. Greenwood, was found strangled to death in the front yard of her Del Mar, Calif. home. The crime happened on a Thursday morning as she left for work. The absence of evidence mocked investigators, though they believed they knew the killer's identity.

   For 14 years the mystery remained, her murderer beyond the reach of justice. Yet over those years, the science Helena Greenwood helped advance continued to progress, one breakthrough at a time. Now, it may be her means of speaking from deathís silence to point out her killer. On Dec. 15, 1999, a man named David Paul Frediani was arrested for her murder. He was the same man convicted of breaking into her home, then near Palo Alto, the year before the murder and sexually attacking her. The evidence against him is based on the cumulative advances in DNA research over the last dozen years. Irony is sometimes our friend.

   I am in England to trace Helena to her roots. She was born here in 1949, the only child of the achieving Greenwoods: Marguerite, a geologist, and Sydney, who became head of the Southampton College of Art and went on to attain the title of "Fellow, Royal Society of Art," a very big deal.


      I pay the taxi driver one unfamiliar coin at a time and glance curiously at the solid brick house. They told me that 87-year-old Sydney was dying of cancer and playing tag with reality. I'm a little nervous. It's tough enough to build a quick bridge to living strangers, but to interrupt a man who is busy dying seems awkward, even rude.

    The door opens to a man stooped and slow, but with clear blue eyes that size me up in return. A few words of warm greeting say that Sydney Greenwood isnít about to quit anything: painting[working], mourning, or life. I ask how he is feeling. He answers that his prostate cancer is under control and he ís painting again. He tries to prove it with a shaky, shuffling vaudeville dance step that says the legs are gone, but the mind is still in the game.

    Sydney, now puffing deeply but evenly, shows me to his living room and talks and talks. "That prime minister of yours,?" he says, serving coffee and biscuits, "I rather like him. Let the man have his occasional tart. He seems to think it's good for him."

    I ask about his art, I remark on his charming community, then, "May I ask about Helena, Sydney?"

    He rocks thoughtfully in his chair, as though her memory lives in a separate place he has to travel to. "She was a wonderful girl," he says, finally. "She was a happy, well behaved child. She had so much to look forward to. Had done so much already..."

    He looks at ]one of his sketches atop a pile. I follow his glance. It is of a waif dressed in her mother's clothes which drag the ground, and feet in oversize adult shoes. Then he continues. "I thought, "Why would anyone hurt my girl?" I have never understood it. I'm glad her mother wasn't here to endure that."

    "Pardon me?"

    "Marguerite died a few weeks before Helena. Leukemia. There's no one left." I stare at him but he doesn't notice. He looks straight ahead into what only he can see.

    I am well-schooled in the journalistic art of skepticism, but I sit earnestly and learn about a remarkable woman. On a bookcase shelf, two Ph.D. dissertations are proudly placed side by side, one for mother, one for daughter. Helena earned that doctorate in chemical pathology from the University of London at the amazing age of 26. Prof. John Landon who supervised Helena's Ph.D. program, recalls that she "was in the top 10% of scientists, definitely. Determined and focused." Her name became known by authorship of articles in professional journals bearing such intimidating titles as, "The measurement of urinary digoxin and dihydrodigoxin by radioimmunoassay and by mass spectroscopy."

   She quickly became attracted to the energized climate of biotech in the late '70s and early '80s. It was a gold-rush time of new science, new applications, loads of money to be spent and made. In its limited sphere, it was the equivalent of our current "dotcom" frenzy. Technology breakthroughs took a few brilliant scientists such as Helena off the laboratory bench and thrust them into that wildcat canyon of multimillion dollar deals. It made it possible for scientists like Helena to use entrepreneurial skills to ascend business heights.

   Soon, Helena and her husband, Roger Franklin, a gentle land planner and architect whom she had known since teenage years, made the jump to California. She joined a firm named Syva Company in Palo Alto that was doing battle with giant Abbott Corporation for the medical diagnostics business. Helena quickly rose to director of international marketing.

    Helena and Roger were inseparable when off work, whether sailing far out to sea or puttering together in the English-style garden of their small starter home. Though they were childless, Sydney says he believes Helena planned to have a family when her life settled down. "Phone, travel, phone, travel, that was her life," said a subordinate of those years, Denise Apcar, now a biotech communications consultant in Foster City. "She was on the go all the time, consulting with scientists and physicians all over the world, trying to find out what was needed and what she could provide in diagnostics. She was just a superlative networker."

