It’s 5:35 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 1989. Helen Roscoe has just driven her son, Steve, to work at Jack in the Box in Spring Valley. Steve is 26 and lives with his mother. Though born with one arm, he holds down a manager’s job. Helen is wearing blue sweats and sneakers, the way a woman “throws on something” for a brief drop-off drive.
Steve says to his mother, “Drive careful. I’ll see you tonight. We’ll go out to dinner.” She says, “OK, that sounds good.” She then turns her clunky 1970 Ford Fairlane around and heads back to Chula Vista.
In 15 minutes, Helen Roscoe will be murdered.
Helen’s own work shift starts at 7 a.m., so she drives straight home to her apartment at 552 D St., arriving around 5:50 a.m. when it’s still dark and traffic is seldom. She pulls her car into a parking place on the street. She removes her keys, grabs her brown purse and starts to open the car door ...
Helen Roscoe, 52, is a good worker doing the hard job of nurse’s aide at Fredericka Manor, an assisted-living facility in Chula Vista where she has worked for 14 years. She is friendly but mostly keeps to herself. The aged and disabled residents who depend on her are well-served. She is 5-foot-2 and barely weighs 100 pounds. However, she moves large, inert bodies and empties bed pans without complaint for a take-home barely above minimum wage.
We see people like Helen around us all the time — or, we don’t see them. They do the pittance-pay jobs we often take for granted, not thinking that their efficiency and courtesy demand more character than a CEO who talks to people without seeing them.
She is a native of Rome, N.Y., and a divorcee of many years who is devoted to her grown children — Steve and a daughter, also named Helen, and four grandchildren. Helen pays her bills and obeys the law.
Sometime after 6 a.m., the apartment manager walks by the big old blue Ford and glances inside. She notices “some blankets” in the front seat and continues on.
Returning at 8 a.m., however, she looks a little closer, and this time doesn’t see blankets. She sees Helen.
The call from dispatch goes to John Stewart, a homicide detective at the Chula Vista Police Department. Together with Sgt. Richard Strickland, he is at the scene in less than 10 minutes.
John approaches the car and carefully opens the driver-side door. In front of him, he sees “A small woman slumped over on the passenger side floorboard with her legs on the driver side, stabbed multiple times in the upper torso, a lot of blood underneath her, car keys in her left hand.”
The image of that murdered woman lying on the floorboards is still vivid to John 26 years later. He can still recite details of the case — the interviews, the suspects and his frustrations.
John is now 70 and retired for 12 years. But it’s obvious that his mind never turned in the badge. His workouts with weights still show in strong arms, a barrel chest and flat stomach. You shake hands with a macho cop, but that’s on the surface. You soon learn there’s a soft side to the guy, because he still cares about the evil done to Helen Roscoe.
Daughter Helen, now 60 and living in Nevada, recalls her mother as a woman who had to fight her entire life, starting with being raised on the poor side of town. The elder Helen lost her mother when she was a girl. Worse, she was alienated from her alcoholic father.
She looked for a way to escape. However, she didn’t have anywhere to go, so she dropped out of school and married very young. The marriage lasted only a few years and left her with two children.
She worked in a factory for awhile, but Helen always wanted to be a registered nurse. When she realized that ambition was out of reach, she closeted her pride and became a nurse’s aide.
Her daughter remembers, “She wanted to be a nurse so bad. In those days, nurse’s aides got to wear a cap, and she was so proud to put that cap on.
“We lived on the wrong side of the tracks, but only two houses from the tracks. We were dirt poor,” her daughter says with a chuckle about life in New York. It’s funnier now than it seemed back then.
Helen moved to California in 1974 to provide child care for her unmarried daughter, who had joined the Navy. There was no going back to New York. She soon took a job at Fredericka Manor as a nurse’s aide and worked there for 14 years — the rest of her life.
