Homicide, Chico

Two new deaths total seven unsolved murders in as many years

Photo illustration By Tina Flynn

New neighborhood watch
On Tuesday (July 28), CPD announced some good news: The city of Chico is receiving a $1.1 million federal grant from the COPS Hiring Recovery Program (CHRP). Awarded over three years, the grant will pay for four new police officers specifically assigned to staff a new neighborhood problem-solving team that will address chronic neighborhood problems and quality-of-life issues. The department expects to have the team on the streets by early 2010.

A photograph of a handsome young man with a chiseled jaw, bright eyes and a charming smile adorns a small wall near a door that leads from the quiet lobby of the Chico Police Department into the inner workings of the agency.

Most all police employees are familiar with Christopher Herrmann’s picture. It’s the centerpiece of a poster offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his killer, who for nearly six years has remained a mystery to police and the slain 22-year-old’s family.

Herrmann is one of CPD’s five “cold cases” dating back to 2002. His death has faded from the public’s consciousness over the years. These days, Chicoans are more concerned with the recent string of homicides that ended the lives of three men in three weeks. Suspects in one of the crimes—all shootings—are already being processed by the court system. But the other two cases are baffling, and illustrate well what investigators are dealing with when it comes to tracking down killers.

Police haven’t determined a motive in the death of Octavio Maria Nieves, who was killed inside of his Nord Avenue home last month. They found no evidence of a struggle and have only a generic description of a suspect—a Hispanic male with a shaved head. What investigators do know, and are able to say publicly, is that the 40-year-old freelance auto mechanic was shot to death as he lay on his living-room couch.

Perplexing for altogether different reasons is the murder of Ricardo Lara, who was gunned down in the wee hours of the morning while hanging out at a party at an unsanctioned south-campus fraternity house on May 31. Detectives are confident that the 28-year-old Butte College student, who had street-gang connections, was caught up in some kind of rivalry. Unbelievably, witnesses present at Delta Psi Delta’s Hazel Street house that night have given police little to go on.

“A lot of them were denying that they were even there,” said Sgt. Rob Merrifield, who has been with CPD since 1988 and supervises the detective bureau.

While there’s no indication that any of the members of the fraternity are gang members, Merrifield said police have responded several times to the house for gang-related activity, including arresting an armed gang member just weeks prior to the Lara shooting.

As a veteran with CPD, Merrifield has a long institutional memory. One of the department’s points of pride during his early years, he recalled, was having no unsolved murders. But a lot has changed.

Sitting in his small corner office during a recent interview, he ran through the department’s seven unsolved murders, starting with the oldest cold case of a young mother who was shot repeatedly by two masked assailants who kicked in the door to the apartment where she and her boyfriend were sleeping. Elizabeth Rebecca Lee died Sept. 5, 2002, and is the only woman among the victims. Police do not believe she was the intended target. Merrifield said the slaying appeared drug-related, and that the 22-year-old and her boyfriend, who was wounded but survived, were entrenched in the methamphetamine world.

Herrmann was killed next—in December of 2003.

Another curious case occurred on Aug. 1, 2007. Audelino Valladares-Mata, a 51-year-old construction worker, was shot in the back of the head during a summer morning as he worked installing a manufactured home into a north Chico trailer park. Police found no motive for the middle-aged man’s murder, but do not believe it was random. Instead, Merrifield said detectives suspect the Corning man was the victim of mistaken identity.

Exactly one month later, Alexander Moua, a 25-year-old with gang connections, was shot and killed in the courtyard of his East Lassen Avenue apartment as he returned home in the wee hours of the morning.

Shoua Her is the most recent—and youngest—cold-case victim. Just a teenager at the time of his death, the Chicoan was gunned down during the middle of the day, minutes after leaving a Hmong New Year’s celebration at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds last September. The 19-year-old was driving along Park Avenue near 20th Street when someone fired rounds from another vehicle. Struck multiple times, Her was pronounced dead at the scene.

Merrifield, dressed in business-casual attire, was soft-spoken during a chronological review of each crime. He was especially deliberate in describing the circumstances surrounding the two most recent ones, carefully omitting details that could jeopardize the investigations, since detectives are still in the midst of gathering information and following leads.

In the middle of describing one of the cases, Merrifield diverted his attention to news of a bank robbery. He dispatched a detective to the scene and for the rest of the interview held a police scanner, keeping one ear attuned to the device as he continued on about the murders. The interruption provided a glimpse into the hectic schedules of the officers, who are grappling with the highest workload in the history of the nearly 100-year-old Police Department.

The eight detectives in the tight-knit bureau are responsible for investigating a variety of crimes in addition to homicides. Four of the officers specialize in body crimes, including sexual-assault, child-molestation and elder-abuse cases. The other four handle all manner of property crimes, such as theft, fraud and embezzlements.

CASE GONE COLD <br /> Sgt. Greg Keeney spent 10 months investigating the murder of Chris Herrmann, but came up empty-handed when no witnesses came forward.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Of course, when a murder happens, it becomes priority.