    Her success was not free. Helena developed a reputation for being demanding and hard to work for. Apcar attributed the reputation to a combination of youthful impatience, British mannerisms and simply not having learned to be a manager yet. Sydney chuckles at hearing of his daughter the taskmaster. "She got that from me," he said. "A poor effort from any student of mine did not go unremarked upon."

    At Syva, Helena worked a near miracle, said Sam Morishima, a Sacramento scientist who was on Helena's staff. "Abbott was beating our brains out in the domestic market. Because of that, we should have had to lay off 200 people, but Helena's incredible performance in the international market saved us. To this day, when I'm faced with a tough problem, I often ask myself, 'What would Helena have done?'"


    It was a Saturday night, April 7, 1984, and Roger was in Washington, D.C. on business. Helena retired to the single bedroom of their cottage in upscale Atherton at 10:20 p.m. and read herself to sleep. About an hour later, she was awakened by a tall man moving through the shadows of her bedroom. His face was obscured by a sweatshirt hood pulled tight, leaving only his eyes uncovered. In his left hand was a gun, in his right, a flashlight. Helena said she sat up in bed and wound the bedclothes tightly around her. It did no good. The man first demanded money, then demanded more.

    Helena said she pushed him back and said, "No! I can't go through with this. I don't want to do this." According to her testimony, it availed her nothing.

    Afterwards, Helena called the police and then called a friend, Tom Christopher, who drove her to the hospital, and then to his family's home in Oakalnd where she stayed the night. The next afternoon he drove her back to her house to collect clothes because she refused to spend another night there. While waiting for her, Christopher wandered onto the deck beneath the kitchen window that was the means of the break-in. He noticed a tea pot lying on the ground. Alertly, he called Helena. She told him the pot belonged on the window sill. Christopher called the police, who were able to lift a single usable fingerprint off the lip of the pot.

     Atherton Capt. Steve Chaput was a detective at the time and in charge of the investigation. No arrest was made immediately because they had no match for the fingerprint, but 10 months later, Chaputís attention was called to a report from nearby Belmont. It said a man had been caught masturbating in front of the bedroom window of a 13-year-old girl. The man's disguise was a hooded sweatshirt pulled up around his face. His name was David Paul Frediani.

    Chaput and Belmont officer Joe Farmer brought Frediani to the station. Chaput remembers, "We got around to just sort of casually asking him about the Greenwood case. He sparred with us and claimed he didnít know anything about it. Then, I hit him with it, sudden like: 'We've got your fingerprints.' It was like I had slugged him. He started frantically gabbing that he had done all those things when he drunk, and he didnít know what he was doing. Then, suddenly, he stopped, like he knew he should shut up."

    Frediani pleaded innocent in the Greenwood case to forcible oral copulation, burglary, and the use of a gun to commit a felony. In May 1985, Helena testified at his preliminary hearing. She noted similarities between Frediani, who was a stranger, and her assailant, but she couldnít make a positive identification. 

   What prosecutor's possessed, though, was the fingerprint, and a serology analysis from sperm left on the pillowcase that narrowed the blood down to that shared by one of every seven men in the days before DNA evidence, this was as good as it got. The stage was set for the trial, scheduled for September 1985.


         On the final day of my visit, I arrive to see Sydney silent and distraught. Sitting down, I notice a pile of newspaper clippings someone had sent him from California. I pick up one I had seen before. It refers to Helena as a victim of "sexual assault." Oh no, I thought. I had been told that Helena had told her dad that the break-in had been a burglary, nothing more.

   I turn to him. His face is twisted in hurt. "I knew nothing of sexual assault."

   "Sydney, Helena wanted to spare you that," I replied. "However, I can tell you, it wasn't rape."

   He buries his head in his hands. "Oh, my beautiful daughter. What have they done to you?" He slowly raises his head, reclines against the chair, and quietly dozes off.

   I sit across from him and listen to the ticking of the clock.


   In rare moments, some industries go through a breakthrough stage in which energy and effort are bunched into one dynamic thrust, when the whole world seems to step aside and say, "Your show."

   That was the atmosphere of diagnostic biotech two decades ago. A man in San Diego named David Kohne had developed technology by which DNA could be used to dramatically speed up the diagnosis of infectious diseases, in some cases from months to minutes. Kohne's inventions used DNA probes to replace traditional cultures. This meant that physicians could have accurate diagnoses in time to give prompt and precise treatment. 

