Seeking justice

Mother, sheriff’s office search for answers in Joey Strickland’s killing

Family and friends remember Joey Strickland as a loving jokester.

Family and friends remember Joey Strickland as a loving jokester.

Photo courtesy of Charmain Riggs

You could call it a mother’s intuition, that gnawing feeling that something is not right with your child. Charmain Riggs knew her son Joey Strickland was in trouble. So when a sheriff’s deputy called her the week of St. Patrick’s Day and said he was looking for Strickland, that he may have been in a fight and he was hoping to talk to him, she started to panic. She hadn’t heard from her son in several days.

“I talked to him on Monday [March 13], but I texted him after that and got no response,” Riggs said during a recent interview. “And my daughter called and said, ‘What’s up with Joey? He hasn’t been on Facebook in a while.’”

Something was not right.

“I had this sick feeling, this terrible feeling about Joey,” she said, shaking her head.

In fact, this lack of communication had been going on for several weeks, Riggs recalled, ever since Strickland moved out of the apartment he’d shared with her. She had been getting ready to move, and Strickland had befriended a man through a mutual acquaintance who’d offered him a place to stay. Without a car of his own, Strickland relied on rides. He didn’t call as often. He became distant.

“For two or three weeks, he just wasn’t communicating,” Riggs said.

Then, on March 17, she got the news. She remembers clearly speaking with the sheriff’s deputy. “He just said, ‘He’s gone,’” she said, fighting tears.

A day earlier, Strickland’s body had been found behind a silo on River Road. His death had been ruled a homicide.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office is investigating Strickland’s death. There have been a few leads, explained Sgt. Steve Collins, and detectives are working to develop suspects. He couldn’t give many details about the case, however, as it could jeopardize the investigation.

“The way we approach these cases is, we try to kind of reconstruct, to find out what this person’s life was like, especially that time period preceding their death,” he said. “We try and determine what happened to them, why, and who was involved.”

When it comes to the Strickland case, he said, BCSO has been working with Glenn County law enforcement to set up interviews and gather background information, as he’d lived in Willows for a time with the mother of three of his children (he also had a son with a high school girlfriend in Chico).

“When you’re going over into someone else’s jurisdiction, you don’t know the people or their associations,” he said. “Often, local law enforcement officers do. It’s been very helpful.”

While Strickland had been known to Willows police, he was not familiar to Butte County law enforcement, Collins said. Riggs explained that Strickland’s ex-girlfriend had had a restraining order against him—their Facebook relationship status is listed as “it’s been complicated”—and he’d broken it a couple of times. He’d also run from police, which she thinks has tainted their view of him and led to negative news stories in the Sacramento Valley Mirror newspaper following his death. The only convictions listed on the Glenn County Superior Court website are for violating court orders, resisting/delaying an officer and minor drug possession (less than 1 oz. of marijuana).

“The Willows police don’t like him because he ran from them and he got away,” she said.

She painted a picture of a well-liked young man, someone who loved to joke around and make other people happy. He had a special bond with his 10-year-old son, she said sadly. Three years ago, his then-girlfriend died in her sleep. After that, he kind of lost himself, she recalled, and started hanging around some people she felt were a bad crowd. Nonetheless, he maintained his good nature.

“None of it makes any sense,” she said. “He was such a sweet boy, a jokester; he always wanted to make everyone else around him happy.”

The Strickland case is just the latest in a string of homicides BCSO has investigated going back to last summer. Before that, Collins said, there were none in the first half of last year.

The first, which is still unsolved, occurred on July 18, Collins said. Two men—34-year-old Mark Cummings and 53-year-old Mark Fletcher—were found shot to death on Cynthiann Lane in Oroville.

Fast-forward to September, when Jake Bertram was shot while attempting to rob a home in Palermo. After sending him via helicopter to Enloe Medical Center, detectives learned that he’d approached the home and begun shooting at its occupants. At least one of the occupants shot back, though the identity of that person is still unknown. Bertram, 41, succumbed to his wounds four days later, on Sept. 28.

On Oct. 11, Andrew Paz Jr., 25, was brought into the Bangor Fire Station with a gunshot wound to the abdomen and was pronounced dead on the scene. His brother, Lorenzo Paz, has been charged in his death and a preliminary hearing date is set for May 2.

About a month later, on Nov. 9, Collins said, 59-year-old Robert Roberts was found dead in his living room in Berry Creek. He’d suffered head trauma. Investigators are currently looking into leads in that case, but it remains open and unsolved.

Finally, law enforcement discovered the body of Chicoan William Kohnke, 33, floating in Little Chico Creek near River Road on March 26. He’d been missing since Jan. 10.

A number of other suspicious deaths in the latter part of last year were deemed natural or accidental, Collins said. Ramon Becerril had gotten into a physical fight with his brother on Nov. 5 and died. His death, however, was ruled to be due to a medical condition.

Then, on Nov. 10, a utility worker discovered the body of Travis Gunnells, a 44-year-old Texas man, on Middle Honcut Road in Oroville. He had not been murdered, however; his death was ruled a drug overdose. Four days later, the body of Kenneth Tam was mysteriously found in the passenger seat of a vehicle in Bangor. His death was due to a medical condition.

“In both of those cases,” Collins said, referring to Gunnells and Tam, “we suspect they died somewhere else and were placed where they were found.”

There were zero homicides reported in the city of Chico in 2016.

For her part, Riggs just wants justice served to whoever killed her son. And she wants closure.

Collins wants the same thing.

“There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with closing these cases,” he said. “And frustration when you can’t. They tend to nag at you.”

He encourages anyone who knew Strickland and may have information to help the case to call the Butte County Sheriff’s Office at 538-7671. The same goes for any of the other open homicide investigations mentioned above.