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Why Did I Start This Blog? By Patty MacDonald

This is the post excerpt.

I wanted to start this blog in part to share the ups and downs that are part and parcel of my ongoing attempt to pen a memoir based on my friend’s cold case.

I also want to reach out to try to find a community who is interested in connecting with me on my journey to try to get some movement on my friend’s cold case.  I’d like to know if there are other people with whom I might commiserate who are friends of individuals whose cases have also gone cold.

It’d be a bonus to get input from writers who are interested in or have written in the true crime memoir genre.

Mostly, I wanted to get the word out about my friend’s case because it is my way of saying she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

“I Am Victim”

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On a recent Saturday night, perched over a glass of ale in a local brewery, I shared with a friend an idea I had for a true crime television show.

“I’d pitch it to Investigation Discovery,” I said.

We’d already established that we were both true crime television junkies, so I knew this would pique her interest.

“It’d be a show that would show case homicides against prostitutes. I’ve already come up with a name and everything.”

I couldn’t remember exactly at the time the name I’d landed on and decided to keep. I’d generated a few ideas until I decided on “I Am Victim.”

She turned her face back towards her water glass as if she was considering my idea.

“It’d never work,” she said. “They’ve polled people and they don’t care about people like that.”

“There’s always some problems with all my great ideas,” I believe is what I said.

We rambled on about what social scientists call the “white woman syndrome,” a term used to explain the short-lived news coverage and lack of public interest when murder victims are members of minority groups.

If you are blonde and blue-eyed, and the victim of a homicide, you’re most likely to get more attention from the news media. But if you’re a prostitute or homeless, you’re also less likely to get attention from the news media and even potentially from the police. These are what are called “devalued” victims.

My friend Patty Vance has her whiteness going for her, but the prostitution works against her. I don’t know if those two aspects of her case simply cancel one another out. There should not be an algebra of eligibility when it comes to getting justice.

I do know that she is lucky that her brother went on to work for the San Francisco Police Department. The investigator currently at work on her case is a friend of her brother in fact. Another lucky stroke.

Back to my idea for an Investigation Discovery series. I get what my friend was saying. I understand that sex workers are not a population that garners much sympathy. But for the most part that’s because sex work is generally misunderstood by the public. There is no better time than now for a show that focuses on victims who’ve been overlooked is what I’d argue. Series like “Breaking Bad” and “Shameless” that depict their main characters in all their flawed glory resonated, for whatever reason, with the main stream and are now household names.

So, I think audiences are ready to support a show like I have in mind. If we can identify with fictional characters who are complicated, and less than perfect, why can’t we identify with real people with those same qualities? Back in 2010 there was a show called “Hookers: Saved on the Strip.” Maybe because there was redemption built into the story line, that made it digestible. Then again, the show didn’t last.

Maybe the name needs work: “I, Victim?” “I Am A Victim?” I’m not giving up hope that this sort of show might one day make it to the airwaves. A show like this could put the “real” back into reality television. But more importantly, it could bring much needed attention to cases that have been neglected for far too long.

STREET SAFE

I started volunteering at an organization called “Street Safe New Mexico” a couple weeks ago. I think that I needed to channel my energy into something. I think because I feel so helpless to do anything to help further the solving of Patty’s cold case, I picked volunteering as some sort of compensation. 

Wednesday night we had a weapon making party. I learned how to make Diamond Fists, a weapon used in self defense the organization makes itself. We made them from scratch, melting pieces of plastic cut from milk cartons using electric grills. We then used cookie cutters shaped a bit like a trident to cut the hot plastic. After that, we drilled a hole in them so that they could be hung from a string or a key chain.

The second half of the night, we worked on making homemade pepper spray. This photo is of Christine Barber explaining to us, a group of volunteers, exactly how to mix the ingredients to make the substance correctly. It was dirt cheap to assemble, the materials consisting of cayenne and alcohol. I have to hand it to Christine, it was also a superior product in a lot of ways compared to its store bought counter part. 

When I left the shop where we’d worked, I felt a sense of well being much like I’ve felt after meditating for long periods. I think it was partly because I finally got a chance to work on something that directly addressed the “safe” part of the organization’s mission. Sure it felt good to oversee some of the other projects like handing out condoms and clothing, but this project felt more like my natural volunteering home. I am always willing to do whatever it is that needs to be done for the organization, but I must admit, it gave me an extra boost knowing I might be contributing to helping a woman get out of harm’s way.