John surmises that as soon as Helen parked, a man came up, waved a knife while she was trapped in the car and demanded her purse. Instead of handing it over, Helen likely fought back. Her assailant stabbed her six times in the upper torso. As she fell back, dying, he grabbed the purse and ran. That’s what John thinks happened.
Why might Helen have resisted to protect what her son said could only have been a few dollars? Both her kids say Helen was a fighter; “a spitfire,” her daughter calls her. Helen had been kicked around enough in life that she was reflexively going to protect what was hers. Her act was not rational in a normal sense, but she worked a lot harder than most for her small wages, and damned if some mugger was going to take it away. There had to be life’s anger rising to the surface.
Son Steve, now 52 and living in New York, says that one time his mother saw a man stealing the battery out of her car. She chased the man down and recovered her property.
A dog will fight as hard for a bone as for a steak. And a human being might for a few dollars, if that’s all she has.
John says the D Street neighborhood was a nest of drug dealers and users, and he thinks it likely that her assailant was a meth addict.
“Back then, we had a lot of problems with drug users in that area,” he says. “There was also a homeless population. In general, we had a lot of calls for service down there concerning meth users, and violence that resulted from the use of it.
“Meth users stay awake day and night, so it makes sense one would be wandering the streets that early in the morning looking for something to steal to buy his next fix. This was a crime of opportunity.”
The crime made no sense from a rational criminal’s point of view, if that’s not an oxymoron. Helen was parked in front of her complex in an old car. Only a person with an addled brain, or desperate for just a few bucks, would consider that a score worth a long prison term.
I mean, if I can put a toe into the dark waters of the criminal mind, he should have been thinking: I want easy money, and this crazy little woman won’t let go of her purse. She’s fighting back and making a lot of noise. She’s irritating the hell out of me, so I’ll either punch her and jerk the purse away or turn and run before the lights and sirens arrive.
Forensics specialists went over the car for fingerprints, blood that wasn’t Helen’s type and hair or fiber evidence. They found nothing except a camouflage baseball cap on the floorboards with an unusual hunting scene on the front. The murder knife was not found. In the autopsy, particles of tissue were found under Helen’s fingernails, which were clipped and saved.
There were no crimes in the county with an M.O. similar enough to be linked to Helen’s killing.
John’s team canvassed the area and shook out the nests of addicts and hangers-on, interviewing more than 80. No witnesses or suspects were found.
Independent of Helen’s investigation, patrol had answered a call on a disturbance in that same neighborhood and on the same afternoon as the killing. Hauled into the station were a group of three meth heads who had blown in from Phoenix and were suspected of running check scams and I.D. frauds around town. The three were a woman, Tanya, and two men named Simmons and Heckman. All three names were aliases.
When investigators learned the three were planning on leaving town the next day, they immediately became persons of strong interest. Over the next months, Tanya led police in circles with her squirrelly thinking as only a drug addict can do. She first tried to implicate Simmons, then Heckman. Both men were eventually cleared, but time was lost.
Police tracked the hunting cap from manufacturer to local retailers, but despite some hopeful tips, nothing came of it.
Homicide investigators will tell you that two main things make their job tough — the passage of time and the lack of motive.
In the Helen Roscoe case, each day of fruitless street interviews meant the perpetrator could be farther away. For all they knew, the killer had gone straight from the crime scene to the trolley, then to the Greyhound bus station, and could be on the East Coast scoring dope while they were still canvassing D Street.
Lack of motive is the other conundrum. If there’s a discernible incentive, it’s easier to figure out who stands to benefit from a murder. However, a purse with maybe $5 in it is not a motive that makes any sense.
John says the life of the victim is always looked at closely in search of a reason or motive. But in Helen’s case, there was nothing. She was who she appeared to be.
Weeks grew like weeds into months, and nothing was learned, and nothing happened. Gradually, the Roscoe case became back-burnered as other murders and crimes made clamorous demands on department resources. John had to move on.
Helen Roscoe became a cold case.
•Tuesday, Part II: The investigation of Helen Roscoe’s murder goes hi-tech.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org