“Basically you have to focus everything on the homicide,” Merrifield said, “so all of the other cases you normally would be working kind of pile up, and you have to sort of triage what you can.”

Merrifield explained how a primary and secondary investigator are assigned to each murder case until they either solve the crime or leave the bureau. At CPD, it’s a competitive process to become a detective. It’s also temporary—tyically a six-year position that ends with the officer headed back to patrol intact with a breadth of investigative experience.

Merrifield is included in this rotation, which makes him a year and half shy of leaving the bureau. He will go on to supervise a uniformed patrol team. Having first worked as a detective back in 1996, he will find the transition familiar. Looking back to his first rotation in the bureau, during which time there were six detectives, he recalled that a stabbing would prompt a response. Nowadays, the crime is so frequent—“probably almost every weekend at some point”—that detectives aren’t dispatched.

“It’s a heavier caseload … and they’re more serious crimes,” Merrifield said, referring to the current makeup of a detective’s job.

Because of the gang implications of the Lara murder, Det. Mike Rodden, one of two specialists from the Chico gang unit, is assigned as the primary investigator in the case. Assisting him is his partner, Det. Paul Ratto. Both work closely with the other eight investigators in the main detective bureau.

On a day-to-day basis, Rodden and Ratto work tracking the activity and identities of local gang members. It’s a tricky job that requires that the detectives keep abreast of gang trends on a local and state level. Speaking by telephone last week from Anaheim, where he was attending a training seminar by the California Gang Investigators Association, Ratto said the Lara case is complex because people at the Delta Psi Delta party have been reluctant to provide details.

The scenario isn’t uncommon. In gang culture, cooperating with cops is taboo. Members usually live by a set of written rules or codes, and one of the local groups spells it out in no uncertain terms: “At no time will you have cooperation with the K-9s. And that’s us,” Ratto said.

Merrifield vented about how this street mindset hinders an investigation.

“I think the more frustrating parts of these cases is when you’re talking with people who know what happened, and they know that you know they have information, but they, for whatever reason, maybe because it’s a gang thing, they just don’t snitch, even if they are [the victim’s] buddy,” he said. “We’re just bustin’ our backs to arrest the guy who killed their friend, and they’re sitting there looking at you, telling you they don’t know what happened, that they don’t know who was there, they don’t know who else you should talk to.

“And you know they do—that’s the frustrating part. And it happens so often in these gang cases, where they have this mentality that ‘you don’t snitch,’ and no snitching includes snitching on people who kill your friends. It’s bizarre.”

A victim of gang violence, who spoke with the CN&R under the condition of anonymity, backed up the detectives’ claims. Now well into his 20s, the local man, who asked to be called Jaime, reflected on his youth, growing up with friends and an older brother who were gang members.

While he never was an official member of the gang, Jaime still managed to get caught up in a rivalry and has the scar to prove it.

One evening back in the late ’90s, while hanging out with his friends in the parking lot of a Chico fast-food restaurant, Jaime was shot by someone in a passing car. The bullet narrowly missed his spine and lodged in the muscular area of his shoulder. He later learned that a .22 caliber is known to ricochet off of bones, causing major internal damage.

“I should be paralyzed or dead right now,” he acknowledged. “I got lucky.”

A juvenile at the time of the drive-by, Jaime remembers being questioned by police about the incident during his brief recuperation at Enloe Medical Center. He gave officers only a description of the vehicle, despite knowing exactly who the car belong to. Appearing slightly embarrassed about the incident during a recent interview at a local coffee shop, he admitted that at the time he bought into the mentality of “settling stuff on the street.”

Any thoughts of retaliation, however, were fleeting. He said that wasn’t in his heart. Amazingly, years later, during a chance encounter, he and the shooter made what could be construed as a sort of peace. Jaime approached the man and told him he wasn’t holding a grudge. In response, the shooter apologized for the incident.

LOOKING FOR A LEAD <br /> Chico police Sgt. Rob Merrifield and Det. Mark Hoffman look at a composite sketch of a suspect in the 2007 murder of Audelino Valladares-Mata.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Despite his brush with fate, Jaime said, Chico generally is a safe place to live.

Interim police Chief Mike Maloney, a 25-year veteran of the department, echoed that sentiment.

One of the common denominators in all of the unsolved homicides is that each victim appears to have been targeted. Maloney emphasized this fact, especially in light of public concern over the close proximity of the crimes.

“It’s not indicative of a serial criminal who’s out there victimizing citizens at large. I can’t remember all of our murders, but in all of the ones I can recall, and certainly all of these recent cases, there aren’t any of these that appear to be random,” he said. “All indications are these are people who are targeted for very specific reasons.”

Maloney pointed to a recent shooting as an example. In late June, during an altercation at Carl’s Jr. on The Esplanade, an unidentified man was shot in the leg after exiting his car to confront another man. A stray bullet also penetrated the man’s car, nearly hitting his infant. The shooting occurred during the middle of the day. Police caught the suspected shooter in minutes and have since verified the crime as gang-related.