 

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I listened over the course of the night to the volunteers asking how they could help even more. One wanted to come out of pocket to purchase some ever popular condoms, and yet another, a medical student, enquired about the status of a program to check women for STDs that’s been on hold. The help we at Street Safe can provide is never enough seemed to me to be the underlying sentiment of the volunteers. I don’t know exactly what I’ll end up doing for the organization, but I too believe that whatever it is, it isn’t going to be enough. I want to use some corny aphorism here, like Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I’m not sure it’d apply. There is no finishing this sort of job. There is only chipping away at the list of things that need to be done, and calling it good.

 

 

 

 

TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THE NON-SENSICAL

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When I went back over the transcript of my conversation with Detective Daniel Cunningham, the current detective on Patty Vance’s case, I felt as if I shared too much.

“What’s your interest in this case?” he asked.

What came out was a flood of reasons. 

“Honestly,” I began, a clear indicator that I am going to cross a social boundary since I’ve talked to him for all of two minutes at this point.

“I was asked in a writing class to write about a time that changed my life,” I said. 

This was only loosely true, but has become something I say now and again. I chose to write about this period for a class because it did change my life. Only later when I saw the prompt in a book on writing did I realize my piece answered that exact question. 

After I rambled on for a bit longer, I explained to Cunningham how Patty and I were estranged when she died, how she’d robbed my mother, and with another girl beaten a friend of mine senseless.

Cunningham was not so much trying to gather information that might help the case as summing me up I realized in retrospect.

The truth is (here I go again!) that my reasons often feel almost too complicated to explain. Maybe I haven’t listed them all out yet myself. I wanted to tell him that I wanted to know about the case so I can write about it, so I can use it to get some insight into the way the world works. I wanted to tell him that I’ve come to believe knowledge is not power, but a salve. It isn’t true of course; it does little to nothing to take away the pain. 

As much as I want to focus my writing on Patty Vance, on her case, on what might be of use to other people, my writing is a lot about me. It’s me asking “what the hell happened?” and “is the world really this cruel?” and various other pressing questions. I toy with the idea that maybe the overarching question is about forgiveness, about trying to understand what that means. I tell myself that I want to be forgiven for all the shitty things I’ve done to people over the years, hence I need to forgive others. I’ve even started telling myself that maybe she didn’t hurt my friend at all, but it was the other girl who inflicted all the violence. I have no way of knowing. Patty did nothing to stop it. If she didn’t partake in the violence, she likely operated as a cheerleader for it.

I ask myself about the moral math. How do I reckon the most heinous acts with the act of forgiveness? There is no good formula.  But there is opinion. And I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this, to discover what exactly my opinion is. I am like Einstein trying to do the math behind his theory of relativity. As history relates, he had to turn to mathematicians. I am not saying I’m some genius, only that I wish there were experts to turn this problem over to. Has anyone really solved the problem of evil, or explained why it is that we humans can inflict such harm to one another. There is no satisfying answer that I’ve heard so far.

I wished I’d figured out an elevator pitch to respond with when people like Detective Cunningham ask me things like what my interest in this case is. I need a pat phrase like “it’s the right thing to do, she was my best friend once.” Because this much I know about how the world works, there are rules about what you can and can’t say, and you will be judged on how well to stick to these rules. I can’t imagine I’d be able to ramble on about how I’m trying to figure out how to make sense of this crazy world without people thinking I was a bit crazy myself. “It is all too confusing and painful to figure out,”  I might say tossing the rule book aside.

DNA Samples in California Database Shrink after Prop 47

Only a very small percentage of criminal cases are solved utilizing DNA technology — cold cases often present a unique set of problems that make it exponentially more difficult. Still, even if there are only a few cases that get resolved using DNA, that seems justification enough for maintaining the largest possible pool of DNA in the criminal database. Watch this video that describes the effect of downgrading certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors on the collection of DNA samples.

In my next blog, I’ll look at a new proposition that’s in the signature stage that will reverse the effects of Prop 47. Okay, my two followers, look for it in two weeks!

