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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

"A week ago," said Jodi Estepp-Pier. As far as she knew, her daughter was still at home in Oklahoma.

Trapp needed basic information, but the chances would plummet as soon as she told her. So when Estepp-Pier asked if her daughter was alive, Trapp sidestepped the question.

Did she have her daughter's cellphone number? She needed it to get a warrant for her phone records.

The mother insisted: What was this about?

"I'm sorry to inform you that yesterday your daughter was found deceased," Trapp said, and then she was listening to the mother screaming, and the line went dead. When Trapp got her on the phone again, Estepp-Pier asked, "Are you sure it's my daughter?"

Did she have any tattoos?

"She has my name on her neck."

Trapp learned that there had been a man in the victim's life, and he became a suspect immediately. He was an Oklahoma gangster who called himself "Menace."

He was the father of Jarrae Estepp's 2-year-old son, and -- according to her family -- had been acting as her pimp. Her mother said they met when she was a 17-year-old high school student, and "she was just sucked into his lies and manipulations."

She said Menace would urge Jarrae to go to Southern California to work the streets. It was where the money was.

When Trapp looked at Estepp's phone records, she found Estepp had exchanged more than 100 calls or texts with him on the day she disappeared. "It was very apparent, the control that he had over her," Trapp would say. "Constant, constant communication, and that's very typical between a pimp and his girl. Complete and total control."

Trapp got him on the phone. She begged for his help. He insisted he was neither Jarrae's boyfriend nor pimp. "I got a female," he said. "That's just the mother of my child."

He was not the killer -- his phone records proved he'd been in Oklahoma -- but he would soon receive a 15-year prison term on unrelated charges of racketeering, for his involvement with an Oklahoma branch of the Crips.

Trapp told Jodi Estepp-Pier she would find who had killed her daughter. The mother did not especially trust cops, but Trapp said, "I give you my word." She was thinking of how cruelly Estepp had been thrown away. Every murder was ugly, every murder was a hole in the universe, but this reflected a cold-heartedness that was hard to fathom.

When Trapp got her second-floor desk in the homicide unit of the Anaheim Police Department a few years earlier, there was a sign taped up nearby.

"You can't stop love," it said.

It was the voice of weary experience, the bitter takeaway from too many murders and suicides precipitated by some twisted enslavement of the heart. It referred to the derangements of jealousy. It referred to victims who refused to testify against their abusers. It referred to people trapped in predatory relationships.

"A young girl in a fight with her mom, wants to run away, next thing you know ... ," Trapp would say.

In sex crimes, Trapp met a 17-year-old girl who had been impregnated by her pastor. Trapp remembered how hard it was to untangle the girl's feelings of love from her sense of violation.

Every detective drew from a well of personal experience, and Trapp's late teens had given her a sense of how easy it was for one bad choice to compound another, when the circumstances were right.

Back when she was still Julissa Rios, she was growing up with her parents and a younger brother in a spotless yellow house on Westmont Drive in central Anaheim. She had Sylvester Stallone and Steven Seagal on her wall.

She was working as an Anaheim Police Explorer, lining up for drill inspection at police headquarters and absorbing everything she could about police work. At 16, she sneaked out of the house to meet a boyfriend. "Rebelde," said her mother. Rebellious. She kicked her out of the house.

Julissa Rios was a proud, headstrong girl, so she grabbed a red suitcase and said, "Fine!"

She got a job at a yogurt shop and crashed with friends. After a while she found herself living with a guy twice her age. He had money; he said he loved her but wanted to control her.

Once, when she returned from an outing with the Explorers, she found he had scissored up her clothes. He hadn't wanted her to go; this was his way of punishing her. During that period, she didn't talk to her mom. She kept in touch with her dad, who was her best friend and idol. He never judged her. He kept saying, "Come home, mija, everyone misses you."

When her father learned that her grades had plunged from A's to Fs at Savanna High School, he turned to Rick Martinez, the cop who ran the Explorer program, and said: Please do something for Julie. Martinez gave her a come-to-Jesus speech: Pull it together, or you're out.

 

The thought of not getting to be a cop crystallized the stakes, and she made a choice. She left the older guy. She packed up her red suitcase and moved back into the yellow house.