A total of 19 murders have occurred in Chico between 2002 and today, so it’s not unprecedented to have three murders in a year. Maloney noted that it’s not out of the ordinary to have them in rapid succession, either.

The other common denominator is that every one of the victims was shot. Maloney said police have seen an increase of weapons—firearms and knifes—on the streets over the years. What’s causing that trend is a combination of things. Most notable is the fact that Chico’s urban population has surged by about 40,000 people since 2002, according to county statistics.

“It’s a manifestation of the fact that Chico is not a quaint little teeny town anymore. It still has these very charming small-town qualities, but Chico is a town of well over 100,000 people—a city of well over 100,000 people,” he said.

The chief had this response for folks who think otherwise: “I say take off your blinders and look at the reality here. The reality here is we’re an urban hub for Northern California; for recreation, for commerce, for entertainment, for medical care, for education, for employment, and if you look at those six categories, that stuff goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it just shifts, the complexion of different kinds of activities shifts throughout the day.”

One result of the growth is an unprecedented amount of calls for service—more than 119,000 in 2008. The number includes requests for other emergency services, such as fire and ambulance, but 85,500 required a police response. Meanwhile, Maloney pointed out, CPD has not been able to expand in proportion to the growth. In fact, due to the city’s budget crisis, the department has been shrinking.

“We are currently at an all-time record-low staffing level, following the year when we experienced all-time record-high activity levels and crime-report levels,” he said.

Despite being spread thin, the department will continue to treat the unsolved murders as the top priority.

Merrifield pointed out that murders are sometimes solved long after the crime. It took more then a year to get to the bottom of a homicide at local motel, for example. CPD never gives up on these cases, even long after they go cold, he said. Within the past year, for instance, a detective has taken a fresh look at the Lee case to finally figure out what happened to the young mother, the department’s first unsolved homicide.

“Of all the cold cases, that’s the one I think has potential to be solved,” Merrifield said, “and I know there are people who know exactly what happened.”

In fact, in at least four of the seven cases, he believes there are people who could come forward with information that would help police unravel the crimes.

Detectives often work very closely with the families of murder victims and feel a great deal of responsibility to help give them some answers.

Sgt. Greg Keeney knows that pressure well, having worked as the primary investigator on Herrmann’s mysterious murder.

INHERITED PROBLEMS <br /> Interim police Chief Mike Maloney says Chico’s police force is at all-time-low staffing levels, meaning some crimes—like stabbings—are a lower priority for the detective bureau.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

He spent an unusually long time—nearly eight years—in the detective bureau, working on a number of additional homicides, including the high-profile water-intoxication death of fraternity pledge Matthew Carrington in the winter of 2005. That case came to a close when several men connected to the rogue Chico frat Chi Tau pleaded guilty to various charges, ranging from misdemeanor hazing to involuntary manslaughter, and Keeney has stayed in touch over the years with Carrington’s mother.

Herrmann’s case is a whole different animal, though, mostly because police have little to go on other than the bullet that killed him.

“The thing is, we didn’t have any witnesses,” Keeney said. “Nobody actually heard a gunshot; we had nothing.”

In fact, when officers rolled up to Herrmann’s Hazel Street house, they were responding to a routine call from a passerby alerting CPD of a man passed out in a driveway. Only then was the Chico State junior, who lay face down in front of his home in a converted garage, found shot in the head. Keeney described the murder as an assassination.

The only other evidence into his death leads to a possible motive. Herrmann may have looked like the average college student, but inside his house police found cocaine, meth and marijuana packaged for distribution. He lived alone, so the conclusion was fairly obvious.

“He was involved in selling illicit narcotics, and somehow in that lifestyle he stepped on somebody’s toes and he ended up getting killed for it,” Keeney said.

Despite a lack of evidence, he spent 10 solid months working on nothing else but finding Herrmann’s killer, interviewing everyone from all of his high school buddies to his friends from the university. It was an exhausting assignment that the former detective admits often took over his home life. Eventually, the case grew cold, and Keeney moved on to other tasks.

In January, he rotated out of the detective bureau and now is back in uniform, heading up a unit that patrols Chico on its busiest and oftentimes most dangerous shift of Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

To this day, Herrmann’s and the other cold cases remain a specter hanging over the Police Department and in some ways over the detectives.

“You do carry a little bit of it with you,” Keeney said. “It’s just something you have to deal with.”

Unsolved mysteries

Elizabeth Rebecca Lee 1155 Magnolia Ave. Sept. 5, 2002

Christopher Herrmann 535 Hazel St. Dec. 5, 2003

Audelino Valladares-Mata 123 Henshaw Ave. Aug. 1, 2007

Alexander Moua 1577 E. Lassen Ave. Sept. 1, 2007

Shoua Her Park Avenue at 20th Street Sept. 27, 2008

Ricardo Lara 318 Hazel St. May 31, 2009

Octavio Maria Nieves 1104 Nord Ave. June 19, 2009

Anyone with information about any of these murders is urged to contact the Chico Police Department’s detective bureau at 897-5820. Tips can be anonymous.