 

 

 

 

Losing the Victim in the Story

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I’ve been thinking a lot about creating balance in the sort of memoir I’m trying to write.  It’s tricky striking the right mix of focusing on the cold case versus focusing on my experience trying to uncover the details of said case. What triggered my thinking about this was listening to an NPR broadcast about the recent school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas. The medical examiner (ME) was being interviewed, and was giving her thoughts on the tragedy. Here’s an excerpt from the NPR interview:

WANG: She says her mind has been returning over and over to images she can’t shake.

BARNHART: I think honestly the things that I’m – the pictures that I have in my head aren’t things that anybody would want to hear about, that their images that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

WANG: Barnhart expects to finish the autopsy reports by mid-June, but she says the emotional work for her and her staff – that’s going to take a lot longer. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Santa Fe, Texas.

My issue with the way that she presented this was how much of a focus she put on herself. (I found myself doing memoir math, and counting the number of times she used the word “I”). But in all fairness the story is about the toll the shooting has taken on the ME. She also discussed the fact that she was required to go to the scene of the crime which is almost unheard of in her line of work. Along with the fact that the victims were teens, all the components of the crime taken together were almost more than the ME could absorb.

I found myself wondering what the right balance of interjecting yourself into a story would look like. This, I think is especially true when writing about real life crime. The emphasis should be put on whom I feel are the rightful owners of the story — the victims, or in the case of my memoir, victim. 

There’s also the phenomenon whereby victims often get second billing in true crime television series that are based on their own stories. It is not unusual for the name of the criminal to get the top spot on the marquee. At times law enforcement is quick to remind the viewer that the victim had a name and a story, and that he or she should not get subsumed into a narrative that puts the perpetrator front and center.

It is all too easy for the media to place the emphasis on the perpetrators of the crime/s while the victims fade into the background. This is primarily true of serial criminals. They might easily become household names, especially if the details of their crimes are salacious. Most of us who could rattle off the names Ted Bundy or Charles Ng, would be hard pressed to come up with the names of even one of their victims. Unless a victim is a household name already — a celebrity, or politician say — chances are their names will get lost in the shuffle.

Part of what came up for me was that in the case of the Santa Fe, Texas school shooting, there was no backstory on the ME. I found I cared little that she’d need a long time to emotionally process what she saw. I think it’s a given in her job that she is going to experience some level of trauma because of the nature of her duties. It was difficult to empathize with her assuming she knew full well what she was getting into when she took the job. Again, to be fair, she was asked to do something outside of her normal duties — show up to the crime scene. 

This made me think about the importance of providing at least a few details of a person’s life to create some sense of identification for the audience. Maybe if the ME threw in one sentence about, perhaps, how she struggled to succeed in her field from the beginning because she wasn’t able to steel herself to the exposure she had to death and suffering. Or maybe a sentence about how the converse was true. It would’ve helped me identify with her, or at least sympathize with her a little bit more.

I was watching a new series on the Investigation Discovery last night called “Dead North,” and I had a similar experience, asking myself “who cares?” when the detective was the focus. I found myself asking why so much emphasis was placed on the detective? Why did the audience need to spend so much time with her? 

The camera followed the main investigator over a chunk of time while she described how emotional she was when she discovered the remains of a victim whose case she was working. There was a scene during which she turned away from the camera, so the crew wouldn’t film her crying. This was after finding the jaw bone of the victim accidentally while filming the show, the documentary she called it. She’d found the skull of the man, much earlier during the actual investigation, and stressed that she was more able to cope after finding the skull. 

I found myself first, not really feeling too concerned about her reaction, and secondly wondering why exactly discovering the jaw should be more “real” to her. Maybe her backstory wasn’t needed per se, but an explanation of this reaction would have been nice. Maybe she’d thought of the case as finished, had boxed up the file in her head, so to speak. And this discovery of his skull was an unwelcome reminder of a case she’d put away long ago. 

To give credit to the “Dead North” crew, they did give more than equal time to the victim’s story, interviewing his sister about her struggles with her brother’s death and the subsequent investigation. 

