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Detective Trapp, Part 1: Women go missing, and police are slow to act

Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

After a night of ragged sleep, a woman who solved murders woke before dawn in her red-tile suburban home and padded across the hardwood floor to her closet. She thought hard about the right color to put on. What do you wear to interview a serial killer?

It was the first of a thousand calculations Anaheim Police Detective Julissa Trapp would have to make that day. For some, she would follow the advice of the Homicide Investigation Manual, or of the small army of local detectives and state investigators and FBI agents who would watch her work.

Many other decisions would be unconscious or instinctive or hard to fully explain.

Trapp was 37, a veteran detective. She had entered this case a month earlier, when she stood beside the body of a young woman at a trash-sorting plant. Since then, she had walked between her city's cheap stucco motels, studied trash routes and sent teams chasing suspects from Oklahoma to Oakland.

There had been dozens of dead ends ... and then one improbable fingerprint that led them to the door of an innocent man, who led them to an alley, which made them gamble on an idea that had initially seemed crazy ... and suddenly she was at the center of a case involving 75 cops from seven agencies.

And now, on Day 29 of the case, it would come down to this: A detective. A killer. A windowless 8-by-10 room. A psychological duel that demanded as much instinct as training, and might require her to surrender more of herself than most cops were prepared to give.

 

At stake was more than a confession. This might be Trapp's last chance to learn the fates of three missing women, and, if they were dead, to find out where their bodies were and bring them home.

The detective had missing persons of her own, and she carried them everywhere, inked on her skin, confronting her every time she got dressed. They were represented by four small black birds, tattooed in a straight line under her collarbone. They were swallows -- the bird that carries souls. Each bird was an unhealable wound from which she did not wish to escape, but also an image of hope.

Today Trapp was searching for the right persona to confront a man who killed women and threw them away like litter. When she was assigned to sex crimes, she had worn pink. It was a useful disguise, because it made her seem exactly what she was not: pliant and harmless.

For this adversary, she thought it was important to look approachable but also to project strength. She did not want to appear soft. Pink wouldn't do. She found an emerald green blouse. Green seemed like a strong color. She put it on, over the swallows, and grabbed her badge.

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