   Kohne joined with science entrepreneurs Tom Adams and Howard Birndorf in a start-up company named Gen-Probe. Combined, they had the bucks, the technology and the energy. What they did not have was a respected scientist to convince physicians and their suppliers of the breakthrough value of what they offered. Adams, then CEO, remembered Helena from earlier business encounters as an articulate, stand-out scientist. He hired her as Gen-Probeís marketing vice president early in 1985.

   It was an exciting time. "She was an extremely bright scientist with a winning smile," Adams recalled. "She was a big factor in our company getting 10 of the first product approvals from the Food and Drug Administration using DNA probes." Were she alive today, Adams says. she'd be CEO of her own company." [Birndorf has no doubt she would be a multimillionaire.]

   Adams remembers one facet of Helena's life that was not so sanguine. When she made the move to San Diego, she declined the use of a ground-floor apartment the company intended to rent for her temporarily while Roger closed out affairs in the Bay Area. She moved in with a girlfriend. A short time later, she told Adams she had to go back up north to give court testimony. The whole story just poured out. She told him of the attack and how it had scarred her life and forced her into counseling. "I had the distinct impression she was really afraid of the guy, but she was determined to testify.''

   "She had character and courage," recalls Martin Murray, the San Mateo Co. assistant district attorney who prosecuted Frediani for the sexual assault. "Some women back down when they're faced with confronting the man who humiliated and terrorized them. But not her."


    The morning of Thursday, Aug. 22, 1985 was beautiful and fair as usual in Del Mar, where Helena and Roger had settled into a house. Roger left for his office in San Clemente about 8:30 and Helena prepared to leave for her own. At Gen-Probe, Morishima, who had followed Helena from Syva, waited for her expectantly because of a scheduled business conference.

   As the morning wore on, the staff grew concerned. Helena was the last person to be a no-show. Finally, Roger was called and he left work to go home and check. When he arrived, he discovered he couldn't open the jammed gate. Finally, he climbed the fence and dropped into the yard. There, he discovered that the gate was blocked by his wife's body. She was dressed for work and her office papers fluttered about in the afternoon's soft ocean breeze.

   For Gen-Probe employees, the day remains a painful etch. Executive Barry Epstein was conducting an interview. "I couldn't continue. It was like the day Kennedy was killed."

   The Del Mar house was ideal for such a crime. It was set back 100 feet from the street and surrounded by a high bamboo fence. Heavy shrubbery shrouded the most remote side, and in that direction was nothing for several hundred yards except weeds and railroad tracks. A perfect place to lie in wait.

   The autopsy verdict was strangulation, but the scene appeared clean of evidence. Who would want to kill Helena Greenwood? Only one name came to mind: David Paul Frediani. Steve Chaput, back in Atherton, said he was awakened in the middle of the night by a desk officer giving him the news. He remembers thinking: He got her.

    Officer Joe Farmer says he ran Frediani's name through DMV records and found that he had been in a bumper-bender near the Grapevine, north of Los Angeles, just seven days before the murder. Police immediately thought that Frediani, who still lived in the Bay Area, had been south casing Helena's movements and home. Chaput says Frediani was asked what he was doing near L.A. Frediani said he had been headed for Lake Tahoe and decided to take a trip south instead at the last minute. [Chaput remembers his reaction: Ha!]

   Fredianiís assault trial against Helena went off as scheduled in the fall of 1985. Helena's earlier testimony was admitted in the case. Frediani was found guilty but the verdict was set aside on appeal for technicalities unrelated to the evidence. He finally agreed to a plea bargain with a sentence of six years, of which he served three before returning to the Bay Area.

    As for the murder, the case was finally sent by the San Diego Co. Sheriffís Dept. to homicide archives, where it joined several file drawers filled with unsolved cases.

   Life and time created distance: Roger remarried, moved back to the Bay Area, then died of cancer in his early fifties last summer. Sydney grew old, alone and far away. Helena's friends didn't forget her, but life's ongoing demands pulled them away.

    Gen-Probe graduated to a corporate three-piece suit, far larger than the feisty start-up that Helena joined. The company mounted a plaque testifying to her memory, but as time passed, new employees, with ambitions of their own and little interest in ancient history, looked at it quizzically and walked on.

    The memory of Helena Greenwood, all the decent things she represented, all the brilliance of her career, all the courage it took for her to stand up and accuse her attacker, all of those things seemed destined to fade away under the accumulating dust of time.


    In any criminal investigation of exasperating length or complexity, detectives say there is often one among them who wakes up in the morning eager to keep going, who persists when others are ready to move on, who believes he or she hears the silent voice of the victim. Laura Heilig, petite, smiling and 40ish, looks like a junior high teacher primed to be the victim of unruly adolescents. She is not that. She is a sheriffís homicide detective assigned to the archives department, where she and her colleagues keep watch over 300 unsolved cases, some dating to the 1930s.