There was plenty of backstory about the investigator — she met the love of her life during the investigation — so I felt a bit more empathic towards her than the ME on the NPR story. Still, she might have described the phenomenon whereby a detective gets emotionally tied up with a victim during an investigation. The piece needed a little telling along with all the showing. 

Once, a detective in another true crime series got especially caught up in the investigation because a little girl the same age as his own had gone missing. Those are the details I feel should be included, so the viewer can get an idea of what drives the emotional responses of detectives who have no real connection to the victims.

So, even though I wanted to use my blog to provide a place for friends and families of homicide victims, I also decided I could throw my thoughts out about my struggles writing about the cold case. (And some draft chapters of the memoir itself!) The extent to which I insert myself into the story has been a struggle from the beginning. I’d like to find a good balance between walking the reader through my emotional landscape, and focusing on the story of what happened to my friend Patty.

Back to School

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Here’s my chapter 3 — I already posted a version of chapter 2 as a stand-alone piece in another blog post. I’ll get back to posting material that does not consist of my draft chapters when I get settled from a recent move. Meanwhile, you can read this chapter only, or refer back to my post The City of Souls.

 

April 14, 2016

I parked on Bay Street, on the backside of the Marina Middle School campus in late afternoon. A few weeks earlier, I’d contacted Project Cold Case, an organization dedicated to publicizing unsolved homicides, and as I suspected, they wanted a photograph of Patty. I had none. So I thought to mine the yearbooks that were stockpiled in the school library. 

In order to enter the campus I had to pass the spot where Patty and I had first smoked together, where we slouched against a concrete pillar puffing and coughing until we were red in the face. I remember we sat cross-legged on the cool cement staring at the flats lining Bay Street, passing a slender brown cigarette between us. Bulbous clouds trudged across a Technicolor blue sky, and I thought at the time that was evidence the earth was turning underneath us. I’d never felt so alive.  The wind burned down Patty’s cigarette and whipped her red hair across her face. 

“We can get a free breakfast at Jack-in-the-Box if you want. My boyfriend’s the manager there,” she said, scraping her cigarette on the sole of her sneaker. 

“I have class in a few minutes,” I’d said.

“Cut class,” she’d said.

She stood and swept the ashes from her sweater. Her eyes flickered at the idea of getting into trouble.  

“I can’t. Honor’s English class. It’s the only thing I’m good at.”

“I’m hungry,” Patty had said.

“What about free lunch in the cafeteria? Do you get that? It’s hamburgers today.”

“Yeah, I get free lunch. How does that compare to double cheeseburgers at Jack-in-the-Box?”

In retrospect I realized what first connected us. It was hunger. I could hardly put my finger on what we hungered for back then. Food was only secondary. Excitement, attention, danger — those would become the holy trinity of our teens. Those were the things we hungered for.  What I figured out years later was what we needed was direction, stability, and a sense of belonging.  And contrary to what Mick Jagger was telling us at the time, we could always get what we wanted. 

I was so absorbed by my recollections of the past that I nearly plowed face first into the gate trying to enter the grounds.  I meandered around the schoolyard glancing into the empty classrooms from afar.  Posters of presidents and colored construction paper projects were pinned to bulletin boards, and an aquarium filled the entire window of one classroom.  In other words not much had changed over nearly forty years.  Asian kids were playing a friendly game of basketball. Everything gleamed of new paint — banisters, doors, window sills. Even the four square and hopscotch grids on the concrete had a fresh-coat glow on them. Who plays those games anymore?, I thought. I yanked on the two side door entrances to the building, but they were locked. Finally I got through the main entrance doors, signed in at the office and climbed the stairs to the second floor where the library was located.

Donna, the librarian, had a mane of hair a faded buttercup color. She remembered me from our phone conversation days earlier. After directing me to a reading table in an adjacent room, she pulled stacks of yearbooks from a wooden cabinet. There was only one copy from 1975. It smelled moldy and the pages felt damp between my fingers. I found myself rambling to Donna about why I wanted to look at the yearbooks, about my brief history at the school, about Patty. 

“My best friend’s a cold case,” I said.

Her mouth twisted into an ellipsis. 

“At least she was my friend until she stood by while a girl got beaten. Right here on the school yard,” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the window.

 “The girl and I were very close at one time. She had to have her jaw wired shut,” I said.

