Calif. detective making last try to ID serial killer's victim
By Mark Gomez
Inside Bay Area
SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. — Detective Ronald Breuss keeps the sketch above his desk, an artist's rendering of a woman whose identity has remained a mystery for 14 years. Most likely a truck stop prostitute, her lifeless body was found in 1993 near Pacheco Pass on Highway 152, dumped there by convicted serial murderer Keith Hunter Jesperson.
Breuss, a cold case homicide investigator for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, likes to think the woman had a family, that someone once loved her and wonders what happened to her. So this summer Breuss will pack his car with copies of the sketch and hit the road. He will spend his own time and money in one last effort to put a name to the face.
If he strikes out, Breuss will close the case and put her file in an archive where "realistically no one will ever look at her again."
That's why her name matters so much to Breuss.
"She was a human being. She had a history ... and nobody could care less about that woman," said Breuss, a 26-year veteran in the sheriff's office.
He plans to drive I-5 posting her sketch with a plea for information along the way. "I care. She's entitled to somebody standing up for her. And in a lot of cases, the cold case officer is the last guy to stand up for somebody."
Even if that person was perhaps a down-on-her-luck prostitute, estranged from her family and addicted to drugs or alcohol. She wasn't from around here, just dumped in a remote part of the county. Breuss has theorized all of those scenarios.
"The minute he put his fist on her throat and took her life away, I think all of her worldly sins were absolved," Breuss said.
In interviews with police, Jespersen remembered her name might have been Carla. She was probably 39 years old when she was murdered on a May night in 1993 by Jespersen, who became known as the "Happy Face Killer." (Jesperson earned the nickname after drawing happy faces on letters describing his crimes he mailed to an Oregon newspaper). Four years after her death, Jespersen confessed to the murder in a letter he mailed to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office. Prosecutors charged him with the murder last summer.
During a five-hour interview with Breuss, Jespersen provided chilling details about his encounter with the woman, which began at a truckers' rest stop off Interstate 5 in Corning, about 20 miles south of Red Bluff, and ended just inside Santa Clara County lines.
Jespersen, a long-haul trucker who authorities believe murdered 10 to 12 women, said he targeted the woman the moment she walked through the restaurant door. He described her to Breuss as looking "road hard" and said that she stared at plates of food as though she were starving to death.
He told the waitress he'd like to buy her lunch, anonymously. He then took credit for the kind gesture and offered to give her a ride. He walked to his truck, waited a few minutes and hit the brake lights, a prearranged signal he was about to leave. She darted out of the restaurant and into his truck. After 45 minutes of driving, the two had sex.
Then, Breuss believes, the woman somehow angered Jesperson, who wrapped his massive hands around her neck and strangled her with all the might of his 6-foot-6, 300-pound frame.
Before he killed her, Jesperson told Breuss, "I looked at her, put my hand around her throat and said, 'Now you're going to die.' She got this absolutely frightful look."
He drove another four or five hours with the body in his cab before dumping it over the edge of a hill on Highway 152, about 20 miles east of Gilroy. On June 3, 1993, her badly decomposed body was found -- the head pointed downhill and wedged under a rock -- by a trucker who stopped at the turnout to urinate.
Breuss, who has overseen the cold case unit for about two years and in May made an arrest in a 1997 murder, theorizes if the woman was a truck stop prostitute traveling up and down I-5, she probably had a home base. Breuss plans on making a small poster with three similar sketches of the woman and driving north on I-5 well into Oregon, to cast as wide a net as possible. He'll leave copies of the poster at county jails, women's detention sites, truck stops, rest stops and homeless camps -- any place he might look if she were alive and living on the street.
He believes the county jails might be his best chance to identify Jane Doe.
"If she was a street person, if she was an alcoholic or a drug user, she probably got arrested for those misdemeanor violations ... so people will know her," Breuss said. "That's pretty much our big shot at this."
To help bring national exposure to the case, Breuss agreed to be interviewed by the Discovery Channel for a show about the world's most evil people. It will be broadcast later this year. Breuss doesn't mince words when discussing his dislike for the media. Too often, it profits from victims, he said. But he's willing to cast that aside if it helps identify Jane Doe.
"This isn't about me or the justice system. It's about her," Breuss said.
"If you can benefit her, I will use that opportunity."
Breuss remains optimistic that he'll find someone who knows her. Although she was down-and-out at the end of her life, Breuss says evidence of dental work and an operation are proof that she once had the means to take care of herself.
To help their cause, Breuss and the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office struck a deal with Jespersen, who is in Oregon serving two life terms. Prosecutors won't seek the death penalty in California as long as Jespersen shares everything he knows about the woman. Breuss believes that will happen sometime this year. Breuss said Jesperson is also suspected of having murdered women in Riverside and Atwater.
Breuss, the only cold-case investigator in the sheriff's office, has about 150 unsolved cases in his files. He keeps crime-scene photos of other murder victims in his office. "They keep me honest," he says. When this case is closed, another photo will go in Jane Doe's place.
He has given himself a time frame of six months to one year to identify her. At that point he may have to "consign her to eternity."
"If I feel that I gave it my all, I won't have any regrets," Breuss said. "I will always think about her if I don't identify her. I don't think I'll ever get away from that."
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Calif. detective making last try to ID serial killer's victim