   Although prosecutors have forbade investigators from speaking before the trial, sources within the department say that it was Heilig who kept coming back to Helena's case. She knew that by some miracle or by damned good forensics and pathology the medical examiner and subsequent keepers of the file had preserved the minute scrapings from beneath Helena's fingernails of whatever had been lodged there as she clawed frantically at the man choking the life out of her.

   Heilig pushed for their DNA analysis and never lost faith that the new science would lead to the killer. Perhaps now it has.

   Dr. James O'Connell, vice president of science and technology of Nanogen, Inc. of San Diego is an expert on DNA-matching as a forensic tool. He explains that its use has grown steadily since a breakthrough in 1987, known as the PCR method, created a way to amplify a small sample of DNA, through duplication, until it is of useful size. For example, PCR makes it is possible to obtain a sufficient amount of DNA from the licking of an envelope. Hence, scrapings under a fingernail, as in the Greenwood case, could now provide a huge amount of DNA, O'Connell said. Prosecutors won't say why the county didn't rely on DNA in the case until recently. But O'Connell noted that while the technology has been around for over a decade, investigators and lawyers have begun using it with great confidence only in the last three years or four years.

    Chaput chuckles as he recalls the frequent calls from Heilig just before Frediani's December 1999 arrest. "She would call and say, 'Weíve almost got him. Just a couple of more tests to make sure.' Then, one day, she called and said, 'The DNA is there. We're coming with a warrant.'''

   Frediani still stirs strong feelings among police involved in the old assault case. Chaput, who first arrested him back in '84, remembers with relish that when San Diego Co. and San Mateo Co. cops arrested Frediani last December, "I sort of edged around to the front of him and looked him in the eye. I wanted my look to say, 'Remember me?' He just looked away; he had that same stare into the distance as the night we arrested him for assaulting Helena."


     No one rests easy behind bars, and in San Diego County's Vista jail, Frediani spends night after night knowing that prosecutors scoff at his innocent plea and are almost certainly planning the death penalty for him. When he attends court hearings, he sits shackled in a glass cage. His look is blank, distant and unsmiling.

   I spoke to Frediani's mother, who believes him to be an upstanding citizen; his ex-fiancÈ, who shudders at the sound of his name; colleagues and acquaintances who know him, pro and con. What they sketch is a 45-year-old reclusive bachelor, a competent college-educated accountant who last worked for Pacific Telephone in San Francisco as a financial analyst. He has two children whom he never sees. He lived a solitary life in a studio apartment in Burlingame and reported to Sgt. Brad Floyd of that city's police department once a year as a registered sex offender. Floyd doesn't have a feel for him. "He came in, answered the questions, then left. He revealed nothing."

   Frediani has a respected San Diego lawyer named David Bartick who will represent him well, probably for about $100,000, according to the estimate of another defense lawyer. How he will be paid is uncertain, for Frediani apparently doesn't have that kind of money.

   As the case proceeds, one question endures: If Frediani is the killer, what did he hope to accomplish? At the time of Helena's killing, her testimony was already a matter of record. It couldn't be altered, or barred from court. "He may have mistakenly thought there would be no trial without a live victim," said one veteran prosecutor. 

   At his preliminary hearing on the sex and burglary charges, Helena couldn't identify him with certainty. She came close, but his face had been concealed. "No way would that testimony convict him," said Kenneth F. Eichner, a defense specialist and former prosecutor who lives in Denver. "Without the fingerprint, he walks."

   So the motive? "Who knows," Eichner said. "The reasons why people do these things are a salad. It could have been a combination of stupid reasons."

   Frediani may have more exposure than he wants in the months to come. It is sufficient to say for now that he is a night-sneaking sex criminal. But is he also a murderer? We'll see.


      I am ready to return to London, but Sydney wants to show me where Helena's ashes are buried, just next to her mother's, outside Lymington. It is in the yard of the Boldre Church, a giant stone edifice, parts of which date back 1,000 years. The church is in the middle of horse country, and the meandering lane we drive along shares space with riders in traditional red coats and black boots trotting along on arrogant thoroughbreds. Many of the tombstones are unreadable, the centuries having obscured their memorials. As we stand in the January chill before the marker, Sydney recalls the day his daughter was buried here in front of hundreds, many from California.

    He is comfortable here. He has no where else to go.

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