"I got a chance to live," she would say. She got her grades up and got into the police academy, where she was one of three women to graduate in a class of 26.

Julissa Trapp would come to speak of her teenage years as an abyss avoided. She'd say police work saved her; family saved her; some kind of grace she didn't understand saved her.

On the fourth day of the investigation, Trapp stood in the medical examiner's office as Jarrae Estepp's body was autopsied. It was a glimpse of how brutal her last hours must have been. She had a bite on her right arm, bruising on her face and neck, signs of sexual assault. A tampon was recovered from her body and sent to the lab, in case it held an attacker's DNA. Metal shavings were tweezed from her mouth.

Trapp and her partners, J.D. Duran and Bruce Linn, quickly became what they called "garbologists." Republic Waste Services supplied a list of pickup locations that fed into its plant. There were hundreds of sites, along trash routes that snaked through Anaheim and nearby cities.

Soon dozens of cops were fanning out to find the Dumpsters. Trapp told searchers to look for the kind of shredded blue tarp the body had been wrapped in. Residential-construction debris. Metal shavings.

Meanwhile, detectives canvassed Beach Boulevard with Jarrae Estepp's photo and talked to what Trapp called "every cretin and zombie" who prowled the area. Estepp's cellphone records showed her last contacts, and this led them to a factory worker who had called her at 7:08 on her last night alive.

Trapp put a team on the man. He was in his car with his wife when police pulled him over. He said he had paid Estepp $40 for sex in her motel room, but had left her alive. He volunteered his DNA; Trapp did not think he had the feel of a killer.

They found another of Estepp's possible customers. He admitted that he had met her, but had changed his mind about the sex. He volunteered his DNA; he didn't have the feel, either.

All day long, cops were coming by Trapp's desk to drop off USB drives with surveillance footage of trash bins. She had asked them to collect any footage they could find, and fast: Cameras automatically erased after a week or two. She studied it. It was tedious work. Nothing.

There is a little gathering spot near Trapp's desk with a deluxe De'Longhi coffee maker and a sign that says "10% Cafe," a name whose origins are secret department lore. It's a kind of shrine to colleagues past -- crowded on a mantel is a motley cluster of beer taps that belonged to detectives who have worked homicide and moved on. Coors Light. Newcastle. Goose Island.

Every member of the homicide team got a unique beer tap, even teetotalers like Linn, and it went up on that detective's cubicle wall in rotation so the supervisor could tell at a glance who was "on tap" for the next murder. Trapp's is labeled Dead Guy Ale, an Oregon brew, and when she leaves the unit someday it will join the others on the mantel.

It was here, around Day 5, that Detective Mark Lillemoen suggested what seemed a wild idea: Why not run the GPS tracks of parolees on Beach Boulevard around the time Estepp disappeared?

Trapp thought it was impractical, with so little else to go on: The list would be massive, the block a cauldron of parolees.

Around the same time, Trapp's supervisor asked her to meet with detectives from Santa Ana and Newport Beach. Both cities had open cases on missing or murdered women. Trapp was skeptical. She had so much else to do, and it didn't strike her as the best use of time at this harried, pedal-to-the-metal stage in the investigation.

Trapp had not ruled out the possibility of a connection between Estepp's death and the disappearances of three women in Santa Ana, starting five months earlier. All of the women had been working as prostitutes. But it struck Trapp as a far-fetched possibility; the odds pointed to someone who knew Estepp as her killer. A serial killer was statistically unlikely.

The prosecutor assigned to the case, Larry Yellin, seemed equally skeptical when she informed him of the meeting.

"Yeah, OK, Jules," Yellin said.

Near the beginning of the third week, after so many dead ends and ruled-out suspects, the forensics lab called.

They had examined the tube of acrylic sealant found near the body. Linn's hunch had been accurate: It did have a readable fingerprint. What's more, the print matched a local man whose prints were on file.

He was 32, a window installer with a minor record for driving without a license. He lived at a mobile home park near 1st and Bristol streets in Santa Ana, not far from where some of the women had last been seen.

Trapp called him. She arranged to come by in the late afternoon when he got home from his shift. She didn't say why.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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