top of page

The Relentless Reach of Laura Heilig

Thanks to a dogged San Diego detective and DNA science, a killer faces a jury 15 years after a gruesome sex homicide.

Copyright Los Angeles Times


VISTA, Calif. — Late in January, as the small audience in this courtroom north of San Diego awaits the judge's entry, all eyes seek out the defendant's table, then turn away, but always turn back. It is where David Paul Frediani sits, accused of a murder that few even remember. His gaze is fixed straight ahead, seemingly locked on the state seal above the judge's empty bench. Surely, one thinks, he knows that everyone sitting behind him is staring at the back of his head.

He is tall and sinewy, a swarthy man of 46 who looks younger, with a physique even younger yet. He is an MBA who served as a financial analyst with Pacific Bell in San Francisco at the time of his arrest. In a different setting he might be considered handsome, but here he looks hard and mean, the type of man who always wins a staredown. Longtime acquaintances know little about him, but one thing is said time and again--he has problems with women.

Little notice is taken of someone nearby, a person easily overlooked and unbothered by it. She is a grandmother and a country woman whose clothes probably come from discount stores so she can save for new furniture. Her words are soft and plain. Having struggled up from the lower middle class, she is not frightened by vulnerability. She's small, not much over 5 feet, with a blond pony tail, and she's not afraid to cry.

Even so, you don't want her tracking you. She is Laura Heilig, a 50-year-old homicide detective for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. This is her case, and because she sits here, so does Frediani. She is the one who arrested him more than a year ago.

As the lead detective, Heilig sits next to the prosecutor, facing the same direction as Frediani. At the moment, the lawyers are elsewhere, so only the two of them are at the pushed-together tables, about 8 feet apart. While waiting for court to begin, she busies herself with small tasks while he just sits there.

They do not look at each other. However, she thinks of him constantly, because she is convinced that 16 years ago he broke into a woman's home and sexually molested her, and then returned a year later and murdered her to remove the threat of her testimony at his trial. The victim was a stranger. Her name was Helena Greenwood, a 35-year-old PhD biochemist who had emigrated from Britain. She was a tall, willowy woman whose friends say would thoughtlessly throw on designer clothes like items from a thrift shop.

As a leader in the exciting new field of medical DNA, she had more important things on her mind. Heilig knows the details. She has lived with them for many months. . . . On the morning of Aug. 22, 1985, after Greenwood's husband had left for work, the young scientist finished a final phone call, gathered up her work papers and, as the clock neared 9 a.m., started for the office. In the dense shrubbery outside, or perhaps hidden in the shadows of the high fence that surrounded the Del Mar house, a killer waited.

Alerted in the early afternoon by Helena's absence from work, her husband, Roger, drove home to check on her. After parking, he approached the solid-panel gate and pushed to gain entry. It wouldn't budge. He went off to the side to peer over to see what the obstruction was. He saw. It was Helena's body lying on her back at the base of the gate in the flaccid stillness of death. Homicide detectives investigated, but searching the scene proved fruitless.

The autopsy showed she had been strangled. Blood had flowed from scalp lacerations and was on her clothes and at the scene. She had fought hard. There were minute traces of blood under her torn fingernails, which the medical examiners scraped and clipped. Everything was saved and put in evidence containers. Police were certain--absolutely certain--who the killer was: her accused sex attacker, David Paul Frediani. However, though his alibi was weak, there was no evidence to tie him to the murder.

Months later, Frediani went on trial for the sex attack. Even though Helena was gone, a fingerprint he had left in her bedroom was enough to force him to plead no contest and serve three years in prison. After his release, he went back to his life in the Bay Area as a loner with few friends. He had been a prime suspect in other sex attacks before he went to prison but had no arrests following his release. Over time, the murder file was routinely moved into archives, where it reposed along with 300 other unsolved homicides. Police gradually assumed--grudgingly--that Frediani was just another one to get away with murder. To those who knew the victim, grief slowly receded and life moved on. Remembrance of Helena took on the dull coloration of the long dead.

Since 1992, Heilig has been assigned to the homicide archives department, where she is on a team of four who look for justice beyond the cobwebs that time leaves behind. Her job involves going through old files and looking for cases that might be resurrected and--who knows?--even solved. The Greenwood file had become one of them.