“Nothing like that happens here anymore. I would even send my kids here. That’s how safe it is.”

Perhaps all the new money pouring in from the tech boom of late had resulted in a kinder, gentler public school environment in the city.

“I wish I had some class or something to help me understand when my friend was beaten up here, that I should have gotten help,” I said.

I couldn’t honestly say that a class would have changed the way events unfolded so long ago.  I just didn’t know.  But I had to believe that it would have benefitted some students.   

“I didn’t feel safe here. Is there any program here now for the kids that talks to them about bullying?” I said.

“No, nothing. We really don’t see that many problems here. I’d send my kids here. But we live in Orinda.” 

Orinda is a small, suburban enclave in the east bay known for its affluence and superior school system.  It is a place that people flood into, not take flight from.   

“Well, I wish there was a program like that back when I was going here.”

Back in the seventh grade when I was routinely hassled, and once violently attacked myself, the word “bullying” wasn’t the buzzword it is today. Recently when I described the Lord-of-the-Flies atmosphere that existed on the playground to my aunt, a human rights lawyer, she said the word bullying wasn’t strong enough to describe the brutal beating my friend received. Criminal was the word she applied to it. 

Thirteen was an age when I began to see the world differently, when the scales dropped from my eyes so to speak. Still there was much I remained naive about. Nevertheless, there were things that went on in that playground that turned my gut.  More than once I sensed a line had been crossed. But none of my peers, including myself, seemed to know how to respond. I had to concede to my aunt that yes, much like prep school hazings, there were times when our behavior veered into the criminal.  I also had to admit to her that although I pounded on doors to get someone to contact police while my friend was in peril, I gave up at some point.  Ultimately, I ended up huddled in the stairwell of a nearby flat, paralyzed with fear, legs crossed tightly, terrified I might wet my pants.

If I craned my neck just right, I’d almost be able to see that very doorway from the library window.  I turned to the page in the yearbook with the picture of my friend and felt my windpipe clamp up.  Donna began complaining of hunger, of being held captive at a meeting all morning, of having to tutor yearbook students soon. This I took to be code for hurry up. In retrospect, I may have made her uncomfortable talking about my fraught experience here. Clearly, I had more consideration for the manicurist in Daly City.  It was as if I’d forgotten my vow to myself to spare people the details, that I’d forgotten just how sad the details were.

Donna didn’t commiserate with me as much as she defended this newer, shinier version of Marina Middle School.  It was as if the school itself had gone through its own growing pains, and come out the other end a more beneficent institution. It was now a place that needed no lectures on bullying.  Any criminal activity that took place there was just a blip on the radar screen of its history.  Those dark days, perhaps like the peeling, blistering campus itself, could be wiped away by simply applying a shiny coat of paint, a new narrative. That was the position Donna seemed to take.  What happened back then could never happen here now was what she seemed to be saying.  I hoped she was right.

June 2, 2016

I found out today my application to attend the AISOCC (American Investigative Society of Cold Cases) conference was accepted.  I explained to the founder, Kenneth Mains, in a long-winded email that I was seeking help to get my friend’s cold case dusted off.  He wrote back that it was rare to have a civilian attend, but I’d be welcomed with open arms.

The Search

 

I am going to use a draft of my Chapter 1 as my blog post this time around. It references the Prologue in parts, so if you’re interested, you can scroll down to look at the Prologue which I entered as a post weeks ago. Besides my writing critique group, I haven’t shown anyone my chapters yet.

 

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January 2, 2016

Today I found the death certificate for Patricia Vance.  June 4th, 1980.  This is public information and can be found on the internet quite easily.  This was what I needed to pin down the exact date, so I could ferret out some details about her murder.  This document was the first domino in my document search.  I imagined there was an article published in one, if not both, of the two major newspapers at the time.  I pictured her face splashed across the front page of The Chronicle just as the photograph of the Galileo student got a prominent spot on page one in our high school newspaper.  After searching every corner of the internet, I was unable to find what I was looking for.  There is a California digital newspaper collection, but only recent and current copies are available in that format.  Considering how far technology has come, I was a bit surprised that I would likely have to resort to the old-school technique of combing through microfiche.  

