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Detective Trapp, Part 2: A mangled body is discovered and a grim search begins

TNS NEWSFEATURES (EDITORS: Part 2 of a 5-part series. Subsequent parts will move through Thursday, Dec. 5.), Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Detectives decided to look here for Estepp's last room, going block by block, motel to motel with her photo. During her years in sex crimes, Trapp became familiar with the landscape of 50-buck-a-night stucco fleabags with metal bars on their check-in windows -- some of them kitschy midcentury motels that sprang up to capitalize on Disneyland traffic and had long since decayed.

Gas stations, doughnut shops, psychics, fast-food joints and an ever-shifting gallery of crooks, down-on-their-luck families, parolees and shuffling narco-zombies. She could guess the popular drugs by the gait of their captives, the streets cycling from crack to meth to bath salts to heroin.

For years, Trapp had worked undercover here when vice needed her as bait during John stings. At first, she dressed for the role in fishnets and heels. Then she shifted to a look more in sync with the streets, hair unwashed, flip-flops, tank top. She'd approach cars on the driver's side, so she could see if the man behind the wheel had a gun, or a partner.

Hey, sugar, looking for a date? Sometimes she'd use a line from "Pretty Woman." Customers were all kinds -- a heart surgeon in a Mercedes, a tow-truck driver, guys in their 20s, one guy in his 80s.

Working undercover was a reminder of how dangerous it was for the women on Beach Boulevard. Sometimes men would grope her. She had the benefit of a wire on her body and a gun in her purse, and she stayed in character as she led them up to the motel room, where her partners were waiting inside to make the bust.

But there was often a moment when it took willpower not to flinch, just before she cracked the door, as she extended the key card thinking, "Open, open!" At that moment the man would stand right behind her, his hand on her lower spine, his breath on the back of her neck.

 

Detectives quickly discovered that Estepp had been staying in Room 217 of the Anaheim Lodge on Beach Boulevard. She had checked in but never returned. There were no signs of violence in the room, suggesting to Trapp that she had been killed elsewhere.

Management had kept some of the belongings Estepp had left behind, and detectives found more in a drawer: A Hello Kitty purse. A Greyhound ticket from Oklahoma to California. Contact lens solution. A stack of $730 in cash, suggesting Estepp had had a profitable run on the street. A bag of Lifesavers. An Oklahoma ID card, with a dimpled face like a small-town beauty-pageant winner, the skin as unlined as a teenager's.

The next day -- the day she officially became the lead detective on the case -- Trapp was on the phone with Estepp's mother, who couldn't understand why her daughter wasn't answering her phone.

"When's the last time you saw her?" Trapp asked.

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