In archives, 300 human tragedies dating back to 1930 occupy shelves in silent indictment of this life and how it was taken from them. They are once-upon-a-time people who smile out of faded snapshots that lie atop yellowed reports that were obviously wrong or insufficient. Often, the detectives are the only people remaining who care about these victims, or even know they were ever on this Earth. The work they do is typically not dangerous, strenuous or fascinating. It's reading files. Then reading them again. And a third time.

With some of the later cases, witnesses are still alive and the puzzles are fresher. Heilig, for example, is currently working files that range from a 1976 case of two 12-year-old boys from the same school who were killed three months apart, to the 1989 rape-murder of an elderly woman who was stabbed to death with a screwdriver. This is work that needs to be left at the office.

A Devastating Forensic Case

The trial settles into the metronome of the prosecutor's persistent questioning. She is Valerie Summers, an organized, matter-of-fact woman whose evidence presses the breath out of Frediani's defense like the weight of stones. DNA experts place Frediani's blood at the scene to the statistical exclusion of anyone else in 2.3 quadrillion (23 zeros) people, which means that no one on Earth but Frediani could possibly match that blood.

Summers guides a crime-scene expert through a demonstration of how the murder unfolded, of how Helena was grabbed by the throat and steadily choked--for three to five minutes--until her brain shut down and her body died. The expert, Rod Englert of Portland, Ore., dramatically reconstructs how desperately she fought for her life and managed to claw at him and get his blood under her nails and even on her clothing. He says that strangulation is the most intimate method of murder. It allows hate to flow through the fingers into the struggling body of the victim. Then, as though rage were not enough, he points to the photo of Helena lying dead and says that she did not fall into that flat position. She was posed. And then the killer took his bloody, gloved hands and placed them on her ankles and opened her legs as a parting insult. He pauses, and the courtroom silence seems to scream.

The time comes for Heilig to take the stand. She is led through her investigation, step by step. When asked to identify the man she arrested, she looks directly at Frediani. "That man, sitting on the end." He glares at her. Her testimony sounds routine because it is smothered in facts and dates and procedures carefully recited. There is far more in her head than she is asked to tell the jury.

It wasn't long into the new job before Heilig opened the Greenwood file; she well remembers the day she removed the color photo of the tall, slim woman lying in the dirt and stared at it. Her face is twisted to the side. Her half-opened eyes are without focus. The little things from her purse that tie us to the world--keys, coins, lipstick--lay strewn around her. Work papers with her blood on them have been scattered by the breeze. Near her head is a small carton of yogurt and a plastic spoon--lunch. She has been thrown away, discarded.

Heilig gradually became acquainted with the victim, who was her own age, a woman who had achieved what girls of their generation were often led to believe was out of reach. She became good friends with Helena's memory and thought of the sad reality of her dying savagely as a stranger in a foreign land. There had been little time to make friends, and after her widower died of cancer in 1999, no one in the world remained to mourn the dead woman except an elderly father in England.

In 1998, mindful of the steady advances that DNA science had made in criminal forensics, she and her teammates slowly started going through old cases that included blood evidence that might be tested. She remembered the Greenwood case. Working with her teammates and criminalist Mary Buglio, she sent the fingernails that had been ripped from Helena's struggling hands to a DNA lab in Northern California. Month after month passed with no results because archives cases were constantly pushed to the bottom of the priority list by current cases.

The delay may have been fortuitous, however, because at about the same time DNA science made a huge leap forward, resulting in a process called STR that allows more "markers" to emerge from evidence and thus gives a more definitive reading. If the evidence had been tested even a year sooner, it might have rendered insufficient results and would also have destroyed the blood particles. End result: Frediani might never have been identified.

Finally, the laboratory reported back that the evidence showed a second person's blood in addition to Helena's. Next, Heilig and Buglio requested a testing of Frediani's blood sample that the state had on file by virtue of him being a sex felon. It confirmed that it was Frediani's blood that had been left under Helena's fingernails.

Heilig remembers the day: "Mary came down with a big grin on her face carrying the lab results. She shouted, 'It's a match!' and we hugged and danced around like kids."

That Frediani was identified because of DNA, the science Helena's career was devoted to advancing, is an ugly irony. No one says "poetic justice," because there's no poetry in it, and justice can't restore her life.

On Dec. 15, 1999, in the early morning, Heilig and a group of backup police staked out a parked Lexus. They were in Burlingame, in the Bay Area, waiting for David Paul Frediani. When he casually approached his car to go to work, she walked up with handcuffs at the ready. "You are under arrest for the murder of Helena Greenwood."

