Fresh eyes cast on killing

HPD re­vives ’89 case in which body was dumped by of­fice

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Cindy Ge­orge

The young woman’s body was found out­side a Wes­theimer of­fice build­ing early one morn­ing in late 1989.

She was slumped over the edge of the stairs, with her bruised face planted in the ground­cover.

The land­scap­ing and her dark brown curly hair con­cealed a gun­shot wound in her head. She had no ID. Her re­mains were taken, cus­tom­ar­ily, to the Har­ris County morgue.

Hous­ton po­lice tried to de­ter­mine her iden­tity, even cir­cu­lat­ing a por­trait just a month or so later by leg­endary foren­sic sketch artist Lois Gib­son.

Even­tu­ally, the re­mains were buried in a pau­per’s grave with­out a name in Har­ris County’s ceme­tery on Oates Road in an in­dus­trial part of east Hous­ton.

The decades-old cold case con­tin­ues to con­found Sharon Der­rick, a foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gist who leads iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ef­forts for the Har­ris County In­sti­tute of Foren­sic Sciences.

“She’s quite at­trac­tive. She’s young. We es­ti­mate 20 to 25,” Der­rick said. “No­body claimed her. Why? That’s very odd.”

The woman is among dozens and dozens of uniden-

ti­fied bod­ies that have passed through the foren­sic cen­ter, with some dat­ing back as far as the 1950s.

New tech­nol­ogy and re­newed in­ter­est, how­ever, is of­fer­ing hope that the young woman could fi­nally be iden­ti­fied.

Her blood card sam­ple has been de­vel­oped into a DNA pro­file by the Univer­sity of North Texas Cen­ter for Hu­man Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and added to data­bases, where it waits for a po­ten­tial match.

And ear­lier this month, her case file was brought out of stor­age for a fresh look from a Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment homi­cide de­tec­tive in hopes of finding new leads and mak­ing a pos­i­tive ID.

Solv­ing long-ago deaths and killings has be­come a pri­or­ity for in­sti­tute of­fi­cials such as Der­rick and the HPD’s rein­vig­o­rated cold-case squad.

In March, the po­lice depart­ment launched a cold­case web­site to alert the pub­lic about deaths that re­main un­solved.

“We put up a small syn­op­sis about the cases,” said Of­fi­cer Ra­mon Cer­vantes, a 25-year po­lice vet­eran who has worked 13 years as a homi­cide de­tec­tive. He joined the cold case squad last year.

“If there are pho­tographs that we’re able to put on there or if it in­volves a sketch of a pos­si­ble sus­pect, we do that as well,” he said. “Those that visit that page and may have in­for­ma­tion on it, they can call us di­rectly or Crime Stop­pers.”

A case is con­sid­ered “cold” when all in­ves­tiga­tive leads that can be pur­sued are ex­hausted and the crime re­mains un­solved for three years.

Rows of small, flat mark­ers with metal plates mark the spa­ces where thou­sands of un­known and in­di­gent bod­ies are buried in the old­est of Har­ris County’s two burial grounds run by its com­mu­nity ser­vices depart­ment.

Thou­sands of graves

About 15,000 peo­ple are buried in the vast, plush green­way of grass. The Oates Road ceme­tery, es­tab­lished in 1923, stopped ac­cept­ing new buri­als in 2014, when the county’s new ceme­tery opened in Crosby.

In Sec­tion L at the old burial ground, one grave is de­noted by only five let­ters: UNK W F. She was an “un­known white fe­male” whose iden­tity was up­dated later to in­clude an eth­nic­ity, His­panic.

She’s the per­son found around 7:15 a.m. on Dec. 29, 1989.

Some­one’s daugh­ter. Some­one’s grand­daugh­ter. Pos­si­bly some­one’s spouse or mother. Po­ten­tially some­one whose loved ones are alive and hope to learn what hap­pened to her.

A bank em­ployee headed into work at 5433 Wes­theimer found her life­less body at the mid-rise build­ing’s en­trance, ac­cord­ing to po­lice records.

The woman, about 5-foot-4, was wear­ing de­cid­edly 1980s at­tire: A white T-shirt, black Lee­brand jeans, black socks and black Coast­ers-brand shoes.

De­tec­tives at the time be­lieved she had been killed else­where and was dumped out­side the build­ing.

“It’s puz­zling,” Cer­vantes said. “It might have been around the cor­ner or at the other end of the park­ing lot.”

Po­lice can­vassed the im­me­di­ate area that De­cem­ber day, and ran all the in­ves­tiga­tive traps avail­able in 1989 and the early 1990s, he said.

“She was iden­ti­fied as a His­panic or pos­si­bly be­ing a His­panic. The de­tec­tive at the time also sent off her prints to [fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties] and ran the prints through their sys­tem. At the time, noth­ing came back,” Cer­vantes said. “Was she rel­a­tively new to the coun­try where there was no pro­file on her at all? That’s pos­si­ble.”

‘Some­body … knows’

Be­cause the woman was found in the morn­ing, HPD in­ves­ti­ga­tors at the time brought the overnight se­cu­rity guard in for ques­tion­ing about events on his night watch. Cer­vantes said warm­ing up the case could in­clude try­ing to in­ter­view that per­son again.

Hous­ton po­lice of­fi­cials have de­clined to re­lease photos of the scene or dis­cuss specifics of the close-range gun­shot to the woman’s head. Some de­tails need to be pre­served as ev­i­dence.

“I be­lieve that the per­son or per­sons who are in­volved in this know the man­ner in which she was shot and ex­actly where she was shot,” Cer­vantes said. “Only some­one who did it knows where they put the gun up to what area of her head.”

Rec­ol­lec­tions and mem­o­ries that may still be in­tact are called upon to help solve this case nearly 28 years later.

“The chal­lenge when we have an old case such as this one that oc­curred in 1989 is go­ing back,” Cer­vantes said. “If there is some new in­for­ma­tion that is brought forth in any form or fash­ion, be it Crime Stop­pers, a fam­ily mem­ber or even the pos­si­ble sus­pect them­selves, the chal­lenge is go­ing back to find the in­di­vid­ual. And, un­for­tu­nately, some­times the in­di­vid­u­als — wit­nesses, fam­ily mem­bers — have died or have moved away.”

Like many other cases where pieces of the puz­zle have yet to co­a­lesce, Der­rick goes with her gut.

“Some­body po­ten­tially knows,” she said.

A sketch artist’s por­trait shows a young woman found dead in 1989.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

The grave of a woman whose body was found on the steps of a Wes­theimer of­fice build­ing in late 1989 is de­noted by five let­ters: UNK W F. She was an “un­known white fe­male.” In­ves­ti­ga­tors have re­opened her case.

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