What the bones say
Recent hearing shows how forensics, data retrieval and coincidences helped detectives identify decomposed body found in the woods
The hikers stopped when they saw the skeleton splayed out along the manzanita and scrub brush. It was weather-beaten. A cervical vertebra was missing from the base of the skull, along with a piece of its sternum and its entire left hand and fingers. But the tattered pants, sweater and bra loosely clinging to the bones left no doubt about what the hikers were staring at.
It was January 27. The hikers were standing in an upper tree line above Forrest Hill Road in Placer County. Sheriff’s deputies soon moved up the weedy hillside toward the discovery. They found no wallet to help identify the remains, no personal items that offered the slightest clue. There was no missing person case that matched. Worse yet, what was left of the body was too degraded to spot signs of trauma and its decomposed organs rendered a toxicology test moot.
The mystery of the remains might have gone unsolved if not for the fact that, of the 120 Placer County sheriff’s deputies who could have been working that shift, one was John Tannarome. The veteran looked at the stretch of Forrest Hill Road and remembered a bizarre call he’d been dispatched to nearly four months earlier. It was a suspicious person report, but it hadn’t resulted in an arrest. It hadn’t even resulted in deputies finding the person.
Yet, measuring how close the bones were to that area of roadside, Tannarome mentioned the incident to homicide detectives once they arrived. His decision led investigators to probe yet another coincidence—one that would eventually bring them to a tow yard in the woods, then the Vietnamese consulate, then the doorstep of the man they’d arrest on charges of first-degree murder.
It was pitch black in the remote, empty bluffs east of Auburn.
One thing witnesses remembered about that early morning on October 11, 2017, was that there wasn’t even moonlight over the scattered oaks and firs. On a rural bend in Forrest Hill Road, miles from the nearest town, a man was trying to push a Toyota Camry off an embankment. It was just after 2 a.m. The man was disheveled, dressed in nightclub attire and drenched in sweat. Inching the car toward a shadowed ledge, the figure was suddenly caught in high-beams from an SUV turning the corner.
Gustavus Youngberg was behind the wheel, driving his wife, mother-in-law and niece back into high country from the airport. But Youngberg wasn’t just any motorist; he was an off-duty Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy. A stranger pushing a car through toward a drop-off was something that caused Youngberg to slow down.
“I didn’t want to get too close, but my wife is saying, ’He might be hurt, he might be hurt, there might be someone in the car, so we have to stop,’” Youngberg testified at a November 28 court hearing.
About the time Youngberg lowered his window, the Camry went over the embankment, vanishing into the pre-dawn veil.
“I say, ’Hey, are you alright?’” Youngberg recalled on the witness stand. “He was telling me, ’Oh, I’m fine.’ Then he referenced, ’We’re fine.’ My wife said, ’There’s someone in the car? Are they okay?’ … He kept saying, ’She’s fine,’ and made it clear he did not want us there.”
Youngberg described for the court how alarm bells went off in his head. He was hesitant to get out because his family was with him. He also didn’t have phone reception or his gun. Youngberg decided to drive up the road until he found a spot where he could call the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.
The deputy sent to investigate was Tannarome. He found the Camry crashed into a cattle gate at the bottom of a 40-foot slope. There were no keys in the ignition, nor anyone inside. What the deputy had in front of him was a vehicle dump. He turned the call over to the California Highway Patrol, which dispatched an officer, who examined some items inside the car before having it hauled off to a local tow yard.
Sixteen weeks later, homicide detectives Bryan Mattison and Chris Joyce contacted the CHP wanting to know exactly what its officer had found inside the car.
The frail remains were lifted out of a white body bag and placed into a tank crawling with dermestid beetles. Under the watchful eye of Dr. Ashley Kendall, the insects began slowly eating away the corpse’s dried, remaining flesh.
Kendall is part of a team of forensic anthropologists working at Chico State University’s human identification lab. In 2013, one of her colleagues helped Roseville police detectives solve a difficult cold case that involved a 19-year-old who was murdered by roving band of train-hoppers. (Read “Blood on the tracks,” Feature, October 5, 2017.) Kendall and her team are recognized by the FBI as top experts at interpreting skeletal remains. Court filings show Kendall was able to estimate that the bones belonged to a female of Asian ancestry between the ages of 18 and 27 whose body had been decomposing in the woods for two to five months.
The same week that Kendall examined the bones, Mattison and Joyce tracked down the abandoned Camry. They’d learned from the CHP’s initial report that a laptop computer, an international passport and a lady’s purse had been inside when the car was hauled from the scene.
At Forrest Hill Towing, an employee told the detectives that the day after the car was impounded, a man showed up claiming to be its owner and removed several items.
The car had been left so long it was handed over to local firefighters for “jaws of life” training. Fortunately, the Camry hadn’t been chopped up when detectives found it.
“We could see the passport in the back seat of the car,” Mattison testified, but the laptop and woman’s purse that the CHP had logged were nowhere to be found.
The passport belonged to Trang Tran, a 22-year-old Vietnamese national who had attended college in Florida. Her description was a spot-on match for what Kendall had seen in the bones. Mattison and Joyce drove to the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco to see if it had the fingerprints associated with Tran’s passport. Though the skeleton was missing its left hand, enough skin remained on its right fingers to get a print.
There was no longer any doubt about who the dead woman was. Mattison testified there wasn’t any doubt about who owned the abandoned Camry either: 28-year-old Michael Abeyta.
According to filings from the Placer County district attorney’s office, a lengthy investigation revealed that Abeyta and Tran met in Florida, embarked on a cross-country road trip together and then stopped in Las Vegas to get married. Detectives found evidence Tran may have been pregnant, but she wasn’t when the couple settled into an apartment in Citrus Heights in fall 2017. Prosecutors contend Abeyta started an affair with a young woman he met at a Roseville bar and began telling friends he wanted a divorce.
“Tran did not want a divorce and she threatened to turn him over to immigration authorities for a sham marriage,” Deputy District Attorney Marian Baxley wrote in her filings.
During Abeyta’s recent evidentiary hearing, Mattison testified that according to cellular and GPS data, Abeyta’s phone and Tran’s phone were in close proximity to each other on October 11, 2017—the last time Tran’s phone was ever used and the last time her husband’s friends saw her alive.
That was the same morning that Youngberg spotted the man he identified as Abeyta pushing his car off the ledge.
Mattison recounted that, after learning from Abeyta’s friends that he’d allegedly made comments about feeling sick from “dragging a body,” he sought a warrant for the suspect’s Facebook account. In court, Mattison read a private message Abeyta allegedly sent a male friend on December 12, 2017: “You were mean when younger, but not evil. I’m an evil fuck. I’ve ended someone before.”
The DA’s office has acknowledged the pathologist can’t determine the exact cause of Tran’s death. Abeyta’s attorney, Brad Whatcott, has said he does have arguments against the prosecution’s case, though he’s saving them for a potential trial. That trial became all but a certainty on November 29, when Placer Superior Court Judge Michael Jones ruled there was enough evidence to proceed with first-degree murder charges.
“A trial requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Jones explained to Abeyta. “At a preliminary examination, the people need to present evidence that would lead a magistrate to find that there’s sufficient cause that a crime was committed, and that you are the person who in all likelihood committed that crime.”
The judge then made it clear that, via a confluence of unlikely events, that’s exactly what just happened.