"All color left his face," she said later in an interview. "He went pale white. He didn't say a word, just stared straight ahead."

The Accused Takes the Stand

Defense attorney David Bartick, an able lawyer by reputation, stands before a stonewall of evidence and gropes for cracks. He tries to counter the DNA experts with one of his own whose credentials pale beside those of the prosecution's. He tries to challenge the kit used in the tests. But when Summers draws out of the defense expert that the kit is widely accepted nationwide, including by the FBI, the argument is deflated. Bartick raises questions about mysterious witnesses and implies mishandled evidence. None of it seems to work. At one point, a journalist turns to a colleague and silently mouths, "O.J. won't work here." Later, an uninvolved defense lawyer described how his kind cope when confronting an apparent slam-dunk case. "You just tell yourself it's a long, drawn-out guilty plea," he said with a wan smile.

Toward the end, Bartick tries what has to be a desperation play. He calls the accused to the stand. Frediani cannot shed the imperiousness embedded in his personality. He had always maintained his innocence of the 1984 sexual attack and said he pleaded no contest just to get it over with. Now, Summers has the right to show that his motive for the murder was in trying to cover up that crime. She bores in with relish. This is personal. Her voice and body language intensify. She pounds Frediani with questions and backs him into a corner about that denial. "That wasn't true, was it?" Frediani is nervous and stammers slightly. "For purposes of these proceedings, I accept responsibility [for the sex attack]. What do you want from me?" he said, turning to the jury as he speaks.

She is 15 feet distant, but he knows she is right in his face. "I want the truth," she demands. "The truth is, you forced Dr. Helena Greenwood to orally copulate you. Isn't that true?" He has nowhere to go. His shoulders seem to sag. "Yes, that's true," he admits for the first time.

Later, Heilig said, "I cried, right there at the table, when he finally admitted that." In her closing argument, Summers points to Frediani and says to the jury, "That man came down and killed her, and as she lay there, you know what he did. He took his hands--the hands that had her life blood mixed with his guilty, vile blood--and he put them around her ankles . . . and he spread her legs as a final insult."

Late Monday afternoon, just over a week ago, the eight women and four men of the jury return with a verdict. Although one woman has slightly red eyes, the others are quiet, but not remorseful. Two men are smiling. As the clerk prepares to read the verdict, Frediani crosses his right leg over his knee and tries to appear unaffected. Only a frequent wetting of his lips reveals otherwise.

A Painful Kind of Closure

The verdict is what everyone knows is coming, but it still resounds in the quiet courtroom: "Guilty of murder in the first degree." The only sign of emotion is when Frediani's father closes his eyes and bows his head. His wife gently puts her hand on his leg. The old man's son is without expression. He must have known it was coming.

Early the next morning in homicide headquarters in San Diego, detectives walk into Heilig's desk area with coffee cups and big grins. Their hearty hugs, handshakes and praise reveal her popularity and the pride they take in her success.

"I guess it's time to go call Sydney," she says, referring to Helena's 88-year-old artist father, whose breaths can almost be counted, so close to death is he from cancer. He has told more than one person he wanted to live long enough to see justice done. One of Heilig's partners, Curt Goldberg, pulls a tissue from a box, hesitates, then pulls another. "You'll need these," he jokes kindly.

In a small room, Heilig calls the lengthy international number, waits, then speaks to the neighbor who is taking care of Helena's father. "How's Mr. Greenwood doing?. . . Oh, really?" Her voice drops. "I'm sorry. . . ." She is told that he is asleep, that he can no longer talk but seems to understand words spoken to him. Heilig asks that he be told that Helena's murderer "will never, ever get out of prison." She listens again, then says, "I personally believe God has allowed Mr. Greenwood to live this long so he would know of this." She provides details for a few minutes, then ends by saying, "Please tell him he is in my prayers."

David Paul Frediani will never give us the satisfaction of figuring him out. Inscrutability is his protection, and perhaps his revenge. All we really know from his past is that women are his chosen enemy. He even murdered one. But after he is sentenced in March and told he will never be free again, he will have many days to sit and think of the people who put him there--Mary Buglio, Valerie Summers, Laura Heilig and, yes, the one who marked him forever by fighting for her life, Helena Greenwood.

Eleven hours after Laura Heilig made her call, Sydney Greenwood died.

Recent Photos of Fred, Family and Friends

bottom of page