A SCHEMING KILLER –
A REPORTER IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Previously: The killer texts Sandra on her personal cell phone and says she must solve his riddle or someone else will die. Sandra and Abby go to a Sebastopol bookstore to retrieve a clue, but detectives quickly take control of it. Investigators are monitoring every text the killer sends from the Sonoma victim’s cell phone.
Chapter 8 – Phone Secret
By RANDI ROSSMANN
Brown was wide awake by 5:30. His brain snapped on and he sighed. The day loomed long and he felt the pressure of the case, excitement for the chase and fear they wouldn’t catch the killer before someone else died. Then there was the pressure from his sergeant and the sheriff. He reached over and ruffled Franny’s fur. Brown might be getting up but old Franny was going to stay put in her favorite place.
Just a few more minutes in bed. It was the best night sleep he’d had since the report of the Sonoma homicide. Six hours of snooze time, a luxury, and he felt a little guilty.
After a quick shower Brown put on his Saturday clothes, jeans, a knit shirt and a sport coat would work. No tie today. He drew a towel over his blond buzz cut, ready to roll. Not wanting to take time for real coffee, he drank a few sips of instant just to feel something hot going down, tossed back a few handfuls of dry cereal, strapped on his duty gun and stuck a couple of protein bars in his jacket pocket. As he headed out the door, he checked the water bowl and made sure the dog door was unlocked. “Bye girl, wish me luck,” he yelled. He could hear her tail thumping on the bed as he closed the back door.
At 32, Brown had been a detective for three years, enough time to have been lead investigator on exactly five other homicides and shotgun on maybe two dozen others. But those had mostly been domestic violence, drunken “friends” in fights and gang slayings. This was one the retired detectives talk about.
By 6:45 a.m. he was upstairs at the Sheriff’s office, in the violent crimes investigations unit. After starting a pot of real coffee in the closet-sized coffee room and digging out his Chico State mug from the pile in the dish drainer, Brown headed for the interview room where the big dry board was half covered in writing.
Two columns, one headed “Pismo” and the other “Spittleheimer.” Underneath each name were their particulars, age, town of residence, and what they’d been doing when last seen.
By the time the others arrived at 7:30 a.m., he’d made long lists for the day and added “MOTIVE” in big letters and “CELL PHONE” to the board.
Brown looked at his audience. Sheriff’s detectives Rusty McCaughn and Roberto Nunez along with their sergeant, Robin Maddocks, stood together. Healdsburg Police Officer Desiree Ransom, who’d had to be escorted into the department’s inner sanctum by Nunez, stood by herself, looking a bit uneasy.
Ransom had started investigating the first death, which by day’s end had become a murder, thanks to the autopsy. The Sonoma death also officially became a slaying when the doc found poor Spittleheim also had a needle puncture to his heart. With two deaths and the prospect of more, the Sheriff’s Office was taking the lead and Healdsburg was loaning Ransom to the effort and hoping to get the promising young officer some experience.
Nunez helped her find a less-used coffee cup, and the sergeant dumped a bag of whole wheat bagels on a plate, sans cream cheese. They all took a seat at a conference table while Brown stood by the board.
“Matilda Pismo, 44, Geyserville resident. Injected with something and carried or dragged through the Healdsbug plaza where she was dumped at the memorial statue. The night she died she’d been at a wine bar off the plaza with co-workers. She was a hostess at Fitch Mountain Winery,” recapped Brown.
“Wally Spittleheimer, 59, Lakeport, also injected. A taxidermist. He’d been in Sonoma for business. Last seen that night in the downtown plaza park talking on his cell phone. Found face up in the Sonoma Plaza duck pond.”
“Two homicides, left in very public places, killed with a syringe of something. Tox not back yet? Did we tell them to hustle on that?” Brown looked to the sergeant.
“Yes. Repeatedly, should be any time,” she answered.
“Ok, what do we know now?” asked Brown, holding a red marker and looking at Rusty McCaughn, the senior VCI detective and a mentor to Brown.
“We know he’s using Spittleheim’s phone. We’ve been monitoring the account and he’s turning it on every day, from various remote locations,” said McCaughn, giving Brown a nod of encouragement.
“He’s quick,” added Nunez. “It’s only on for about a minute. He rarely texts or calls Cordero. We’re thinking he’s checking each day to see if she’s left him a text or voice message.”
“OK, why Cordero? Why did he send Pismo’s phone to her? Does he know her somehow, a neighbor, an old teacher? Maybe he likes her sentence structure,” said Brown, getting a short snort from Nunez and an eye roll from the sergeant. “Maybe he’s chosen her as a way to give her something, because he does like her. He gets the publicity and she gets the story?”
“Well, since he sent a reporter photos of his victims and some clues, the obvious answer is he must want to make sure his moves get publicized,” said Maddocks, reaching for a bagel. “For whatever reason.”
“He craves attention” added the Healdsburg officer.
“Attention,” agreed Brown, giving her a smile. “Most murderers want to quietly slink away. This one wants to prove something. That he’s smart, or smarter than us?” To himself, he thought, smarter than me.
“Ok, so we need Cordero to actually call him, not just text him,” Brown said. “She needs to try and string it out, keep him talking, keep him on long enough so we can get a fix on him and grab him. I’ll work on that, figure out a way to approach her, and see if she would be willing to call him.”
“We should have deputies and officers ready to get to strategic places in the county, along 101, and east and west on 12, maybe Old Red, Pet Hill for when we get a location,” offered Nunez.
“I’ll talk to the captain,” said Maddocks, standing up and brushing bagel crumbs from her slacks as her cell phone rang. She took the call. “Pure adrenaline? Ok, huh. I didn’t expect that.”
Before she could repeat the lab’s report, Brown’s cell phone rang, emitting Darth Vadar’s theme song. “Dispatch,” he said to the room.
The smooth, deep voice in his ear said “1055 in Cotati, probable homicide.” Steve, a veteran dispatcher, gave it straight. “A male, appears to be in his early 20s. Reporting party said he recognized the victim as a student at SSU.”
“Where was he found?” asked Brown. “Ok, tell Cotati PD to set up a perimeter. And tell Cotati to sit on whoever found him. And don’t let them talk to anybody until I get there, especially the press. Thanks man.”
The detectives had already been moving out the office and down the hall as he hung up.
“It wasn’t Sebastopol,” said Brown, to the four faces turned his way. “It was Cotati. The killer left him at the base of the accordion festival statue.”
Randi Rossmann is a 30-year Press Democrat news reporter. For most of those years she has covered the police beat and breaking news, including the Ramon Salcido slayings and the Polly Klaas kidnapping, two of the county’s most infamous crimes. The married mother of two is a life-long Sonoma County resident and Piner High School grad. To read her stories, click here.
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Edited by ROBERT DIGITALE
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