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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

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When Detective Julissa Trapp arrived, her partner was already knee-deep in the trash surrounding the young woman's body in the cavernous, ear-splitting warehouse.

For Trapp, it was hard to imagine a more chaotic crime scene than Republic Waste Services in north-central Anaheim, where tons of trash surged across a series of elevated conveyor belts, fed by an endless procession of garbage trucks.

A rat scurried over Trapp's shoe. Pigeons wheeled and flapped. The stench was thick.

Machines echoed off the walls and high ceiling. The belts kept rolling, except for the one on which Det. Bruce Linn was currently standing, the one where a worker had spotted what looked like a protruding human foot.

It was Friday morning, March 14, 2014. The victim was a blondish young woman, unclothed, her jaw broken, her leg snapped, her skull crushed, her body wrapped in a shredded blue tarp amid what looked like debris from a residential remodeling job.

Who was she? How did she get here?

The detectives decided to collect trash in a wide radius around the body -- 20 to 30 feet in each direction. They were looking for addresses that might lead them to the trash bin she had been left in.

Linn spotted something else -- a tube of acrylic sealant labeled TremGlaze. It was the closest to a hard surface he could find, the kind that might hold a clean fingerprint. With a gloved hand he dropped it carefully into an evidence bag.

Trapp and Linn had seen many varieties of savagery, but the singular coldness of the scene struck them both. "Everybody dies -- I get it. The death rate is one per person," Linn said later. "But to get thrown out in the trash? Now, that ain't what you do."

Linn was a transfer from the fugitive-surveillance squad who had spent years in disguises, often unwashed Dickies and a tool belt -- "a dirty mechanic, a dirty plumber, a dirty elevator-repairman" -- and so had not hesitated to climb into the trash. He had deep-set, watchful eyes set in a hard-boned face that looked as if it could absorb a heavyweight's right cross.

He had worked murders with Trapp for more than two years, wearing a suit and tie and short-brim fedora. The camaraderie was instant, and by now they could sometimes read each other's thoughts with a glance. At the office, their cubicles were a few feet away, and they liked to get each other's attention by launching spongy ping-pong balls at the other's head.

"Yin and yang," he called their partnership. Both were devout Christians, Trapp a Catholic who liked Blanton's whiskey, Linn a Calvary Chapel evangelical who believed in the Bible's inerrant word and shunned alcohol.

He could debate theology tirelessly, and liked to ask why she sometimes prayed to Mother Mary, rather than directly to God. "Every once in a while, I want to talk to a woman," she would say, and sometimes had to add: "Can we just get back to murder?"

"She's all girl," he would say when he teased her about the price of the Christian Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks she wore off duty. "She's a dude," he'd say when he recalled how hard she punched the bag in Krav Maga class or took control of a scene.

Linn's approach to his job was informed by his years hunting fugitives, where he had been a step removed from the victims' families. The suspect was his focus.

Unlike Trapp, he didn't pin the victims' faces on his cubicle wall. Neither did any of their veteran partners, one of whom was once asked how he could function clear-headedly after seeing decades of murder victims, and who replied, "I don't know them."

Trapp was different. She went out of her way to know the victims, and their families' bottomless pain, which she somehow seemed able to absorb without limit. "That's what makes me push," she said.

When Anaheim police stop suspects, their tattoos are noted and fed into a database, and by this method detectives quickly identified the victim as Jarrae Estepp, 21, of Ardmore, Okla. An officer had detained her the year before, on suspicion of prostitution, and recorded that "Jodi" was inked on her neck. It was her mother's name.

Trapp thought Estepp fit the profile of a "circuit girl" -- a sex worker who cycled through Anaheim, Oakland, Las Vegas and other prostitution hubs. Back at her desk, with the reek of the recycling plant still in her clothes, Trapp began faxing hotels in the resort district around Disneyland, trying to find the room where Estepp might have been staying. This didn't bring any results.

The heart of the sex trade in Anaheim was a few blocks west -- a mile-long north-south stretch of Beach Boulevard vice cops called the Track. It's a wide street that bisects the city's far western corner. To the north it spills into Buena Park, close to Knott's Berry Farm. To the south, it turns into the city of Stanton.

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.

"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.

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