January 14, 2016

I facebooked Harold Vance, Patricia Vance’s brother on a whim.  I wanted to find out if a family member was advocating for his sister.  In his picture, he was astride a black Harley, the handlebars framing the photograph like a set of hands cradling him.  He was the spitting image of his father as I remembered him.  That no-hair-out-of-place, glint-in-his-eye golden boy who was attached to his baseball bat at all times was hardly recognizable.  In this picture he was a middle-aged, barrel-chested man appearing to grip the handlebars on his bike as he once gripped that bat    like his life depended on it.  I sent him a friend request.  

In addition to Facebook, I tried reaching out to him on the website Ancestry where I found he had posted a family tree.  Are you the brother of Patricia Vance?  I wrote and hit send.  

January 29, 2016

I set off  for the San Francisco public library at ten in the morning.   It is twenty odd blocks from where my parents live on Nob Hill to the civic center, an easy down-hill plod the entire way.  I crashed on their couch overnight to make my job easier; I was priced out of the living in the city long ago and lived miles north in a one-post-office town.  I arrived at the library in under an hour, eyes watering and cheeks scalding from wind burn.  Homeless people were huddled en masse in the door wells.  I slid through a crowd of four, giving the door a yank. No go.  A man with a beaded Native American belt, a long braid and flinty eyes tapped the face of his wrist watch.

“It doesn’t open until noon,” he said.  

Check your notes once in a while, I reminded myself.  Earlier that week I’d scrawled the library hours on a Post-it to avoid this very scenario, me milling around with nothing to do.  

I wandered along Larkin to Turk Street.  I backtracked the other direction and headed towards downtown.   I killed time in the tourist shops on Market Street fingering stacks of I heart SF t-shirts and shaking cable car snow globes as I wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles.   I bought nothing.  I’d never feel like a tourist here despite that San Francisco is not the same city I grew up in.  I headed in the direction of the waterfront, nearly colliding with a stream of millennials streaming out from the Twitter building, their eyes locked on their smart phones.

There were minutes to spare when I took my place by the front of the library again.  The heavy doors swung open precisely at noon.  The early-bird squatters filed into the rest rooms, the rest of us into the myriad rooms.  I approached the librarian and she pointed upstairs to where I’d find the microfiche stacks.  

I half walked, half ran up three flights of a staircase where I finally spotted the shelves I was looking for.  I plucked a box from the shelf,  wiping a thin coat of yellow dust from a box marked The San Francisco Chronicle June 1980-December 1980.  I pulled up a concrete-hard chair at a bank of microfiche machines.  After a few stabs, sliding the film into the requisite slats, I wheeled through, looking for obituaries or articles detailing homicides on June 4th or thereabouts.   I found myself getting sidetracked, distracted by the advertising.  I’d slow down after glancing a picture of, say, a furniture salesman whizzing by.  I’d stop to size up the fashion, the shoulder-grazing, feathery hair, the wide lapels, sideburns like bacon slabs.  I spent more time than I’d like to admit shifting around in that hard chair, skimming articles and editorials, gawking at photographs, generally reminiscing about life back then.  I struggled to remain focused and finally after an hour had gone by, and one of my feet began to go numb, I told myself I needed to get back to my task.  

The only article that ran in the newspaper on that date was headed Three Murders in S.F. Within Eight Day’s Span.   It was buried on page three.   The name was wrong, the age was wrong.  This couldn’t be her, I thought.  Then, why is she sharing space with two other homicides?  Isn’t she front-page news?

Early Wednesday night a 21-year-old woman was found 

strangled under a freeway on ramp near the waterfront. Police 

said that the body of Patricia Mann, who had a record of 

prostitution, was found at 10:29 p.m. by a taxi driver. The 

coroner’s office said she had been strangled an hour before she 

was found. Police have no suspects in custody and few clues.

My next step would be to call the police.  Surely, I thought, they must be able to tell me something.

March 8, 2016

I contacted Gianrico Pierucci, a cold case detective for the San Francisco Police Department to see if he could fill me in on at least a few details. The call ended after he explained her file was stored in a basement facility across town and he wasn’t authorized to yank it as it was still an open case. I’d have to contact Legal first.   Legal gave my request a big thumbs down.  If any details of the case leaked out, it could jeopardize solving the case at some future date.